THE BRONCO EFFECT: UNM football coach brings unique strategies for building a program and developing players

Feb. 26—Chapter II started as a promise. When Bronco Mendenhall married his wife, Holly, he told her, some day, they'd get a place in her home state of Montana.

By the time it became a reality 32 years after making that promise — 80 acres of land purchased along the shore of sprawling Flathead Lake — it felt more like an investment for the former BYU and Virginia football coach. Mendenhall's three sons were grown, off at school or on mission trips through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Holly and Bronco were empty nesters for the first time, months removed from his abrupt resignation at Virginia.

So, after spending the past 17 years as a college football head coach, Mendenhall went to work in 2022 carving out the second chapter of his life — his family's life — in northeastern Montana. They built a lakehouse and a ranch for their horses, a place his sons, if they chose, could come up and train horses for sale. Those days in the summer, when the sun rises before 6 a.m. and sets close to 11 p.m., were jam-packed.

And it was beautiful. Bears crept across the roof of their home. There were cougars in the wilderness nearby. Wolves and elk every now and then. They call Montana "the last best place." Mendenhall understood why.

All that was left to do was to put up 40 acres of fencing around the property. It was November 2023 when Mendenhall and his son, Raeder, finished installing it. Everything was done. The roads, the property, the house. "Turnkey," Mendenhall said. Right before Flathead and the bears and elk and everything that made it all feel so alive was engulfed in the snow and the type of winter he experienced once and never wants to ever again.

Right after the regular season ended.


It's mid-January 2024 and Bronco Mendenhall's office is practically bare. New Mexico's head coach doesn't sit behind his desk in the Tow Diehm Athletic Facility, opting to pull a chair out from the wall for a conversation with a visitor. Maybe half the staff is still in hotels. He looks a little tired, full days of a different sort in swing, occasionally looking out at the window overlooking University Stadium.

This was not the plan, he says. College football's hiring cycle is powered by the work of four main search firms. The way it typically works: You get a phone call out of the blue and they ask one question.

Would you be interested in ______?

The property fence was in when Mendenhall, 58, got the call. He was already involved in vacancies at Oregon State, his alma mater, and Boise State, unique jobs facing different futures. But the phone rang again

Would you be interested in New Mexico?

"I mean, that caught me off guard," Mendenhall remembers.

It wasn't a call he was expecting to take. Or was really looking to take: Former UNM head coach Danny Gonzales, fired after an 11-32 run with the Lobos, was in Mendenhall's position group when Mendenhall was the defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at New Mexico from 1998-2002.

"He's a dear friend of mine, someone I cared about deeply," Mendenhall said. "And so I'm saying yes to New Mexico, but that means that ..."

He trailed off.

"So, yeah, really mixed feelings. Still have some because of that."

Nor was Mendenhall always certain he'd be back in football. When he was introduced to a rapt audience of media, fans, coaches and a few players on Dec. 6, he was asked when he knew he wanted to return.

"The day after I chose to leave," Mendenhall answered. The crowd laughed. He broke into a smile. The right answer at the right time.

He shakes his head at it now. "It was an exaggeration," Mendenhall said. After his abrupt resignation at Virginia in 2021, he described an "immediate confirmation of impact," knowing the satisfaction he got from developing and working with young people — players and staff — wasn't going to be replaceable.

Where he would find that feeling again, he wasn't quite sure. College football isn't the only way to do it; was it the best way to do it? He points to elementary school teachers. Youth league coaches. Parents. All have an impact, right?

"And yet, you have to dig deep to find those stories," Mendenhall said, "and you have to be impacted by them."

College football, if only for its sheer scope and size, continued to make sense. "Besides the 125 or 115 players here that I'll be coaching, through the platform that allows many more to be influenced," he added. "And I think the sport, and I think society needs that. So, this is bigger to me than just the outcome."

But why New Mexico?


