As the Virginia football team completed its 16-13 upset of Miami last weekend, coach Bronco Mendenhall sensed a different feeling in the air around Scott Stadium. Sure, with the program’s first win against a ranked opponent since 2014, it checked off another rebuilding item on the check list, but this feeling seemed more significant to him.
Remember, Mendenhall correctly identified the now-what, waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop mood in Scott Stadium back during his disappointing debut against Richmond. So he has a knack for figuring out the air around the program in a given moment. And on Saturday night, he liked what he was breathing in.
“It was really gratifying to see the energy of the crowd,” Mendenhall said. “I think it was the best crowd since I’ve been a coach here. I’m not talking about the numbers, I’m just talking about how engaged they were. And that atmosphere made a difference; it makes a difference. And I sensed maybe a beginning of what this really can be and more and more folks catching on and maybe believing this is for real and that this is going to happen.”
The good vibes continued into at least Monday afternoon. When asked what the community reaction had been to Saturday night’s win, Mendenhall simply called it gratifying not on a personal level, but for how it impacted so many people pleased with the team.
“It’s just people were glad to be at the game, and to see them happy,” Mendenhall said. “I was getting comments like, ‘Wow, the stadium hasn’t felt like that in a while’. So those kind of comments, there is a sense that this actually might work. You know, wait a second. This team and program and approach and staff, we could actually have really good football again at UVA and it could be a consistent winner. We see this happening. I think that was kind of the sense of me, not the comments that they were making, but just how excited they were that they were there, saw it and liked it. I would love this community and institution and the state to have, again, a great place to come watch and participate in an amazing college football experience. That’s what we’re looking to build.”
While UVA fans continue to slowly but surely let their belief swell and their emotions drift back to Virginia football, Mendenhall already has seen those things take root within the program. Many times over the past year and half, he’s talked about the changing mindset and the same growing belief among the players. He’s expressed confidence in the continued upward trajectory based on those changes within.
How much confidence has that built in Mendenhall as the resurrection of Virginia football unfolds? On Friday, Mendenhall and his family showed just how much belief they have in the UVA football program when they made the largest gift by a head coach to the University of Virginia. Mendenhall and his wife Holly pledged $500,000 to support construction of Virginia’s new Football Operations Center as part of the athletics department’s Master Plan project (as seen here).
That gift comes at an important time. Before last Saturday’s upset of Miami, a group of football alumni and other influential program supporters came together Friday night to mark the launch of the $180 million Master Plan fundraising campaign. The Football Operations Center is a component of the Virginia athletics department’s Master Plan that also includes construction of an Olympic Sports Center and grass practice fields.
The Mendenhalls’ pledge is the first to be publicly announced as part of the campaign. It makes a statement on the coaches’ clear belief in the potential and growth of UVA football. It could provide a spark to push the fundraising forward.
“I am very thankful that Bronco and Holly have further demonstrated their commitment to the University of Virginia with this gift,” said Virginia director of athletics Carla Williams in a news release. “Bronco’s vision for the impact this facility will have on the football program is inspiring and I hope his and Holly’s gift will motivate others to invest in the future of Virginia student-athletes.”
While the kickoff donation serves as an important moment for the program, it’s far from the only positive momentum surrounding the program. In fact, after Mendenhall’s rebuilding effort got off to a rough start of sorts, things have not only reversed course but picked up steam in the 16 months since.
In the first 15 months of his tenure, Mendenhall faced not only that demoralizing loss to Richmond where he sensed the mood around the program, but a spate of other things too. The team finished 2-10 and got embarrassed 52-10 by Virginia Tech while rotating three quarterbacks in and out of the game. Multiple offensive linemen ended their careers for varying reasons. There were several ‘false starts’ on social media where recruits claimed to commit to UVA only to not really even have open offers. The Hoos didn’t sign any recruits from Richmond or the Tidewater area on his first signing day. Several players announced transfers in the middle of the 2017 spring semester. A former player filed a lawsuit alleging hazing. Oh, and Virginia self-reported a Level II NCAA Infraction for impermissable contacts related to photographs taken with recruits.
On the heels of four straight losing seasons and just one bowl appearance from 2008 to 2015, that was a lot to swallow for some Cavalier fans.
In the past 16 months, however, the program has completely turned the tide and built sustainable positive momentum.
- The program added a signee from Richmond and Tidewater in the second class. The Hoos also got a recent commitment from Ben Smiley, another Chesapeake area recruit. Smiley became the third four-start commit for the 2019 class, joining Jowon Briggs and Hunter Stewart. Stewart continued what has been a strong and growing connection in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) region.
- UVA did lose more transfers, but that’s sort of par for the course and those moves were not as randomly timed as some of the 2016 departures. The social media recruiting miscues all but vanished after the three 2016 situations too. The hazing lawsuit apparently was dismissed and has faded away.
- New Athletics Director Carla Williams came to UVA late last year, evaluated the football team, and immediately put things in motion to improve the program’s footing. That included an immediate round of emergency fundraising to expand the strength and conditioning staff. That was followed by the recent Master Plan announcement that will include a new football ops building.
- The program also added souvenir cups, additional vendors for concessions, and free WiFi to the stadium. While those things have not gone perfectly from a fan perspective, they’re huge steps in the right direction.
- Then, there’s the on-field progress. After a tough first campaign, Virginia bounced back to a 6-6 regular season in 2017. The Hoos earned their first bowl trip since 2011 as a result. While the year ended on a sour note with losses to VT and Navy in the bowl, the Cavaliers claimed additional motivation from getting through the first big step of rebuilding. That’s carried over to a 4-2 start this season and the program’s first win against a ranked opponent in four years last week. The Hoos are just two wins away from back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 2004 and 2005. That, along with ending the streak against Tech and winning a postseason game, represent the next hurdles in the resurrection.
- And, finally, there was the initial $500,000 gift from the program’s leader to jumpstart the fundraising for a new facility.
Essentially, the last year and half has represented a steady checking off of outside observations and fan complaints about the program. Mendenhall needs to improve recruiting? Check with three four stars and growing interest. UVA needs to show a commitment to football? Check with the increased strength and conditioning staff and check with the Master Plan plus the donation. The gameday experience needs improvement? Check with expanded vendors and WiFi.
Want the team to be more consistent, play better football, reduce silly mistakes, and generally be more competitive? Penalties are down, turnovers are down, random personnel and substitution issues are down, and the team executes the game plan on a higher number of snaps.
Make no mistake, UVA’s football program is rebuilding not rebuilt and there are still many hurdles to clear to become a consistent winner again. Certainly, time will tell where things end up for the Mendenhall era at Virginia. But right now the trends look encouraging for Cavalier fans.