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February 15, 2016

On Bronco: Coach, Mentor, Extraterrestrial

-- For better or worse, Provo witnessed a one-of-a-kind character



Any and all closing remarks on the BYU coaching career of one Bronco Mendenhall should be led with this complimentary reminder: the guy was a good coach. He won games, restored a crumbling BYU culture, ran a clean program, all while representing the LDS church in a solid manner. By all accounts he was an even better person than footballer, the father figure and mentor to a multitude of young men who praise him to this day. This combination of traits resulted in numerous BYU successes on and off the field. Good times were had by many and perhaps they would have continued on for decades, LaVell Edwards style, were it not for this tiny detail. You see there was really only one problem with Bronco Mendenhall: he did not hail from planet earth.

The evidences of Bronco’s alternate reality existence (read: inhuman) are many. He believed in stuff that just didn’t make sense for a coach that lived in this galaxy. He once compared his own fans to Biblical villains. He felt that using two quarterbacks at the same time would be a good idea despite the century of football history that proves otherwise. He believed that prospective recruits should recruit him, as opposed to the other 127 college coaches who act in the exact opposite fashion. He went out of his way to ensure people knew that coaching at BYU was not in his long-term plans.11. Try telling that to your boss or coworkers and see how it works out for you. He called football the fifth priority; not second or third but fifth, following such noteworthy idioms as friends and school. Friends? Really? Was he talking about the TV show? Even then I’m not sure I’d put Rachel Green above football, her multitude of short skirts notwithstanding.

Honestly football may not have even been as high as fifth for Bronco. The guy didn’t like to watch the sport in his free time, which is semi-excusable given that football consumed his whole life. But Bronco didn’t even like to think about the sport. Unlike the Peyton Mannings or Bill Belichicks of the world who can somehow recall the specific down and distance from any meaningless game, when asked to list his favorite coaching moments Bronco draws a blank. It seems the football history of his own coaching career -- let alone others -- holds no real estate in his mind.

This might explain how BYU could fumble six times in one game against Utah … and then five more the very next year.22. Though of the five only one was lost. How is that possible? You’d think if there was one single element emphasized following the 2011 humiliation it would be ball security. So did Bronco forget what happened? Or did he just assume the problem would fix itself? In 2011 Utah scored two touchdowns off fumbles; one on a botched snap and one on a fumble forced. In 2012 Utah scored one TD on a botched snap, and had a shot at another goofed snap that was erased by the fortune of a facemask penalty. So not only did the team fail to learn anything from 2011, they actually got worse! Utah didn’t even need to force the fumbles; BYU gave them up for free!

When asked if the crowd noise may have led to round two of the botched snaps, Bronco admitted to under-preparing his team for the rigors of a rivalry matchup. “I probably could have made a bigger deal about (the noise) in practice … maybe I could have emphasized it a little bit more." It’s OK, Bronco, you didn’t know what to expect. It’s not like you had coached at Utah four times previously.

Offensive lineman Braden Hansen provided further insight on the lack of preparation for this game. “We just didn't prepare ourselves for (the noise), I think is the biggest thing… It wasn't until before the Utah game that we started working on silent cadence… We didn't prepare right for that, but we've made those changes and we are ready for any stadium with our silent cadence."

We’ve made the changes and now we are ready. Well that’s super. All it took to kick into gear was losing to your rival for the third straight time. Understood. (Until next year when apparently all past happenings are erased from the football hard drives.)33. In my football watching life no game has sent me into quite as great a tailspin as this contest. I don't think I fell asleep until four or five in the morning. I’ve dealt with bad breaks, player screwups, missed flags by the officials, dumb playcalls, but I had never witnessed coaching insanity at this level.

The failure to anticipate the rowdiness of the crowd, the failure to practice a silent count until the week of the first road game of the season, the failure to emphasize ball security … I mean look, I don’t think Bronco is stupid. I just think he lacked this human trait: he frequently and willfully ignored reality.4
                                                                      4. I guess you could argue that this is all too human a trait, now that I think of it, though one that usually only applies to fast food workers demanding $18/hour. For some reason he thought he didn’t need to prepare his team to play an opponent they’d lost to by 44 points the year prior. “I overestimated,” he said in reference to his team’s readiness to play Utah. But how? How do you overestimate when you’d been shellacked as recently as 12 games prior?

