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Mendenhall sets out clear-eyed, inspirational vision for future of Virginia football

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Deeply flawed reporting removes optimism, purpose, and context from coach’s remarks

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

“When your mission is to change the world, you’re not just recruiting a tailback.”

That line was emblematic of the tone in Bronco Mendenhall’s remarks to the Board of Visitors on Friday, June 8th. He pitched a clear-eyed vision for producing both conference champion-level football teams that “directly and specifically and completely align” with the goals and values of the University, AND a generation of leaders who have developed fortitude and a sense of purpose beyond themselves.

Yes, this is the same Board of Visitors meeting you read about in the Daily Progress. The same one over which you’ve seen fury and ire pour forth across Twitter or message boards.

Because you’d never know we were talking about the same meeting if you read Sam Blum.

In a series of articles posted Sunday night, the UVA beat reporter published Mendenhall’s comments with framing that either omitted or distorted the surrounding context. Instead of the inspirational vision presented to the Board, Blum painted a picture of an oafish buffoon with little regard for truth.

Sometimes the painting perfectly captures only the artist who holds the brush.

Streaking the Lawn had the opportunity to listen to an audio recording of the meeting itself. Multiple writers and editors for this site reviewed the recording. None came away with the same impression left by Blum’s earlier posts.

The most glaring omission in those posts concerned Mendenhall’s statements about wanting to “play the worst power-five team” that UVA can schedule.

Responding to a Board member’s question about scheduling philosophy, Mendenhall began by relaying the mood in the room during his first team meeting in 2016. The players were “despondent and dejected,” with many of the best players “on the verge of quitting,” after a 4-8 campaign that included blowout losses at UCLA and home against Boise State.

Mendenhall then said that scheduling is part of the “consecutive, sequential process” to building sustained success at UVA. Winning the out-of-conference games results in “building capability and momentum” into the ACC schedule.

Many of those ACC teams are a step ahead of Virginia currently. Which is why getting wins in the first four games is so important to Mendenhall. “While you learn to win, you actually increase chances to win,” the coach told the Board. “And the culture starts to build along the way.”

None of that context comes across in Blum’s post. Other than Mendenhall’s description of the 2016 team meeting, not one word of it got printed.

Mendenhall is also objectively correct. Of course UVA should schedule the bottom of the Power Five universe. Programs in Virginia’s shoes—and even those with more recent success—don’t get ahead in the world by scheduling games against world-beaters.

I pulled the schedules of the median teams in each Power Five conference for 2017, according to Football Outsiders’ F/+ rating system. Those ten teams are:

  • ACC: Wake Forest, Florida State
  • Big 12: Texas, Kansas State
  • Big Ten: Purdue, Northwestern
  • Pac-12: Arizona, Oregon
  • SEC: South Carolina, Texas A&M

Florida State is the obvious outlier there, having gone through a down season after a run of years at or near the tippy-top of the FBS. But most of the rest have had solid, middle-of-the-road seasons for most of the past decade.

None of them is scheduling like UVA did over the past five years. Wake Forest and Arizona each played precisely zero Power Five teams in 2017 outside their conference schedules (which included Notre Dame for Wake). Texas played Southern Cal, but also played Maryland. Kansas State played Vanderbilt, and Oregon caught a tail-spinning Nebraska program.

Outside of annual rivalry games with Power Five opponents, it is far more the exception than the rule for mid-level Power Five teams to play top-level programs. And if you’re not chomping at the teams above you, that only leaves one buffet to feast on: the teams below.

I doubt there’s a Virginia fan alive who hasn’t griped about the ridiculous scheduling over the past several seasons. A series of struggling UVA teams has been asked to punch above its weight class year after year, often on the road. Mendenhall made clear to folks with the power to change it that he thinks that’s no way to run things.

Moving from omission to distortion, Blum attacked Mendenhall’s use of statistics during the coach’s remarks concerning how Mendenhall and his staff encourage players to think about their lives after football. In an off-the-cuff Q&A session, Mendenhall cited two statistics about players’ life experiences before and after football. They were minor steps along the path to Mendenhall’s overarching point, about using the values of the University to attract talent and develop young people.

Or, as Blum put it:

Mendenhall listed two unverifiable statistics to discuss his reasoning for not wanting his players to solely focus on an NFL future.

OK let’s stop there. Calling a statistic “unverifiable” creates the impression that, at best, it was concocted from nothingness, or worse yet, is being used to provide a facade of support to an otherwise baseless claim.

And neither of the statistics took much leg work to verify—or at least not much work to find reported use of them. For instance:

“Knowing that statistically … 85 percent of the makeup of the NFL, those young people all come, 85 percent from single-parent homes,” Mendenhall said. “So that’s one dynamic.”

