After a particularly volatile season and offseason, several major college football programs will begin the 2016 season with new coaches. As part of our season preview, we take a look at those changes both nationwide — focusing on Mark Richt at Miami and Kirby Smart at Georgia — and in the Washington area, with glimpses into how three coaches — DJ Durkin at Maryland, Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech and Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia — are embracing their new environs.
One of the biggest questions surrounding Mendenhall’s hiring away from Brigham Young, where he had spent 11 years as a coach, was if he would fit in Charlottesville. From the start, the statistics fanatic, behavioral-psychology-obsessed export from Utah set out to try and belong.
And so, on the Friday of Presidents Day weekend, he watched a three-hour college tennis match. He sat next to Becky Boland, wife of Cavaliers men’s tennis Coach Brian Boland, chatting occasionally, observing every point.
Mendenhall had been the Cavaliers’ football coach for a little more than three months. Watching Boland’s squad, which had two national titles under its belt at the time with a third months away, was educational.
“I mean, he sat there for three hours and watched us play in front of 1,400, maybe 1,500 people,” Boland said. “He was really interested in learning who our fans were, and why.”
Now, nine months into his tenure, Mendenhall said he feels like a “U-Va. guy.”
“I’m learning as much as I can about the community, about the institution and about the state from anyone I can,” he said.
“I’ve men with business leaders, I’ve met with community leaders, I’ve met with alums, I’ve met with faculty members, I’ve met with deans, and that continues to form a more comprehensive picture of what U-Va. is and how special it is.”
He asked various deans at Virginia about the student population, questioned former players such as Tiki Barber and Chris Long about the Cavaliers’ football tradition. From former special assistant to the president Gordon Burris, Mendenhall learned the history of the university. From Boland and men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett, he learned the steps to building a successful program.
“He’s obviously an extremely intuitive guy,” Boland said. “He wanted to listen, and learn. He basically just came in and asked questions — what kind of student-athlete succeeds here, what are the key factors that have allowed you to have success and sustain it, recruiting questions. For a football coach to come to a non-revenue sport coach and do that — that says a lot about his humility.”
Instances of Mendenhall’s staff doing community work had made the rounds on social media early, back in winter.
His assistant coaches helped shovel neighbors out of their driveways during a nasty snowstorm, and they stood in line handing out doughnuts to students who lined up early when the men’s basketball team hosted ESPN’s “College GameDay.”
For now, Mendenhall and his staff feel the communal love reserved for a football coach who hasn’t yet had a chance to lose a game. He predicts true judgment won’t come until much later in the season.
“For my intent, I am a U-Va. guy,” Mendenhall said. “I think when the alums and the fans and the former players say that I am, I will be . . . I think that’s when there’s a stamp of approval, and I expect that when we play well and have a consistent winner here.”
College football previews from The Post