The 2016 Virginia Cavaliers football season was not what anyone in Charlottesville hoped for. Injuries, personnel issues, and a coaching staff adjusting to life in the ACC all contributed to the Hoos enduring their worst win-loss total since the nadir of the Mike London era in 2013.
But Bronco Mendenhall has found a unique way to connect with his players and help them—and himself—navigate the adversity: books.
ESPN’s David Hale put together a fascinating look into Mendenhall’s relationship with Malcolm Cook, who had to sit out 2016 with a scary cardiac illness. In addition to using Cook as an extra coach during games, Mendenhall pushed Cook to expand his reading habits and explore challenging topics.
It took Cook a couple weeks to finish that first book, but he immediately asked for another. That one took a while, too, but by season's end, he was devouring a few dozen pages a day, then more. He's finished nearly 30 books now on everything from spirituality to psychology, and as soon as one is finished, he returns to Mendenhall's office for a replacement.
"When you've never had that before, and then you're getting it, it feels good," Cook said. "... I learned more in those six months [not playing football] than I ever did before."
And it sounds like this isn’t a “do as I say, not as I do” situation either. Mendenhall is putting himself through the same kind of searching.
Mendenhall had always preached that football is something players do, but it shouldn't define them. After a 2-10 season, however, he was struggling with his own image as a coach.
"I had a lot of unique questions of myself," Mendenhall said. "Part of my identity was as a successful football coach. Well, who am I now? It's been an interesting struggle."
We all want the football program to demonstrate success on the field, and we all hope to see it as soon as possible. Reading an article like this one leaves me more willing to accept a longer timeframe for judging success, since I know things like this are happening in the meantime:
Cook has asked his coach plenty of touch questions in their short time together, and Mendenhall always responds with a question of his own: Do you want the truth or do you want the lie?