Loss Lands Mendenhall on the Hot Seat
When BYU scheduled WAC bottom feeder San Jose State for a two-game series back in 2010, the Spartans were considered to be filler material for BYU, which was scrambling to schedule games for the first couple of years as it made the transition to football independence.
San Jose State finished 2010 with a 1-11 record, and no one would have predicted at the time that the Cougars would lose to the lowly Spartans two years later, thereby thrusting BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall squarely onto the hot seat.
But that’s what has happened, and that is where Mendenhall finds himself today, after his team was defeated 20-14 by San Jose State on Saturday.
With a final regular season game at New Mexico State (1-9, 0-5 WAC) and a likely Poinsettia Bowl match-up with San Diego State (8-3, 6-1 MWC) still left to go, the 6-5 Cougars could easily end up going 7-6 for the second time in the last three seasons. The Aggies are perhaps the worst team in the FBS, but the Aztecs are currently on a six-game winning streak including a victory at Boise State, a place where BYU came up short this year.
But even if the Cougars were to squeeze out two more wins, this football season has been a face plant no matter how you spin it. BYU dropped games against Utah, Boise State and Notre Dame that it clearly had opportunities to win. Against Oregon State and San Jose State, the normally stingy defense couldn’t get it done against the pass when it counted.
For three years now, the once-famous BYU offense has not even been a shell of its former self. And a program that was once on the rise under Bronco, is currently in decline.
In 2005, Mendenhall took over a reeling BYU program that had experienced three straight losing seasons under embattled coach Gary Crowton. Bronco re-enthroned discipline, appealed to the tradition and long-standing success of the program, and reestablished its winning ways.
He got the Cougars back to a bowl game in his initial season, and they’ve gone bowling every year since.
Mendenhall reached a pinnacle at the beginning of the 2009 season with a 14-13 upset win over No. 3 Oklahoma in the first college football game ever played in Dallas Cowboys Stadium. But since then, BYU faithful have endured a number of disappointments and mediocre results.
After knocking off the Sooners, Mendenhall’s team was blown out by Florida State and TCU later that season. Both were home games and both times the Cougars looked bewildered and unprepared for what hit them. They did defeat Utah in Provo to close out the 2009 season, but it took overtime to defeat a pretty average Ute team despite the Cougars having one of their more talented and experienced teams in recent memory.
Mendenhall hasn’t defeated Utah since Andrew George’s famous catch and dash into the end zone, even though the Utes have gone just 23-15 since and are a mere 12-12 in the last two seasons. In fact, the Cougars have dropped virtually every meaningful contest on their schedule in the last three years. During that time, BYU has defeated just two programs that have or will finish the year with a winning record: Utah State and Tulsa.
The Cougars have two wins over the Aggies, a last-second miracle in 2011 and a 6-3 win this year that culminated in the needless, season-ending injury of rising star quarterback Taysom Hill, when he failed to take a knee to run out the clock and suffered a knee injury while running with the ball of out the shotgun. USU finished 7-6 in 2011, and is currently having its best season in decades with a 9-2 record, and clinched at least a share of the WAC championship on Saturday.
The win over Conference USA member Tulsa came in the final 11 seconds of last year’s Armed Forces Bowl when Riley Nelson did his best impression of Dan Marino, faking a spike and then hitting Cody Hoffman for the game-winning touchdown as time ticked down. The Golden Hurricane finished 2011 with an 8-5 record.
The Cougars do have a win this year over Georgia Tech, but the 6-5 Yellow Jackets are at No. 3 Georgia to close out the regular season, then will face Florida State in the ACC championship game after Miami slapped itself with a self-imposed bowl ban. Tech will be big underdogs in both of those games.
The reality of the situation is that BYU has been stuck in mediocrity for some time now, able to beat the also-rans and WAC teams on its schedule (at least before Saturday night), but failing to get the job done when it counts. That trend doesn’t bode well as BYU gets set next season for a loaded schedule that is expected to be the toughest in school history.
A rising tide of criticism has been building from fans, donors and former players against Mendenhall the past couple of years–but now it’s picking up speed and strength. Some of those former players and boosters are currently in the ear of athletic director Tom Holmoe, voicing their displeasure about the current situation. More and more supporters of the program view Bronco as the right choice to lead BYU out of Egypt, but not as the person to guide the Cougars to the promised land.
However, despite the heat being turned up on Mendenhall, he isn’t likely to be shown the door this year for a couple of reasons.
First, it would be very difficult for Holmoe to let a coach go who saved the program the way Mendenhall did. It’s not good PR to fire a guy who has won 72 games in the last eight years and is currently among the top-10 coaches in winning percentage in the country. He will want to give Bronco a chance right the ship next year against that challenging schedule. If he succeeds, then Holmoe will be credited for his loyalty and patience, but if he fails and BYU ends up with a losing record, Holmoe will appear justified in making a change.
Second, there just isn’t anyone that Tom could turn to right now to lead the Cougar football program.
Many BYU fans would be excited about the possibility of current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid as a replacement. Reid has had a lot of successful seasons in Philly, but is currently under fire after his team has under-performed the past couple of years. However, because of Reid’s well-publicized baggage, the BYU Board of Trustees would likely not entrust him to effectively assist his players to live the honor code. Plus, Reid would be snapped up in instant by a number of NFL teams if he were to be let go by the Eagles.
Current Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham turned down the job before it was offered to Mendenhall in 2005 and would probably not be interested in leaving his gig in the PAC-12 for the uncertainty of BYU’s situation. Meanwhile, Utah State head coach Gary Andersen may not be viewed as a good cultural fit for BYU and will likely command high-dollar interest from BCS programs before the year is over. And unless BYU intends to go to the triple option offense, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo isn’t a legitimate option, either.
There are some good LDS coordinators out there–guys like Utah defensive coordinator and former Cougar, Kalani Sitake or Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. However, BYU is not likely do go down the path again of hiring someone without head coaching experience. That includes current BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. The former BYU QB has not shown that he has a handle on his current job yet, let alone being ready to take over as the head coach.
Look for Mendenhall, who will be in the last year of his contract next year, to be given the ultimatum by Holmoe to get things on the right course in 2013. That will likely force him to make some significant changes to the offensive staff once again in an attempt to get his offense back to being recognized as something belonging to BYU.
Will that be enough to stem the tide of discontent and right the ship? Many will argue “no.”
They see Mendenhall’s philosophy and way of thinking as being the primary reason that BYU has failed to live up to expectations the past few years. They see a team culture that does not lend itself to climbing to the top of the college football heap. They see a head coach who continues to make rookie mistakes after eight years on the job, mismanaging games and making head-scratching decisions.
They believe Riley Nelson has been able to pull the wool over his coach’s eyes and fool him into thinking that he was a Division-1 quarterback. They see a coach that seems to know very little about offensive football and who has placed his trust in those who have let him down, thus calling into question his judgement.
Whether all of that is true or not has been, and will continue to be, debated. One thing is the truth though–Mendenhall better start winning some games of consequence or his days in Provo are numbered.
DSB featured sponsor: BookofMormonEvidence.org