Virginia players responding to strict ways of new coach Mendenhall
Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall couldn't remember seeing so many emotions on the faces of his players.
“I saw hearts beating and shaking hands and guys so scared,” he said. “I saw exhilaration and more smiles. There were selfies and snapchats and (phone calls) to mom.
“Guys could not believe this is Charlottesville.”
Football players seldom had so much fun riding horses in pouring rain.
Virginia plays Pitt on Saturday at Scott Stadium, but it concluded an off week Saturday at a barbeque on Mendenhall's farm. Mendenhall, who grew up on a horse farm in American Fork, Utah, wanted his players to experience something new.
“Even though it was pouring rain, we had a nice bye week closure,” he said. “We had a chance to become closer as a team. It was fun to see players in a different light and also (for them) to see me in a different light.”
Many Virginia players never had been on a horse, so Mendenhall kept one of his four — “Hot Rod” — off limits.
“Injuries during a bye week wouldn't have been smart,” he said.
In his first season, Mendenhall has spurred Virginia (2-3, 1-0) on its current two-game winning streak, including a 34-20 victory at Duke on Oct. 1 that was the program's first on the road since 2012.
But it hasn't been easy.
After Mendenhall was hired in December — he won 99 games in 11 seasons at BYU — he ordered every player to clean out his locker, stripping them of anything with a Virginia logo or a jersey number. Those things were meant to be earned later.
The players responded favorably.
When senior center Jackson Matteo earned a wrist band symbolic of special achievement in practice, he refused to wear it.
“It means so much to me,” he told reporters at ACC media days in July, “I keep it in a drawer in my room.”
Mendenhall's approach has been described as militaristic. For example, he introduced burpee exercises as a form of punishment in which a player jumped onto and off a box, hit the floor for pushups and jumped back up — sometimes as many as 300 times.
When two players interrupted a spring drill by fighting, he ordered burpees for 17 consecutive minutes. There have been no fights since.
Mendenhall is known for saying, “There are two ways of doing things: right or again.” That includes everything from running out of the locker room for practice — he occasionally makes the team repeat it — to refusing to start practice until players warm up to his liking.
The team went through spring and most of summer drills without numbers on their backs, only surnames.
When it came time to choose numbers, first picks went to players who performed well in practice as determined by teammates. Some players picked numbers that held a personal meaning for them.
Running back Albert Reid, who leads the team with 318 yards rushing, chose No. 2 because he had a cousin named Deuce who was shot and killed. Running back Taquan Mizzell is No. 4 because he was raised by four women.
Mendenhall's most significant move was changing quarterbacks. He sent Matt Johns to the bench after he threw for 2,810 yards and 17 interceptions in 12 starts last year and inserted East Carolina transfer Kurt Bankert.
Virginia opened the season by losing to Richmond, an FCS team that has won five of its first six games. A week later, Virginia visited Oregon, trailed 30-6 at halftime and lost 44-26. After the game, Virginia's players told reporters their opponents kept asking throughout the second half, “Why are you playing so hard?”
Some observers were surprised more players didn't quit, but Mendenhall said the reaction was the opposite.
“I'm an effort-based coach and discipline oriented,” he said. “The greatest surprise is just how fast and willing they were to embrace that.”
After winning only 26 games the past six years under former coach Mike London, the Cavaliers were ready for any change.
“We are hungry for something new,” strong safety Kelvin Rainey said. “He came at the right time.”