It was 1997 when Mendenhall picked up the phone in the kitchen of his home in Ruston, La. Holly didn't have to ask who was on the other line. Rocky Long's voice tends to carry like that.

Bronc, I'm gonna be the head coach at New Mexico. I want you to come.

"It kind of caught me off-guard," Mendenhall said. "And I was like, 'in what capacity?'

Defensive coordinator.

"I didn't know anything about New Mexico," he added. "And I don't remember whether we said yes right then or not."

The youngest son of Paul and Lenore Mendenhall, Marc Bronco Clay Mendenhall was a 170-pound linebacker at American Fork (Utah) High School when Paul Tidwell recruited him in 1984. The then-defensive coordinator at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, Tidwell convinced Mendenhall the junior college route might be the best way forward for a player spurned by nearly every Division I program — namely BYU, where his dad and brother, Mat, played.

Tidwell doesn't remember the recruitment so much as Mendenhall himself at Snow. He was quiet. Disciplined. How many cornerbacks wear high-top cleats and a neck roll? Mendenhall did.

"He was very focused and didn't get distracted," Tidwell said. "He knew what he wanted to do, and he had goals and he really worked for it on the field."

Ken Beazer was a walk-on corner in 1985, fresh from a mission trip, when he walked into the weight room and saw a guy he'd never seen before in the school weight room.

It was Mendenhall. He asked if Beazer could spot his own set. When Mendenhall was done, he asked Beazer if he wanted to get in one of his own.

"Probably couldn't even bench my body weight at that time," Beazer said.

Not knowing anybody else, Beazer suddenly had a lifting partner and a front seat to Mendenhall's work ethic. When other players went home for the weekend, Mendenhall would stay in Ephraim and lift. "He worked so hard," Beazer remembered, "(it) forced me to work hard."

Those qualities shined through as Mendenhall started at corner for an 11-0 NJCAA national title team in 1985. After two seasons at Snow, Mendenhall transferred to Oregon State. He finished off a good, but maybe not great, career — highlighted by a 10-7 win over BYU in 1986 — and wasn't selected in the NFL Draft like he hoped.

Mendenhall continued to train for the NFL while working as a graduate assistant with the Beavers — that unbridled focus finding a new avenue. He emerged from the facility at the end of the season and realized he didn't know where his car was. He reported it as stolen to the police.

They found it in the school lot he parked it in months ago, covered in leaves.

"I often thought sometimes he was gonna burn out," Beazer said.

The entire staff — including Mendenhall — was dismissed shortly after. Mendenhall got his first Division I gig coaching defensive backs at Northern Arizona for two seasons. Then, he reunited with Tidwell — now the head coach at Snow — as his defensive coordinator while training horses with his dad on the side.

Long was the defensive coordinator at Oregon State when he called Bronco the first time, hiring Mendenhall as the defensive line coach in 1995.

A year later, Long left for UCLA. Mendenhall got a promotion and became the youngest defensive coordinator in Pac-10 history.

A year after that, head coach Mike Pettibone resigned after a 2-9 season and Mendenhall left his alma mater for the second time, ending up in Ruston as Louisiana Tech's defensive coordinator for just one season. The Bulldogs went 9-2.

A year after that, Long called again.

"That was basically that," Mendenhall said.

At UNM, the focus had to be who, not what, if only for the fact that there wasn't a whole lot of whos to choose from. There weren't any questions about what system they'd run on defense — "Rocky was so clear on what he wanted," Mendenhall said, alluding to the 3-3-5 — but just about everything else was open to interpretation.

In 1998, the Lobos went 3-9; 4-7 in 1999; 5-7 in 2000; 6-5 in 2001; 7-7-in 2002, his final season at UNM. "I didn't think we could try harder or work any harder after each of those years," he recalled. "And yet, we could."

Winning was satisfying in and of itself. So was developing young men.

