CHARLOTTESVILLE – The whistle meant he had done well. And no matter where he was, how many people were yelling or what else was happening, Bronco Mendenhall could always hear his father’s whistle.
“When he whistled – it only happened when I did something good, which was infrequent I would say – but it boosted my confidence and there was an acknowledgement that he was proud of me, and that mattered,” Mendenhall said Friday evening. “I really worked hard. It mattered to me to gain my dad’s respect and it mattered to me to get his approval. I worked hard for that just because of the respect I had for him.
Paul Mendenhall died this week at the age of 88, after a three-year battle with dementia. Bronco Mendenhall, starting his fourth season as Virginia’s football coach, called the timing of his father’s passing a “tender mercy,” as he was able to spend the month of July with him, caring for him.
“I consider that an absolute blessing, to have been able to serve him and my mom,” Mendenhall said. “It allowed me to have a sense of peace that I couldn’t have had if I wasn’t there.”
Mendenhall – the youngest of Paul’s four sons – attended the viewing and funeral for his father on Wednesday and Thursday, then flew back to Charlottesville in time for a team meeting Friday. He coached the Cavaliers’ first fall practice Friday night at Lambeth Field.
“My healing will come through my team,” Mendenhall said. “I love being with them.”
How Mendenhall has led his college football teams, from BYU for 11 seasons to the past three seasons at Virginia, is a direct reflection of his father’s influence.
Paul Mendenhall played tight end and defensive end at BYU back in the days when rules prevented players from leaving the field and subbing back in. He joked that he dropped a touchdown pass in the first televised rivalry game between BYU and Utah, though Bronco Mendenhall never knew if that was true or not.
According to his obituary, he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but declined to sign, going to work instead, eventually raising cattle.
“It was the kind of relationship any dad would love to have with his kid,” said Paul Gustavson, a family friend of the Mendenhalls who co-authored Bronco’s book, Running Into The Wind. “Bronco had ultimate respect for his father and trusted him. And it was mutual.”
The Mendenhalls moved to a ranch in Stockton, Calif. when Bronco was in fifth grade. There, he forged a bond with his father that would continue and shape his life and career.
“My dad was my best friend,” Mendenhall said, fighting not to become choked up as he addressed the media Friday night. “Growing up, we worked side by side. I didn’t really ever have to look outside of his example to know how to conduct myself.”
A whiteboard hung in the barn on the ranch, and on it Bronco’s father wrote out chores for his son to tend to – taxing, dirty tasks like cleaning out horse stalls.
“The notion was, he gave him responsibilities,” Gustavson said. “And Bronco went out and did them. So he gave him more responsibilities.”
Mendenhall recalled a morning on the ranch when his father casually flipped him the keys to a stick-shift truck and sent him to feed 200 head of cattle.
“He never taught me to drive,” Mendenhall said with a laugh.
Too short to see over the dashboard and push the gas pedal at the same time, Mendenhall improvised, grabbing a branch off a nearby tree and using that to push to accelerate.
“I bet he was just laughing,” Mendenhall said of his father. “But the expectation was, I would find a way. And I did.
“He wasn’t much for drama. He just liked results. I’m working to pass on those lessons.”
By the time Bronco was in junior high school, Paul – who Gustavson described as “a gruff cowboy” –would entrust him to run the ranch when Paul traveled to show horses.
Paul Mendenhall took pride in seeing the lessons he taught his youngest son become the basis for much of Bronco Mendenhall’s football program.
Paul’s pride in Bronco’s accomplishments went far beyond the wins and losses. At BYU, Gustavson said, Bronco Mendenhall turned around the culture of the program, eliminating discipline issues, working with the academic faculty and reconnecting with the alumni.
“That was something special to Paul,” Gustavson said. “Bronco was doing more than just winning football games on the field.”
At UVA, Bronco Mendenhall has taken the Cavaliers from the league’s worst team to one that went 8-5 and won a bowl game last season. This year, Virginia is the favorite to win the Coastal Division.
The dementia took hold too early for Paul Mendenhall to fully enjoy his son’s success at his new school. He hasn’t able to attend games or fully follow the turnaround Bronco was leading.
“He just saw the games on television,” Bronco Mendenhall said. “His dementia over the past three years, he would occasionally know that I was the coach of the team that was playing. It mattered to him how I treated other people and it mattered to him that I was teaching young people. He expected me to help groom them the way he groomed me.”
No, that doesn’t include a whistle. Bronco Mendenhall said there’s no replicating his father’s whistle. Instead, the men who have played for and coached with him say he has a look, a subtle head nod that conveys the same approval his father’s whistle signified.
“His whistle is one of the things that let me know that I was, at least for the moment, on the right track,” Mendenhall said.