Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall watches during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
For the longest time, Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall wanted no part of a game with BYU. Too many ties. Too many memories. Too many emotions.
But it was always looming on the schedule after he was hired at Virginia (6-2) six years ago. Originally planned for 2019, it was pushed back on the calendar to Saturday, where now Mendenhall will face his former school for the first time in Provo, Utah. He’s not sure the type of greeting he will receive from the BYU faithful inside LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Best guess: Favorable.
After all, Mendenhall did help the Cougars to five 10-win campaigns in his 11 seasons at BYU. He did lead them to a bowl game each season he was in charge. But loyalty lies deep with BYU blue, not Virginia’s navy. The 25th-ranked Cougars (6-2) are coached by Kalani Sitake, who’s carried on the winning tradition since taking over for Mendenhall.
“I really can’t control what kind of welcome I do or don’t receive, but what I can express is gratitude,” said Mendenhall, who was named the Virginia coach in December 2015. “That’s what I intend to do, and then do the very best I can to prepare my team so they can have success.”
His ties to BYU are strong. His brother played there. His dad played there. He won 99 games there, which is second in school history only to the legendary LaVell Edwards (257).
The original schedule had the game taking place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2019, with a return trip to Provo, Utah, in ’23. But it was reconfigured in 2016, with the first meeting postponed to this season in Provo, and the ’23 contest switched to Charlottesville.
“I do remember when I was announced (I was) leaving BYU that I wouldn’t play this game. I didn’t know how to make it any clearer,” Mendenhall recalled. “I’m much better now because very few, if any, players are left. … That makes it easier. Not easy but easier.”
He did play a role in BYU quarterback Jaren Hall’s arrival, along with defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua.
“I love Bronco. I love his staff. But this is our team now,” Leiataua said. “I love Kalani. I love everything he’s done for us here.”
Sitake has kept things rolling right along at BYU. The Cougars are 14-4 under Sitake when playing as a ranked squad and boast a 4-1 mark against Power 5 schools this season.
Now, a tough and emotional showdown against a Virginia team that’s won four straight. It’s also a return for 10 Virginia staff members who either coached, played or worked on the football side at BYU.
“I have tons of respect for Bronco,” Sitake said. “He produces great people in his football programs. It’s been a pleasure for me to take over as a new head coach after he established the program.”
The last time Virginia and BYU met was in 2014, when Mendenhall coached the Cougars. BYU held on for a 41-33 win in Provo. The all-time series favors the Cavaliers, 3-2, with the average score close — Virginia 30.8, BYU 30.2.
SEARCHING FOR NO. 600
The Cougars have a chance to win game No. 600 since the program’s first official collegiate season in 1922.
In their first 47 seasons, they won 173 games. Since 1972, the first year under Edwards, they’ve picked up 426 victories and a national title.
BIG 12 BOUND
Mendenhall long felt BYU would be a perfect fit in the Big 12. It became a reality in September when the Cougars accepted an official invitation. BYU is expected to play its first season in the conference in 2023 after being an independent since ’11.
“Man, did I want that to happen bad when I was there,” Mendenhall said. “To see it finally come to fruition, yeah, pretty cool.”
BRONCO’S BOWL STREAK
The Cavaliers are bowl eligible for a fifth time in six seasons under Mendenhall. His teams have been eligible for a bowl in 15 of his 16 years as a head coach.
“I have high standards for them. I think it’s the greatest gift I can give,” Mendenhall said. “So many times when things get difficult, it’s to lower expectations and to be sympathetic and empathetic. I actually believe the opposite is you keep asking for more, and that helps people and gives them an occasion to rise to.”
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. contributed to this report.