Time for even more shocking news: I’m not done rehashing this 2012 BYU-Utah rivalry game yet! While the failure to prepare against fumbling and crowd noise was impressive, the end of game field goal attempt by Justin Sorenson lives as an all-time How Can This Be Possible moment. Allow me to remind you of the scene. BYU down three, 1 second left on the clock, ball on the 34-yard line, a 51-yard field goal ties the game. Note a 51-yard field goal is no easy kick under the rosiest of scenarios; in 2015 50-yarders sailed through the uprights at a 45% rate. That may not inspire extreme confidence but when compared to the alternative -- a Hail Mary to the endzone -- the choice to kick seems a no-brainer. But what if ... well, what if ...

Your kicker has never made a 50-yard field goal in his career?55. In five tries.
Your kicker is 5 of 14 on attempts of over 40-yards in his career?
Your kicker has never attempted a game-winning/tying kick in his career?
Your kicker has never attempted a kick with this much pressure before?
Your kicker already missed an easier attempt from 7 yards closer earlier in the game?
Your kicker is attempting only his second kick of the season?
Your kicker’s back is basically broken?
Your kicker didn’t start off-season practice until 9 days before the first game?
Your kicker is so unlucky that a spider bite made him pass out while balancing on a porch with the resulting fall causing a major ankle injury requiring reconstructive surgery?
Your team has already had two errant snaps fly by their intended target’s head in the game?6
6. I know the long snapper on field goals is different from the center, but still wouldn't you be a little worried? Your kicker is by his own admission, oh say only 4,800 ATTEMPTS shy of feeling ready for the season?
And finally, what if your lone alternative to this kicker is … a punter?

Bronco read through this checklist -- all of which applied to his team -- and decided, eh, what the heck, I like my odds! Send in Justin Sorensen! To the astonishment of no one, the kick didn’t make it five yards up field let alone anywhere near the goal posts. Now I don’t know what the odds are of successfully completing a Hail Mary (1%? 2%?) but I do know they were better than the 0% chance Sorensen had at knocking in that field goal.

Here’s my problem: Bronco had been present for all of fall camp. He had to be aware of Sorensen’s absence. He had to know that due to injury he wasn’t operating at peak performance. And he should have been aware that Sorenson had never proven reliable from 40 let alone 50 yards during his Cougar career. Yet despite all this he sent the poor kicker out for a shot at glory. For BYU fans our reward was suffering. For Bronco it was just another case of reality denied.77. I know this sounds like the hindsight complaints of a scorned fanboy, but as my friend Devon Smith can witness, prior to BYU lining up to kick I was on my knees praying to the football gods that we would come out with 5 receivers for a last ditch heave, or at the very least, fake the field goal.

All this talk about living in an alternate world and we somehow haven’t even mentioned the 2014 Miami Beach Bowl and the icing of the extra point. What a moment this was. The ESPN announcers, in a near state of hysteria, had to physically restrain themselves from openly mocking Bronco. That’s because in a vacuum, absentee all other facts, to use a third of your timeouts to ice an extra point is an insane idea. Extra points are successful 97.5% of the time afterall. But if you burn this timeout when the game is tied, there are 45 seconds remaining, and your offense has already put 38 points on the board, well that’s another brand of madness altogether. When you step back even further and realize that BYU had exceptional success scoring quickly in that game – scoring at times on drives of 5, 4, 2, and 5 plays -- the value of that wasted timeout becomes even more apparent. Again, I think Bronco is a smart guy. So how is it that he convinced himself that using a timeout to stop an extra point gave him better odds than using that timeout as part of a 45-second blitzkrieg into game-winning field goal range?

What could make Bronco think this way? What would make him think that BYU was above using trick plays, that BYU was too good to game plan for specific opponents, that recruiting was tertiary at best, that moving his best defensive lineman away from his natural position was necessary in order to help bolster the DEEPEST position on the team? What could make him incapable of comprehending reality?

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In attempting to diagnose the weirdness that is Bronco, it’s beneficial to remember that the guy had unbelievable early career success. It’s been a while, and some of us may have forgotten but Bronco took over BYU with a freaking bang. He won five of the first seven matchups against his rivals (Utah, TCU, Utah State) with the two losses both narrowly coming in overtime. He won 18 straight home games starting in his second season. He won the MWC championship twice in his first three years. He won two bowl games in his first three years. He coached BYU to either the first or second most dramatic win in school history (at Utah in ’06) in just his 24th game. He finished with national rankings of 16 and 14 in just his second and third seasons.

