"A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it."
Jean de La Fontaine
And, so, one of Bronco Mendenhall's biggest coaching decisions has been made for him. The quarterback race between Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps has been flagged to a halt by fate, wearing a sweatshirt and a whistle around its neck, Nelson having injured his shoulder on Saturday and undergone an MRI on Monday that revealed the need for season-ending surgery.
Chance, then, took care of Mendenhall's business for him, when he was unwilling to step forward and make the call himself. He passed the buck to fortune, or misfortune, and forever missed an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on a key issue.
Too bad for him, for his team, for his new starter, promoted now by way of default.
There was a time not so long ago when the words that best described BYU's football program under Mendenhall were these two: confident and consistent.
Now, there are different ones: hesitant and confused.
It's bigger than just the quarterback deal.
A couple of seasons back, who would have thought the strong and stubborn head coach would need any kind of nudge from circumstance? He was direct, determined, decisive, almost arrogant. When the Cougars had won 14 straight games and their course was unwavering, Mendenhall said the following:
"With this team, there are very few things unexpected. As you come into the game, it usually plays out about how we prepared them. It usually sorts out just about how we think it's going to sort out. They play just about how we think they're going to play. And so, I think there is a level of trust between the schemes, the players, and the coaches."
Compare that with what Mendenhall said if you can track it on Monday, after two straight BYU losses:
"[It's] hard to know what to expect. I think I made some comments in the spring and fall camp, one of the things I like about this team, and made it intriguing, is on any given day I never knew what was going to happen out there. And that's kind of what has happened to this point. The Washington game surprised me that we played as cleanly as we did. And then, in the Air Force game, certainly surprised that we didn't play very well collectively. And then, bits and pieces of the Florida State game looked pretty good to me. So, I saw some improvement, while other areas have a bit of work to do. So, I guess, all in all, that means, yeah, it is about what I expected, if possible."
BYU is in trouble.
Sure, it's a different, lesser team now. But it's not just what is happening on the field and on the scoreboard, it's the way coaches are interpreting those issues, fumbling around and sounding full of doubts about how to correct them three games into the 2010 season.
Mendenhall used to take pride in one of his trademark Bronco-isms: "program maturity," a state in which the team rolls on, reloading, not rebuilding. His teams went four straight seasons with double-digit wins.
Suddenly, that pipeline is ruptured, BYU at 1-2 and facing an explosive Nevada team that is favored on Saturday. Mendenhall was asked about that underdog status Monday. And his response was telling, especially compared to a past response to being a 'dog headed into a big game the 2008 Vegas Bowl.
Now: "It's a role that we've earned to this point. We haven't played at a high enough level yet to be considered a favorite. And we are used to being the favorite. But currently our team is not performing at that level. And Nevada is."
Then: "I wasn't aware until one of you mentioned it to me that we were the underdogs. Anyone that knows me or my team knows that we don't acknowledge what anyone says. I know who we are and what direction we are going. To put value on [underdog status] would mean that I put value on what anyone else [outside the program] says, which I don't."
The confusion and doubt afflicting the Cougars compared to their consistency and confidence, sometimes overconfidence, of past seasons is also reflected in Mendenhall's reaction to defeat.
After a loss at Tulsa a few years ago, he said: "I take full responsibility as the coach to get our players ready and focused to play each week. We did not execute. … I take full responsibility for that."
His stark response to a question Monday, following the two losses, about calling the home date with Nevada a must-win game: "No, I wouldn't. I know the anticipation and the anxiety around the program to win and win as soon as possible is great. … It is going to take some time. I am learning as much as I can about this team to make the appropriate choices necessary to help us execute. … But this is a season's worth of work. To say it is going to be a polished and finished product this week, I am not willing to say that."
Winning at home, then, has become a reach.
Before Nelson's injury, Mendenhall also hedged about any set decisions at quarterback and other positions, despite saying that fewer players would play and admitting that divided reps had adversely affected performance. He said: "… [I]t is becoming more and more clear to me, kind of how and what direction we need to go." But then he concluded that any decisions would be solely for the Nevada game.
More doubts and double-clutching. Until fate finally intervened.
If 2010 is a rebuilding year, and it is, BYU must patch up more than its talent pipeline and its efficiency on offense and defense, it has to reconstruct a crumbling foundation of vision and confidence, consistency and awareness between coaches and players, who, three full games in, still seem like strangers in a very strange land.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 1280 The Zone. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
C Att Pct Yds TD INT Att Yds TD
Nelson 20 40 50 205 2 1 31 148 1
Heaps 30 60 50 260 1 1 7 -55 0