Bronco Mendenhall crossed the country on the heels of 11 straight bowl games and 99 wins at BYU to try to resurrect the Virginia football program. An experienced staff followed him. Mendenhall also brought a clear roster management plan and plenty of business style slogans.
If a honeymoon period was to follow Mendenhall’s arrival – and that’s a big if considering that the moribund state of the program he inherited means any issue feels like a significant blow – it’s been squandered in the 15 months since. A series of setbacks have ranged from bad timing to bad performances to bad accusations.
All have been bad optics when it comes to public relations and building faith among the fan and donor base.
Consider the following things that have occurred in the last year and a half.
- On July 10, 2016, recruit Seth Harrell announced his commitment to Virginia on Twitter only to learn that the Hoos no longer had any spots available for the spot (defensive tackle/nose guard) he was initially offered a scholarship. Harrell attends Grassfield High in Chesapeake so this in a lot of ways was part of the first impression for UVA’s new coaching staff in the highly talented Tidewater area. The Hoos ended up with zero signees in February from the Tidewater or Richmond areas in state.
- On July 21, 2016, Mendenhall informed media members at the ACC Football Kickoff that transfer offensive lineman Jared Cohen decided not to play football anymore. Three other linemen – Ryan Doull, Sadiq Olanrewaju, and Eric Tetlow stepped aside due to injuries as well during the summer.
- On July 26, 2016, recruit Zac Darwiche claimed he had a Virginia offer and committed over Twitter. He reportedly did not have an offer. His Twitter account still indicates that he plans to walk on at UVA.
- On Sept. 3, 2016, the Cavaliers opened the Mendenhall era with a 37-20 loss against Richmond, a game that the Spiders led 30-7 at one point. UVA had four turnovers in the loss and started the season 0-3, which included a late-game scramble field goal that missed at Connecticut.
- On Oct. 19, 2016, Aidan Howard, a former Virginia player, filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania alleging a hazing ritual and that the University “fostered a culture of bullying, abuse, harassment, and discrimination.” UVA and its coaches addressed the lawsuit that week, but nothing has been publicly stated since the lawsuit and subsequent police investigation arose last October. With no resolution, questions about this will continue to linger.
- On Nov. 16, 2016, recruit Cole Kirby announced on Twitter that he had committed to UVA after being offered in September. Within the same day, he then Tweeted that he was no longer committed to Virginia. He ended up committing to Middle Tennessee State.
- On Nov. 26, 2016, Virginia rotated three quarterbacks into the game at Virginia Tech, switching players on varying downs throughout the game. The unorthodox strategy came during a 52-10 rout to cap Mendenhall’s first season with a 2-10 record. Mendenhall had declared in two public pep rally type of appearances in the preseason months that Hoos shouldn’t have holiday plans because a bowl game was among the expectations.
- On March 14, 2017, Landan Word and Matt Terrell, two linebackers expected to be in the rotation and possibly starters, announced their intention to transfer; the timing came between winter workouts and spring practice not at the end of the season or the semester break. Grant Polk announced his transfer decision on April 23, 2016, the morning of Mendenhall’s first spring game. Transfers obviously happen, but that’s odd timing for all three.
- On April 7, 2017, UVA announced a Level II NCAA Infraction that it self-reported due to impermissible contacts in recruiting. Per the news release, there were “a total of 32 violations” of the same action during a two-week evaluation period and “number of violations elevated the overall violation to Level II status.”
On the surface, nothing outside of the hazing lawsuit carries much significance by itself. Bad games happen. Strategy moves backfire. Recruits mistake offers or conditions. Players transfer. Even the recruiting infraction is understandable in the social media world. Per the news release: “The violations involved assistant football coaches, after a brief greeting, engaging with prospects to take a photograph. The action was deemed contact beyond the standard greeting.”
In isolation, most of those can be categorized as nothing really. Collectively? Collectively in your first 15 months? Collectively in your first 15 months when you’re running a program with five straight losing seasons? Collectively in your first 15 months when you’re running a program with five straight losing seasons and nine in the last 11?
Collectively, well, it builds.
If this were a real honeymoon, any single thing could be likened to the airline losing your luggage. Yes, it’s a setback and an annoying start to the trip, but ultimately it’s nothing more than a nuisance. What if the taxi also broke down on the way from the airport, the resort lost your reservation, and a hurricane forced an evacuation too? Not pleasant.
Virginia fans put their faith in Mendenhall’s winning pedigree and his clear outline to jumpstart the program. A rough record in his first ACC rodeo only reminded everyone of the program’s state and the work that needed to be done to turn things around. In the long run, Mendenhall may still prove to have the right plan to get that job done, but the start of the trip hasn’t been smooth so the honeymoon was short-lived.