Unfortunately this success may have been the very worst thing to happen to him.

You see at the same time all these great things were happening on the field, Bronco’s wacko ideologies were being cemented into his heart. Take the laissez-faire approach to timeouts for example. In the 2006 BYU-Utah game Utah scored to go up 31-27 with 1:09 remaining. BYU had all three timeouts remaining to help mount a final minute comeback, or at least they had all three until Bronco lit one on fire immediately following the kickoff. Have you ever seen a team take a timeout after a kickoff? Isn’t the break between the touchdown, extra point, and kickoff timeout enough?

For some reason Bronco decided the team needed one more chance to huddle and prepare. By fortune this insane mistake is forgotten because the ending turned out so marvelously for the Cougars. But had BYU ran out of clock, had BYU lost this game not only would we have been robbed of one of the great football endings in recent memory, Bronco would have taken unceasing criticism for blowing one of this three shots at stopping the clock … while the clock was already stopped.88. I do have to mention that the kickoff rules were different back in 2006. The clock would start running once the ball was spotted when the offense took the field. In other words the clock wasn't completely stopped following the kickoff; rather the treatment was the same as when a team gets a first down and the clock is stopped while the chains are moved and started again once the ball is set. So sure using a timeout after the kickoff wasn't as bad as say using a timeout after an incompletion. But still, to use one after you've had an entire break to plan your first play, and while the clock was stopped temporarily, is a woefully incorrect use of a timeout. Bronco made a dumb choice, there’s no question about it. But while the decision was wrong, the outcome was a success. Did this fortunate break mark the moment when timeouts became not a clock-preserving tool but rather a break to rally the troops whenever the coach felt the need?

What about the icing of the extra point? BYU had blocked a virtual extra point to win the Vegas Bowl in Bronco’s third season, and a true extra point (though backed up by penalty) against Washington in his fourth. And of course there was the loss against TCU in his first season that came after a botched extra point in overtime. Did these three unlikely occurrences make Bronco believe that extra points were missed at a rate worthy of icing? Did these three flukes hold more weight in his mind than the fact that PATs succeed over 97% of the time?

And what about recruiting? Bronco’s immediate success came despite having to rely on players he didn’t recruit: Hall, Beck, Harline, Coats, Kehl, Brown, Pitta, Collie, Jensen, Feinga. Can't you see Bronco thinking to himself, “If I can win with players that I haven’t even handpicked for my system, then I can win with anyone.” Could this explain why he never emphasized recruiting? Could this explain why he went so far as to say players should recruit him? From the get-go he was great with players who were just ‘there’. He took players that had brought BYU its first string of losing seasons in 30 years and made them relevant in just about 17 games. So why make the extra effort to pander to supposedly great high schoolers when he’d proven he could win with players that were so average they used to be losers?

It’s interesting, no? How different would Bronco be if he struggled in his early years as head coach? Would he have adopted different philosophies? Would he have been more willing to experiment in his latter years?

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Of all the talk surrounding Bronco’s frequent denials of reality, I find it beyond ironic that the one time Bronco confronted reality, the one time he realized his team was in an underdog situation, the one time he pursued a David strategy, the one time he employed desperate measures resulted in the most ferocious criticism he received during his career. The year was 2012, the opponent was Boise State, the score was 7 to 6.

In a game only defensive coordinators could love BYU scored a TD with three and a half minutes remaining to pull within one. Then, a surprise for the ages. In a move that went counter to every conservative breath Bronco had ever drawn as head coach, BYU went for two and the win. Taysom Hill's pass fell incomplete, BYU never touched the ball again and a heartbreaking loss was in the record books.

The critics made an appearance shortly thereafter, with the gusto of their argument against Bronco being that BYU had momentum, Boise hadn't scored on offense all game, and therefore BYU was assured of victory in overtime. BYU should have kicked the extra point. But is that accurate? A year later a nearly identical situation played out between Michigan and Ohio State, with Michigan attempting to win in the last second via a two point conversion – and failing – in lieu of kicking an extra point and going to overtime. ESPN football writer and Grantland hero Bill Barnwell explained the rationale behind Michigan’s decisions better than I can:

"Was Hoke's decision (to go for two) the correct one? Absolutely, and it's not even close. You're weighing the probability of winning by converting from three yards out versus the probability of winning in one or more overtimes, and (in this case) the former is clearly greater than the latter. Michigan were 17-point underdogs heading into the game, and if you're a massive favorite, your advantage is more likely to show over a larger sample than it is over a very small one. Bringing the game down to a single play increases the variance of outcomes, which is of huge value to the underdog. (Michigan’s) chances of converting from three yards out are far higher than their chances of winning an even game in overtime, especially given the relative strengths of their team."

