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Provo • If ever a team has wanted to turn back the calendar on an entire college football season, it's the BYU Cougars, who are not only 1-4, but have looked awful getting to that point their worst start in 37 years.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall believes he took a major step toward returning the team's mentality back to more successful times this week, firing defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and putting himself in charge of a unit that ranks close to the bottom in every NCAA defensive statistic category imaginable.
How long will the six-year head coach run the defense, having had that responsibility from 2003 as an assistant until 2008 when he promoted Hill to the position?
"With as much fun as I've had the last two days, probably [quite some time]," Mendenhall said after Tuesday's practice. "But hard to say."
The coach said he has been "invigorated" by the more hands-on approach, and players say they are working harder in practice running more, certainly than they have in years. Mendenhall said he had been contemplating taking the defense over again from virtually the day he gave it up.
"Being a head coach is challenging at times, and when I gave it up, I felt like I had to," he said. "But with lessons learned, I think my influence over the program becomes farther and farther away as I coached less and less. And I just got to the point where I wasn't willing to do that any more."
So here the Cougars sit, their just-as-woeful offense preparing to face a much-improved San Diego State defense led by Mendenhall's mentor, SDSU defensive coordinator Rocky Long on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium. What's more, the Aztecs have had two weeks to prepare, and Long's defenses have given much, much better BYU offenses fits in the past.
But Mendenhall is consumed by his own defense this week, leaving it to offensive coordinator Robert Anae to figure out a way to score more than 15.2 points, an average that ranks 114th out of 120 Division I college football teams. It's not a stretch to suggest the Cougars are in danger of going two straight games without scoring, with ever-stingy TCU up next, and in Fort Worth.
Mendenhall acknowledged his mettle as a head coach is being tested like never before.
"I have learned more the past four weeks, than I think I have learned in the previous five years combined," he said. "Because, number one, we are not accustomed to it. And number two, it wasn't expected, at least to this level. … So it has been a phenomenal learning experience, one I wouldn't like to go through multiple times."
Mendenhall said the practice structure doesn't need to change, but that it is being presented differently. They've been more detail-oriented with an emphasis on getting the players to embrace and internalize the reasons certain things are done the way they are.
"When you will notice a transformation, I can't predict that yet," he said.
The coach said he didn't worry about a negative effect that firing Hill would have the volatile assistant coach was popular with some players, but very unpopular with others and so far it appears the players who would seemingly be most loyal to Hill are on board with the change.
Senior cornerback Brian Logan was recruited by Hill and probably had the closest bond with him.
"Obviously, we are not behind the scenes like coach Mendenhall is," Logan said, after acknowledging he was "shocked and confused" at the sudden dismissal. "We trust [Mendenhall] 100 percent, 150 percent. I love that man. I will play for him any day. For him to see something like that to make a change like that, there obviously was something there."
Bottom line, Mendenhall said, is that he's not expecting a sudden statistical change, or even a performance change.
"I'm looking for an effort change, and maybe a heart and soul change," he said.
Success at a standstill
BYU under coach Bronco Mendenhall:
Year Record Comment
2005 6-6 Turned around a 1-3 start with 27-24 win at New Mexico
2006 11-2 Crushed Oregon 38-8 in bowl game, also beat Utah, TCU
2007 11-2 Won 10 straight games and second-straight MWC title
2008 10-3 Undefeated at home, but blown out by TCU, Utah on the road
2009 11-2 Both losses at home, to FSU, TCU; Whipped OSU in bowl game
2010 1-4 Mendenhall appoints himself def. coordinator after horrible start