Nick Speegle was a star linebacker in the late 1990s and early 2000s at La Cueva but courted virtually zero interest among Division I programs. He wasn't even sure if he wanted to play college football.

Mendenhall saw something different. After committing to the Lobos, Speegle started at outside linebacker from 2001-04, embracing the approach — the straining, eminently rewarding approach — implemented by Long and Mendenhall.

"Everything had to be earned on our team, which meant that our coaches didn't favor scholarship athletes over walk-ons," Speegle told the Journal. "If the walk-ons were outperforming on and off the field, they ended up getting a lot of playing time and even went on to earn All Conference honors in some cases.

"It was simple: Pure effort was rewarded."

In Albuquerque, Mendenhall married and had his first two sons. It was a place where he planted roots after nearly a decade of moving job-to-job. Those experiences set the stage for what was to come.

"And quite frankly, take on, with the rest of my career, the challenges. I think I've kind of been drawn to places that are challenging because of maybe that," he said. "That's how gratifying that was."


After leaving UNM in 2002, Mendenhall served as BYU's defensive coordinator for two struggling seasons. Head coach Gary Crowton resigned after a 5-6 season in 2004, issuing a practical no comment when asked if it was a voluntary decision. There were seemingly unending negative headlines around the program.

Per reports at the time, BYU offered Utah defensive coordinator and Cougar alum Kyle Whittingham the head coaching job before he turned it down to stay with the Utes. Players, mainly on the defensive side of the ball, were incensed Mendenhall didn't receive due consideration and athletic director Tom Holmoe reversed course in a new search, hiring Mendenhall in December 2004.

Jason Beck, a backup quarterback at the time, wasn't quite in that camp. "They believed in what he was doing," UNM's offensive coordinator remembered. "The offensive side of the ball? We were just a little more worried about what that would really look like during offseason workouts."

He recalled the first day of workouts under Mendenhall, lifting before heading over to the indoor facility to run. Trash cans, "lined up everywhere," greeted the team.

"He just pushed you to a whole another level," Beck added.

Steadily, things shifted. BYU blistered to a 6-6 finish and a bowl game in 2005, Mendenhall's first season. Beck said while he felt BYU players were more hoping to win, under Mendenhall there was a growing belief they would win.

With offseason workouts spiking competition and resolve, the Cougars went on a 22-4 run, winning back-to-back Mountain West titles in 2006 and 2007. Mendenhall was suddenly a star. BYU won at least eight games in seven of the eight seasons after he took over. The ship had been righted.

And then he left. In 2015, Mendenhall accepted the head coaching vacancy at Virginia, fulfilling a desire for a challenge at a Power 5 school. The Cavaliers had suffered through four straight losing seasons, the ACC's worst program at the time.

In Mendenhall's fourth year, Virginia went to the Orange Bowl. He resigned abruptly in 2021, making it clear at the time he wasn't retiring.

Now he's back. Everything has changed in college football. And nothing has changed with Mendenhall.

"At the core of my philosophy is earned, not given," Mendenhall said. "And each new opportunity — my own included, having been a head coach 17 years, that really was only relevant with me being hired. Now, what I do with that history doesn't matter as much.

"It's what we're carving out daily."

What's happening at UNM now is an amalgamation of Mendenhall's distant past. BYU's success was built on grueling offseason workouts. The scaling of said programs, however, took on a new level when Mendenhall took over at Virginia and met the team for the first time, a memory that nearly makes him shudder.

"They looked broken," he remembered. "And very few could make eye contact. The body language was that of being defeated."

In the moment, his mind went elsewhere.

What if they don't get to wear our colors until they're earned? Mendenhall remembered thinking. What if they don't get to have a jersey number until it's earned? What if they feel so lucky by the time they get to practice football?

From that realization, two separate, but intertwined, systems emerged. One, the T-shirts. Players started by wearing white T-shirts, symbolizing a novice or below average player. Everybody started there. Only by passing different conditioning tests in the offseason could they move up to another color, a five-rung "feedback loop" ultimately culminating in a black T-shirt.

