The hiring of Bronco Mendenhall has similarities to the arrival of UVa legend George Welsh
Monday, August 29, 2016 12:00 am
By Doug Doughty firstname.lastname@example.org
The greatest era of Virginia football followed the hiring of a 49-year-old head coach with a history of overcoming obstacles. If new Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall were to become the next George Welsh, who could complain? Mendenhall was 49 when he was named head coach in December. Welsh turned 49 just before his first season at UVa in 1982.
“Both came from non-traditional programs and were going to a big state university,” said Tom O’Brien, twice a Virginia assistant and now an analyst for ESPN.
“One was faith-based and the other was a military academy.”
Welsh had spent nine seasons as the head coach at the Naval Academy, his alma mater, where he had gone 55-46-1. Mendenhall was the head coach for 11 seasons at Brigham Young, where he went 99-43.
“I think most people looked at Bronco as the next LaVell Edwards,” said O’Brien, referring to BYU’s coach from 1972-2000, “but things were happening out there that made it sensible [for Mendenhall] to make the move.”
As an independent, BYU found itself outside the Power 5 conferences and had limited scheduling and postseason options.
Welsh had faced a similar predicament at the end of his Navy tenure and took over a Virginia program that had experienced five losing seasons in six years under predecessor Dick Bestwick.
Mendenhall succeeds Mike London, who also had five losing seasons in his six-year tenure.
Welsh, who turns 82 later this month, lives in Charlottesville and has liked what he’s seen of Mendenhall.
“There’s one similarity,” Welsh said recently. “He brought seven members of his staff and I brought six, maybe seven. So, everybody was on the same page from the start.”
Mendenhall and Brigham Young historically have been associated with a passing game. Welsh emphasized the running game with a succession of tailbacks that included Terry Kirby, Tiki Barber and Thomas Jones , “but they’re more similar than you’d think,” O’Brien said.
“They’re both all about fundamentals.”
O’Brien was the head coach at Boston College and then North Carolina State before returning to Virginia as an assistant for two years, 2013-14. He was on the Cavaliers’ staff when UVa outlasted BYU 19-16 in the 2013 opener.
As a Welsh assistant at Navy, O’Brien was part of a program that could not redshirt players. After spending four years in the program, the next stop for Navy players was military service.
At Brigham Young, approximately 90 percent of the football team belongs to the Church of Latter-day Saints. Many of those players take leave in the midst of their college years to serve two-year Mormon missions.
“They might not redshirt as we know it,” O’Brien said, “but it’s almost like a two-year edshirt.”
Taysom Hill, a Heisman Trophy candidate who is projected to start at quarterback for the Cougars this year, turns 26 on Aug. 23.
Mendenhall said earlier this summer that his preference is to redshirt “at the back end,” making sure that a player has earned a fifth year if that extra season is available.
Welsh had never redshirted at Navy, so that practice wasn’t part of his original strategy at UVa, but he learned quickly.
“You know, I never thought it was an advantage before I got here,” Welsh said. “The really good ones, if you redshirt them, they’re not going to stay [five years]. I mean, why redshirt Thomas Jones?
“The skilled-position players, we played them, but you’re better off redshirting your offensive and defensive linemen.”
When Al Groh was the UVa head coach from 2001-09, his standard line was, “When you’re ready, we’re ready.” London, a previous Groh assistant, repeated that line on occasion.
The problem was many of those players weren’t ready. UVa players routinely have lost seasons of eligibility after participating in 50 plays or fewer.
“It’s one of those things you learn how to do,” O’Brien said. “Our big change was when we redshirted [future All-ACC offensive lineman] Roy Brown and most of his class [in 1985]. It was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
Welsh said it was clear that the London staff made a mistake by not recruiting enough offensive linemen. There are 12 scholarship offensive linemen in UVa’s program, only six of whom have played in a game.
“The number for me was always 15,” O’Brien, a longtime O-line coach, said. “Among other things, you need that because you have to run a scout team. When I was there, we didn’t have enough defensive linemen. With the offenses nowadays, you need two units.
“With all the fast-paced offenses these days, once you’re gassed, you’re done.”
Virginia plans to have one of those offenses this season. Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae have said they’d like to run a new play every 20 seconds.
“I’ve never heard of that,” was Welsh’s reaction. “How could that be possible? When Chip Kelly was with the [Philadelphia] Eagles, I think they were taking 24 seconds. That was the fastest in the league.”
Mendenhall honored Welsh by meeting with him prior to the coaching announcement and there is an open invitation for Welsh to attend practice.