There's a reason the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie resonated with Bronco Mendenhall after he took his BYU football team to the movies during a night of fall camp -- Bronco is coming out of his shell.
Actually, that statement belies everything else I'm about to write, because there was no deep meaning behind Bronco waxing on about a TMNT movie. He's just loose, and the "new" Bronco fans are discussing is really just the "real" Bronco, finally comfortable with his professional position. Do you really think Bronco is obsessed with TMNT? I don't. I think he saw an opportunity for levity during the grind of fall camp and felt comfortable enough to take it.
(Although, if there is anything other than levity involved, I'd say Bronco was trolling. He knows how much the media obsesses over his team "skipping" practices to do things besides sportsing twice a day during fall camp.)
Many fans grew tired of Bronco-isms, even though the coach making something cliche never made any of those things untrue. In the 2012 season, especially, with a strange quarterback/offensive coordinator situation, Bronco really seemed to dig in his heels with his public persona shaped almost entirely by a public relations conscience that turned him into a mission president when in front of a mic.
After the Cougars lost an extremely disappointing game to national runner-up Notre Dame in a very winnable contest, Mendenhall dug in, saying his team played well, that he was pleased with their progress and with the play of quarterback Riley Nelson.
It drove us nuts. Even someone like me -- a noted #FireBronco mocker and someone who tried justifying the loss -- rolled his eyes during those postgame comments. We wanted accountability, and all we kept getting was verbal press releases.
Something has changed. If there was ever a time Bronco could be on the hot seat, it would be now after consecutive 8-5 seasons that featured enough should-have, close-call losses that I don't want to even spend energy rehashing them. But he's more comfortable than ever.
In the past, we've heard Three-Nephites-type stories, whispers about Bronco celebrating like a wild man in the locker room, or truly being a funny guy -- and we're starting to see that level of comfort in public.
It was extremely apparent when I spoke with Coach Mendenhall on the phone last week for my work at the Standard-Examiner. After trying to connect with a couple coaches for a feature on a player, Brett Pyne called me during a morning practice and said if he was able, he'd grab Bronco after practice, but he'd only have two minutes at the most and I may have to just email some questions later if it doesn't work out.
A few minutes later, Pyne called again. He said "here's Bronco," handed him his cell phone, and away we went. Bronco couldn't have sounded more comfortable with someone handing him a cell phone and saying "here, talk to this reporter." Despite being rushed, Bronco was extremely cordial, and even in a surprise impromptu setting still gave me -- a reporter he has never seen in person and likely has no idea who I am, it's not like I'm Dick Harmon trying to grab a quick quote -- complete, worthwhile answers.
This isn't to say the way those interactions went wouldn't have been similar three seasons ago. It would have been similar -- but those times Bronco has been combative with reporters or boosters in the past, that tone was entirely absent, and we haven't seen that tone surface anywhere in 2014.
In a world where we almost expect Greg Popovich-like what-is-the-purpose-of-your-question interactions from coaches, Bronco is moving the opposite direction.
Imagine yourself at the end of the 2012 season and try to remember how you felt about BYU football and its coach, Bronco Mendenhall. Then imagine him doing this:
Or deadpanning this:
(I'm not pretending Bronco is a good actor, but you can't tell me that crap-eating-grin and long blink during his "joke" at 0:10 of the first video isn't comedy gold.)
Without asking him directly, I can't tell you exactly why this is.
My best guess, however, would be that Bronco feels like he's found a sweet spot with the football staff. There's a decent diversity of age and also of experience -- and for the first time in his tenure, every assistant coach on staff was hired directly by him (as of the 2013 season, I believe).
He's handed over the reins of the defense to Nick Howell. His staff is relatively young, which Bronco is in spirit. There's an energy to the staff that hasn't been present in years.
And it doesn't hurt that two administrative guys, Zach Nyborg and Geoff Martzen, are there to massage Bronco's shoulders and keep him from getting tense. (This is the only publicly-stated mention of the reason behind New Bronco.)
It began during the summer of 2013. Bronco regained his love for the game (after what could be close to being considered a seven-year itch) and signed a contract extension. From the Salt Lake Tribune:
It seems everything about his position -- being the coach, dealing with the media, playing the mission president role he created in 2005, recruiting, independence -- has completely settled in Bronco's heart. The guy Bronco Mendenhall has always been is completely on display as head coach of BYU football. And I like it.