Two, the numbers. Virginia would start fresh every spring with players in "blanks," or numberless jerseys. When Mendenhall felt he knew the team well enough, he'd select a leadership committee — one player from each position group — who would then pinpoint which players were working hard enough, how well they led, what type of teammate they were. At the end of fall camp, they'd start awarding 30 numbers at a time in a draft-like process.

The idea: Regardless of how good a player was, if they didn't earn their number in the eyes of their teammates, they couldn't play.

"And that's a powerful message coming from a peer, not the coach," Mendenhall adds.

How it actually happens: If you know, you know. "It's kind of a sacred process," said UNM tight ends coach and former Virginia quarterback Matt Johns, "so I don't want to give too much away."

And the effect: "I remember there was a bunch of guys that didn't get to keep their number and it was, you know, a wakeup call and a reality (check) of what your teammates and peers think of you and what your commitment to the team really is," Johns added.

These days at UNM, everybody is in a white T-shirt. Nobody has a number on the listed roster. Mendenhall said the situation here isn't identical to what he saw at Virginia but, "I think it makes a lot of sense here. And that's why we're doing it."

Defensive end Bryce Santana was a member of Gonzales' first recruiting class at UNM. Like Johns, he never had to earn his own number until this spring. And like Beck, he's seeing the seeds planted for a more-confident-than-hopeful mindset.

"I think that's kinda where we struggled with the last couple years," he said. "Because we did always believe in Coach G, we weren't confident that we were gonna go in and win."

This is, of course, playing out in a different world than 25 years ago or 15 years ago or even when Mendenhall left Virginia. Hot button issue doesn't do the transfer portal justice. NIL — or really, NIL inducements — have only compounded a new era that's long on perceived problems and short on solutions.

Mendenhall guesses that there will probably be unlimited transfers at some point. On a macro level, he's interested in seeing 10 years of data showing what percentage of players start at a given school and finish there, and whether that had a positive or negative impact on the player.

"Sometimes change forces you to learn, grow and become who you couldn't have been without change," he said. "Sometimes the consistency of approach is what's needed for people to grow and become."

On a micro level, 22 UNM players have left since Gonzales was dismissed on Nov. 25, including last season's leading rusher in Jacory Croskey-Merritt to Arizona and their leading tackler in linebacker Alec Marenco to a currently undetermined location. Both entered the portal well after Mendenhall was brought on board.

He expects more will likely leave.

"Again, because these players, they didn't choose me, right?" he added. "The portal players did and our new players did, but the existing team, they get a chance. Which I think is fair."

As for NIL? Mendenhall said he's researched the level of funding necessary for a "high-functioning" Power 5 collective. He's also clear on what it looks like at the Group of 5 level — in other words, the cost of success.

"What if the University of New Mexico was in the top three percent of what Group of Five collectives look like?" he wonders. "What if a player can access through fierce earning of — not on the front end, but (by) becoming — what if they could partner to not only advance on the field and become an amazing player, but what if the market value coincided with that level of earning?

"That's a different approach where most of it's on the front end and most of it's to entice and to attract, even though that's supposed to be illegal. What if it was the other way?"

What if? For everything it took to get here, Mendenhall's full-circle moment is surprisingly neat. The rest of his life — Chapter II — is more or less ready to go. So it's no wonder those that know him aren't surprised he's back.

"He is a little different in that he is driven by doing hard things," Beck said. "It's almost like, that thing's moving along real well, it's not quite as fulfilling as building and developing, and doing something that is really hard and really unexpected."

"He wants to be there," Beazer said. "This isn't just a show."

Mendenhall met with the team at the start of the semester and told them as much.

"My messaging was really clear on, 'this isn't a matter of if this will work,'" he said. "'It's when and with whom.'

"And I'm certain of that."