A 2010 article about the Kansas City Chiefs’ roster recites the statistic that “nearly 70 percent of players at recent NFL combines were from single-parent homes.” Eighty-five is definitely more than “nearly seventy,” so it seems like Mendenhall got the number off when he spoke. But it wasn’t pulled out of the ether.

Or this one:

“The lucky ones that make it to their second contract — that means there is some sustainability — when they leave the NFL, they are all of the following — this is 78 percent, almost 80 percent,” Mendenhall said. “They are divorced, bankrupt, a substance abuser and disabled, all four. That’s almost 80 percent of the lucky ones that make it to their second contract.”

The idea that 80 percent of retired players go broke has made the rounds fairly widely, both in a 2009 report by Sports Illustrated and follow-up analysis by Forbes. In fact, that statistic was the centerpiece of an April 2018 CNBC article about none other than former Virginia football star Patrick Kerney, who now provides insurance and investment advice to former professional athletes.

The problem there is Mendenhall’s claim that 78 percent of players who make a second contract end up “all four” of divorced, bankrupt, addicted, and disabled. Because the 78 percent number has been in media coverage of post-NFL life since at least 2006, but it is phrased in the disjunctive: players end up either divorced or bankrupt or unemployed.

One former NFL player has “debunked” the reported figure, while another debunked the debunking.

So it turns out both of the statistics Mendenhall used were incorrect: one was inflated, the other was stated with the wrong qualifiers. But Sam Blum was equally incorrect to say that Mendenhall’s numbers weren’t “based in reality.” And finding out what reality they were based in took all of ten minutes on Google.

On to the next one: Mendenhall’s statement that there are “27 ACC-caliber players” on the current roster. Blum added this conclusion about Mendenhall’s feelings:

As the roster stands, there are 81 active players on Virginia’s football roster, meaning Mendenhall feels that two-thirds of the players on the roster, as presently constructed, are not ACC-caliber.

This is the big, glaring, irresponsible-not-to-provide-it caveat to that statement, as I included in our initial coverage of the remarks:

The current 81-man roster does not account for the outgoing senior class that included two NFL Draft picks and another first-team All-ACC performer. It also does not include any of the three incoming transfers with Big Ten backgrounds, nor does it include 17 members of the incoming freshman class—10 of whom have a 247 Sports Composite rating of 84 or higher.

Blum did deign to include Mendenhall’s further comments on the state of the roster, which reflect the coach’s belief that the number of ACC-caliber players will be in the neighborhood of 45 come this fall, with a constant and consistent addition of talent over the next several years.

Instead of repeatedly highlighting the discrepancy between 81 and 27, as Blum did, a responsible journalist might have provided some context on how many of those 81 players on the roster actually play in ACC games.

During the 2017 season, 59 players appeared in two or more ACC games—a decent indication of how much “ACC-caliber” talent a team needs. Those 59 players included 11 seniors, as well as four players who have either retired for medical reasons or left the team and the University.

Which means there are 44 players on the current roster who appeared in two or more ACC games. Even if there isn’t perfect overlap between 2017 appearances and Mendenhall’s talent assessment, that still means he thinks about half of the current players with meaningful ACC experience are up to ACC standards.

Is that really so shocking for a program that’s gone 4-12 in conference the past two seasons?

There are many defensible criticisms of Mendenhall’s statements. One can think they’re too blunt or impolitic and make a good-faith argument to back it up. Perception is reality in college football, and Mendenhall said some hard truths in a way that may well harm the perception of the program for the near future.

But Blum’s Sunday articles add up to one of the bigger self-owns I remember seeing in college sports recently.

Each one included a reference to Mendenhall criticizing the media that covers UVA sports. For instance:

Mendenhall not[ed] that he preferred to relay his philosophy directly as opposed to going through, in his words, an unreliable press.

“You don’t have to rely on any other source,” Mendenhall said. “What I’ve learned in the world of college football and through the world of reporting is if all areas of the world and all topics are reported on as they are in sport, I would question the authenticity and sincerity and accuracy.”

Complaining about the coach questioning your sincerity and role as an objective conduit for the truth, in the same series of pieces where every inference is drawn to the negative and every piece of context is stripped away, is just ...

Turning Mendenhall’s appearance into a series of hit pieces is a grotesque accomplishment. The people in the room—leaders in business and law and politics and medicine, each of them—responded to Mendenhall’s remarks by asking him to sit down with other coaches and film a video series on leadership and personal development.

That can’t comport with Blum’s illustration of a dour, pessimistic coach bemoaning the state of his program.

You want the full context? Here’s the audio recording in its entirety. You tell us. (Note: Apple News readers, you’ll have to read this on the site as the audio gets stripped out.)