The college football season will put an end to the slow sprawl of the summer sports season Thursday night when sixteen games involving Division 1 FBS teams kick off starting at 7:00pm. Virginia fans will behold the start of the Bronco Mendenhall era on Saturday at 3:30, when the Cavaliers take the field at Scott Stadium to face the Richmond Spiders. The beginning of football season marks the grand opening of the college sports season. Sure, there’s a soft opening when the soccer teams kick things off in late August, but the return of college football Saturdays is the true grand opening with fireworks and motorcycles jumping over fountains. From the time college sports departed our consciousness in June, the world has become quite a bit stranger, and college football is a perfect companion for a world that seems to be slowly devolving into a Stanley Kubrick film.
Consider trying to explain the entire collegiate gridiron enterprise to an outsider. The teams are chartered and run by educational institutions. The coaches are the highest paid employees at these institutions, despite their job having absolutely nothing to do with the core mission of their employer. The programs at the top of sport rake in millions of dollars, and the programs not at the top would gladly sell any number of academic buildings to join them. The players that are on the playing field are compensated with an education that may or may not be worthless depending on how much their chosen school values their academic integrity.
The fans are, for the most part, completely deranged. They stand in parking lots socializing hours before the game is scheduled to start. They burn the better part of the weekend on internet forums rehashing in excruciating detail the game they all just watched. They obsess over the college decisions of teenagers, only to wish ill on said teenager if they fail to live up to the impossible hopes set for them in the first fifteen minutes of his first game. They harbor rivalries with a bloodlust usually reserved for Viking raiders. Poor Paul Ryan discovered as much when he tried to unite his Republican troops in Cleveland by likening it to Texas A&M fans that would surely root for Texas in a national title game. The next day he doubled down by asking if NC State fans would support UNC in a championship game.
Stay in the shallows of DC, Congressman. You know nothing of the insanity that lurks in these depths.
If we set out to design an intermediate step between the Friday night small town tradition of high school football and the bright lights of the NFL, it would take the most twisted mind to come up with something remotely resembling what we have – and yet here we are. College football is the intersection of a pastime that metastasized into a monstrous industry and a higher education system in the throes of a severe identity crisis. It’s the greatest monument to inertia ever created. It’s a cute puppy that you brought home, only it’s grown up into a grizzly bear and it wants to sleep in your bed.
It is in this sea of madness that Bronco Mendenhall now embarks at the helm of the Virginia football team. His charge is clear: Win without cutting corners. He’s put on a master class in the offseason of managing expectations without casting a pall of gloom over a program that had more than its fair share of the stuff. For a fanbase that had gotten used to fundamental breakdowns, seeing Mendenhall’s incremental focus on doing things correctly and parceling rewards out accordingly has been a welcome breath of fresh air. That the head coach walked into the role and immediately recognized that his first job was to rebuild the mental fortitude in his players was heartening. The prior coaching staff always seemed to be harried, overwhelmed by the task in front of them. Mendenhall and his staff have been calm and confident – the perfect tone for Virginia at this point.
Once the ball goes into the air, however, the talk is over and the results emerge. Many a promising offseason has given way to panic before Labor Day. The Cavaliers are in for bumps this year. The roster is thin at key positions. The team’s talent on paper is outclassed by most of the rest of the ACC. In-state recruiting has atrophied to the point where the top Virginia high school players barely glance in the general direction of Charlottesville before packing the car and heading down I-95. None of these things can be fixed in 8 months.
Tony Bennett won half his games in his first two years at Virginia, but in retrospect something was clear in those first two seasons. The man knew what he was doing. When the craziness of college football season gives way to the madness of basketball in January, let us hope that we have drawn a similar conclusion regarding Mendenhall.
This sport may be run by a horde of hopelessly corrupt thieves in suits, its administration riddled with inconsistencies, and its unhealthy prominence frequently reveals the absolute worst of human nature, but there’s nothing else like it in this country of ours, and the season is over before you know it. Enjoy it, Virginia fans.