Virginia, which finished the regular season 6-6, will learn its bowl destination Sunday. The Cavaliers have lost four in a row.
“It’s my decision only, and Holly, my wife’s a little stunned and shocked, too,” Mendenhall said during a Zoom call with the media, adding he has not ruled out coaching again. “I believe a renewal and a pause and a reframing and a reinventing and reconnecting is necessary to then become the very best person I can be moving forward.”
Mendenhall, 55, said he began considering stepping away the day after the Cavaliers lost their most disheartening game of the season, 29-24 to rival Virginia Tech on Saturday at Scott Stadium.
A devout Mormon, Mendenhall indicated it was not a coincidence the decision began to take shape on a Sunday. Once he communicated his plans to his wife and family, he spoke to his staff at roughly 4:45 p.m. Thursday and addressed his players at 5.
He also spoke with Carla Williams, Virginia’s athletic director, and university president Jim Ryan, both of whom requested that Mendenhall reconsider. The coach said he instead offered to be an adviser to the school in its search for his successor.
The announcement proved a bombshell to his assistants, many of whom had made the cross-country journey to Virginia to stay on his staff after working with Mendenhall at Brigham Young, where he averaged nine wins over 11 seasons.
“Tears, shock, sadness, disbelief, and it’s going to take time to process,” Mendenhall said of the reaction to his decision. “For most of us, there’s different cycles you go through, from anger or denial and withdrawal, and finally you get back to acceptance. There’s all of those things happening right now.”
Among Mendenhall’s most notable accomplishments at Virginia has been overseeing the development of three record-setting quarterbacks, including Brennan Armstrong this season. The junior became the program’s single-season leader in passing yards and total offense while leading major college football in many major offensive categories.
Armstrong broke the record for total offense set by his immediate predecessor, Bryce Perkins, in 2019. That season featured Mendenhall’s only win against Virginia Tech, 39-30, ending a 15-game losing streak in the Commonwealth Cup series.
Virginia also won its first ACC Coastal Division title in 2019 and made the first appearance in program history in the Orange Bowl, fueling expectations for even grander achievements in 2020. But rigorous protocols related to the coronavirus pandemic left the Cavaliers fatigued, and they opted out of a bowl game, finishing 5-5.
“He has done an exceptional job of not just transforming the program but elevating the expectations for the program,” Williams said in a statement. “He has established the necessary foundation to propel our football team upward. He is more than a football coach, and his impact he has had on these young men will be a positive influence for the rest of their lives.”
It’s unclear what impact Mendenhall’s resignation will have on player retention and recruiting. The Cavaliers are in line to have the majority of their prolific offense back, including Armstrong, who has not spoken publicly about his plans, although he almost certainly would be in next year’s preseason Heisman Trophy conversation if he elects to stay.
Armstrong has thrown for at least 300 yards in six consecutive games. No other quarterback in program history has thrown for 300 yards in three straight games.
Virginia was second nationally and first among Power Five schools in passing yards (396.2) and third overall in total offense (515.8). Its average of 34.6 points per game is a school record and ranks 24th in the country. The Cavaliers scored at least 42 points five times.
The defensive shortcomings rankled Mendenhall, yet he never wavered in his support of his defensive staff, most notably defensive coordinator Nick Howell, despite calls from an irate fan base on social media for a complete overhaul.
“The clarity of this was really finalized [Wednesday] in my mind,” Mendenhall said. “In the coach’s world that’s almost an eternity from whenever the last game was, so this is a personal and bigger picture.”