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Provo • Eleven seasons after his surprise promotion from young and fiery defensive coordinator to head football coach at Brigham Young University, Bronco Mendenhall delivered equally shocking news Friday afternoon, agreeing to become the head coach at the University of Virginia.
Occasionally wiping away tears and flanked by the athletic director who hired him in December of 2004, Tom Holmoe, Mendenhall said in a hastily called news conference that the "time is right" for him to leave and "pursue a new challenge" and turn the reins over to someone else.
Mendenhall said he will coach the Cougars in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 19 and devote most of his attention to that matter, but will also begin to assemble a staff at Virginia. He is scheduled to fly to Virginia on Sunday morning and will be introduced Monday in Charlottesville. Mendenhal will return to Provo on Tuesday and prepare the team for the bowl. "The most important thing is to get to 10 wins," he said.
Mendenhall, 49, said he has made a recommendation to Holmoe on his replacement, which is a coach on his current staff, but did not divulge the name. He said he "has the option" to take any or all of his assistants with him to Charlottesville, and vowed to build a phenomenal staff at the Atlantic Coast Conference school. He will replace Mike London, who resigned after six disappointing seasons. The Hoos, as they are called, went 4-8 this past season.
Virginia is on BYU's schedule in 2019 and 2023, but Mendenhall half-jokingly said he doesn't want those games to take place.
"I don't want to play BYU," he said. "I don't want that to happen … and I hope it doesn't."
He said the transition will be difficult on his wife, Holly, and three sons, including the youngest, to whom the East Coast "seems like some foreign planet."
Mendenhall said he was impressed by Virginia when the Cougars traveled there in 2013.
"Virginia reminds me a lot of BYU when I was named the head coach here," Mendenhall said. "I see tremendous chance for growth and opportunity."
Mendenhall said he was contacted by Virginia shortly after the Cougars downed Utah State 51-28 last Saturday in Logan and had his first interview Monday.
"Virginia is lucky to be getting a coach like coach Mendenhall," said defensive end Bronson Kaufusi.
Mendenhall was offered the job around noon Friday, and said he took about three hours of deliberation before accepting. He told BYU's players in a 3 p.m. meeting and said there was a mixture of "sadness, anger and shock" at the news. Holmoe said the players "rose and cheered" at the conclusion of the meeting.
Mendenhall signed a five-year contract with Virginia that will pay him $3.25 million annually, estimated to be more than three times the money he makes coaching BYU.
Holmoe said that BYU cannot afford to pay its new coach nearly that much, citing the discrepancy between what Power 5 schools and Group of 5 schools can pay coaches. The athletic director said he has already started calling people about the opening and mentioned he will look for a coach who is a great recruiter to replace Mendenhall. Holmoe said every head coach at any sport at BYU must be an active member of the church that owns and operates BYU, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Asked who will pick the new coach, Holmoe said: "Me."
As for a timeline, Holmoe said, "the sooner the better."
Mendenhall said he has been approached in recent years about other openings, but felt Virginia was finally the right choice.
"This is something that can't be scripted, nor is life something that can be scripted," he said. "Who I am now has been shaped, molded and directed through BYU. I am a product of Brigham Young University, and I am fortunate and lucky to have been challenged and given the opportunities I have been given here in a way that is not explainable."
Mendenhall has compiled a 99-42 record since replacing Gary Crowton in 2005.
He has led the Cougars to bowl games in all 11 seasons at the helm and said he wants the "best opponent available" to face in the bowl game.
The Cougars went 9-3 in the regular season against a schedule that was supposed to be one of the most difficult in his 11-year tenure, but didn't turn out to be as demanding because several of the opponents had disappointing seasons. Mendenhall had one more season on his contract at BYU; Holmoe said he was planning to sit down and talk about a contract extension with Mendenhall in January, as they've done in the past.
Freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum, who will be affected by the move as much as any player on the team, said he has had a "pit in my stomach" since the meeting and is disappointed to see Mendenhall go.
"We all felt a feeling of sadness," Mangum said. "He's been the coach since I was 10 years old, since I began watching BYU football."
Added receiver Mitch Mathews, "We all love coach Mendenhall and are sad to see him go."
In the news release announcing Mendenhall's hiring, Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage said the Cavaliers have picked a winner.
"Bronco Mendenhall's teams have consistently won at a high level, and he's demonstrated the ability to create a strategic vision to build an program and then implement his plan to be successful," Littlepage said.
Mendenhall ranks 12th in total wins among all active FBS coaches, having replaced Gary Crowton at BYU in 2005, and 13th in winning percentage (.702) among coaches with at least five years experience. He said money mattered "very little" to him in his decision to take the Virginia job.
Mathews said having the coach stay around through the bowl game will be invaluable.
"I can't wait to play in the bowl game because of how hard we are going to fight for this guy," Mathews said. "We gotta get that 10th win for him."