Do these words not also apply to BYU? Granted there were a couple differences between the Michigan scenario and the BYU scenario. Number one being the spread (Boise was favored by 7.5 as opposed to Ohio State’s 17) and number two the time remaining in the game (3:37 seconds for Boise, mere seconds for Ohio State). However BYU would still have been a large underdog heading into OT. How can I be so certain? Because of Barnwell's final sentence.

Michigan’s chances of converting from three yards out are far higher than their chances of winning an even game in overtime, especially given the relative strengths of their team.

Consider the below facts, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the BYU and Boise teams, or as I like to think of it, just a few points the hindsight loving, extra point aficionados fail to recognize: 

1. Boise was a juggernaut at home, having won 76 of their last 79 home games.

2. BYU's QB for this overtime would be a freshman, who up to that point had six drives of experience in his entire career. Of those six drives, two had come in garbage time against a FCS team and the other four had come in the last 10 minutes of this game.

3. Boise had moved the ball more successfully against BYU's defense than BYU had against Boise’s defense, which seems like a meaningful fact.

4. BYU had turned the ball over on 5 of their 13 drives against Boise.

5. To compete in overtime, BYU would likely had to have relied upon the same dynamic kicking duo that had gone 0-3 in their most recent game, the aforementioned debacle at Utah.

The point is obvious: if you are in the group that thinks BYU should have kicked the extra point, then you believe that the odds of gaining 3 yards were inferior to the odds of dueling in overtime with a rookie QB, an offensive line that was being pushed over by defensive backs, and kickers who had proven they were not good from 35 yards, let alone 40 or 50.99. And that’s without even mentioning the obvious fact that the game may not have gotten to overtime. Boise returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to their own 40. They then drove to the BYU 45 in the span of two plays, all while trying to drain the clock. To believe those odds were better than gaining three yards is impossible. So much so that even Bronco, the great denier of reality, couldn’t overlook them.

Thus it was that Bronco confronted the brutal facts and rolled the dice. The result came up poor, but it was one of my favorite moments from Bronco’s career for it signaled, for one time at least, that Bronco had paid a visit to earth.1010. For the nerd crowd, note that the advanced metrics support Bronco's decision as well. Per the Win Probability Calculator, BYU's chances of beating Boise State had they tied the game at 7 was 33%. By going for two and failing, they decreased those odds to 22%, an 11% drop in win expectancy. Meanwhile had BYU converted and taken an 8-7 lead, their chances of winning would have jumped to 48%. When your odds of winning under neutral circumstances are only 33%, isn’t it worth risking a drop to 22% for a shot at 48% and near fifty-fifty odds?

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In conducting the research for this Bronc-opus I was reminded of the other memorable moments in Bronco’s career. There was the Oklahoma upset, the Texas barnstorming, 4th and 18 and the case of the indestructible spectacles. The defensive victory over Utah State in 2012 was sweet, as were those road victories at Utah and TCU in 2006. And of course one cannot list the Bronco highlights and fail to mention the 59-0 demolition of UCLA, the most complete performance of Bronco’s career. Max Hall actually one-upped Steph Curry in that game, being benched at the start of the third quarter instead of the fourth as an act of mercy from the Cougars.

As I recall the moments of glory, and as I think on BYU as a football institution with all its inherent disadvantages -- honor code, lack of conference affiliation, Utah county nutjobs --  I wonder if I understated Bronco’s prowess in our opening paragraph. Bronco succeeded in the face of extremely challenging circumstances. He fought valiantly against the toughest schedules BYU ever faced, at the same time the disparity between the haves and the have-nots grew wider than ever. He did well despite having inferior resources across the board. And so perhaps I underestimate. Perhaps Bronco was not just a good coach, but a great coach.11
11. And wouldn't that be the way Bronco would like himself to be described, in the manner of Jim Collins' most famous of his self-helping, business books, 'Good to Great'?

Yet somehow I don't know if I'll miss him even one bit.

If the contrast of those last two sentences doesn't tell you everything you need to know about the weirdness that was Bronco, then I suggest you get ready to watch some Virginia football.

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