When Virginia hired Bronco Mendenhall as their head coach in December of 2015, he knew what he was getting in to. Under previous head coach Mike London, the Hoos had earned 5 wins or less in four consecutive seasons. Suffice it to say, in 2016, Mendenhall’s first year at the helm, the Virginia Cavaliers’ football team was a long way from competing in the ACC, nonetheless winning the conference.
UVA has not yet turned into a powerhouse like Clemson or Florida State (who could’ve expected so much in year three under Mendenhall), but the program appears to be moving in the right direction. If last year’s improvement on the field doesn’t attest to that, then take today’s words from Olamide Zaccheaus, Chris Peace and Coach Mendenhall, UVA’s representatives at the annual ACC media days.
When asked about what surprised senior do-it-all back Zaccheaus the most about Mendenhall, he spoke, “When he first got here, he just got rid of a lot of people [...] now we know who’s really in it and who really wants to work.” For someone who has experienced some of the lowest lows at UVA (*cough* *cough* Richmond), Zaccheaus understands the atmosphere in a locker room. His insights, then, remind us of what often gets lost in the picture: how a series of losing seasons can destroy a team’s identity, and, eventually, their commitment to hard-work. Without any passion, a program has no chance. What Mendenhall has been able to do, taking Zaccheaus’ words, is instill determination and pride in his players.
Consider what senior linebacker Chris Peace had to say:
I would say everyone is completely bought in. I would say this year is -- this year and last year I’ve never seen so many guys bought in. When I first came here, it was just a lot of half and half here, half and half there, and just a lot of people dragging their feet. I don’t think anybody on this team is holding anyone back or this program.
The shift away from “dragging their feet” to being “completely bought in” echoes the exact mentality that Mendenhall has been building towards. Peace, who was fifth in the ACC last year with 7.5 sacks, like Zaccheaus, recognizes the same growth in intensity. The business-like attitudes that both players maintained throughout the day serves as a reflection to this value. From Peace, “We all have to get stronger, bigger, faster again this year. You know, a big goal this year, not only to return, we have to actually win the bowl game now.”
While the talent may not be too dissimilar to what Mike London’s teams had to offer (though the staff’s recruiting efforts has certainly gained some steam), the team no longer accepts mediocrity. As Peace asserts, last year’s bowl appearance only left the players wanting more, namely, a bowl victory, which, if they are able to accomplish, would make them the first Virginia team to do so since 2005 (!).
Mendenhall himself, the catalyst behind this movement, understands there is much work left to be done, “And so now after a second recalibration, and this might happen multiple more times, it gives us a better chance for year three, but I love the challenge.” Much like the players, he recognizes that a bowl game is not enough. Still, he appreciates the momentum gained, “They’re starting to realize this is worth it, and that’s gratifying.”
For a coaching staff that has preached culture, we are starting to see the manifestation of their plan, now aptly named the #NewStandard, through player dialogue (and maybe even in this year’s uniforms). Hoos fans will only have to wait and see if this pays off in the win column.