The internet reaction to BYU's loss to Washington the Fight Hunger Bowl was not particularly kind, as it seemed to pick at the precise weak spot in much of the BYU fan base, whether the program was sliding into mediocrity. Some individuals feel that the program's struggle in "big games" means that the team has advanced as far as it can under Bronco Mendenhall, while others think that critique is unfair, and that whatever ails the team is not the fault of the person who is pretty much unquestionably the 2nd best coach in program history.
This question gets to a lot of the nagging debates over what appropriate expectations should be at BYU. Before we can dig into that, I think it's appropriate to look at the numbers and really assess what the program has done in the Mendenhall era, and then evaluate the alternatives should the program actually listen to twitter and decide to go in a different direction. Below are the facts, the facts, and nothing but the facts.
Program statistics under the Bronco Mendenhall Era:
Indie Record: 26-13 (2-1 bowl record)
Total Record: 82-34 (56-21 in MWC Era) (6-3 total bowl record) .707 win percentage
Total Bowl Record: 6-3, including three Las Vegas Bowl wins.
Indie Record against BCS (plus Notre Dame) teams: 6-10 (including bowl loss to Washington)
Indie Record against teams that finished above .500: 10-9. Six of those wins game this season (Texas, MTSU, Houston, Boise State, Utah State and Georgia Tech). Over a five year span, that record is 17-16.
Total Record against BCS (plus Notre Dame) teams: 12-19 (6-9 in MWC era, 0-3 in 2005, Mendenhall's worst season)
247 Sports Average Recruiting Ranking over 5 year period: 56.5 (2014: 58, 2013: 64. 2012: 72 2011: 64 2010: 25). Over the last 4 years though, that average is 64.
# of losing seasons: Zero
BCS appearances: Zero
Seasons with at least eight wins: Seven
So let's start to unpack this information, shall we?
First, no matter what the Mendenhall detractors have to say, this much is clear, his tenure has been exceptionally consistent. Going to a bowl nine seasons in a row is impressive, even if you're at an elite SEC or B1G school (ask Florida how hard that is), and doing that when your access to topline talent is spotty at best shows strong coaching. A winning record in bowl games is also impressive, especially considering several of those games were against Pac-12 competition.
In terms of pure wins and losses, given BYU's history, I think it would be hard to call this tenure a failure. BYU has always been at least *good*, and from 2006-2009, you could call them very good. If you throw out his first year in 2005, Mendenhall's teams even played .500 ball against BCS/ND competition, was was particularly impressive given that many of these games were on the road.
The questions, I think, start in the independence era.
First, let's be clear. BYU has not been bad over the last three years by any stretch of the imagination. It has made bowl games all three years, winning two, and has produced two statistically excellent defenses. They have also been competitive in nearly every game they have played, even against squads with superior talent. It is also true that they're not beating very many of those teams.
Against what we might consider "good teams", those with above .500 records, BYU is playing essentially .500 ball over a five year span, although truth be told, they had a banner year this season against that kind of competition. Against BCS foes, even ones that aren't very good (see, Utah), the team has struggled.
The reasons for this aren't particularly difficult to figure out. BYU is playing a much harder overall schedule (that 'meh' Georgia Tech squad that BYU clobbered this year would have been one of the better teams on say, the 2008 schedule), and the other teams typically have better players.
Being able to beat the proverbial bad teams with regularity, and occasionally knocking off a good team or two will always lead to a bowl bid, and probably around eight wins, which, if we're being honest, would be a very successful run for a lot of schools. As an independent with apparently aspirational program goals though, one can wonder if the bar needs to be set higher.
The squad needs to be successful, and at a larger stage, in order to maintain their relationship with ESPN, and to attract quality teams to Provo. Over the last three seasons, BYU has spent exactly 1 week in the AP Top 25 (after week 2 in 2012, before they lost to Utah and dropped out of the rankings). Given their schedule next season, assuming no adjustments are made, it's possible that they go 10-2 and still not crack the top 25. This team could be worse than the last two seasons and still potentially go 9-3.
So I think it's reasonable to ask what the expectations REALLY are for BYU. If the program is serious about their aspirational goals (regular Top 25 appearances, eventual BCS bid contention, #NationalBrand or whatever), then yes, it's fair to say that they are not yet hitting the benchmarks to get there. If they're not, which is fair btw, then they're doing excellently.
Let's say we all agree that those goals are not being met. Do we advocate firing Bronco?
If Bronco gets fired...
First, a serious question. If the requirement that the BYU HC hold a temple recommend holds, who on earth would replace him? I doubt anybody currently on staff would be the #FireBronco squad's dream candidate, and I legitimately have no idea who other potential candidates would be. I don't know who is actively Mormon and who isn't. The only legitimate name floating around the internet is Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who is hardly a known commodity, and whose area of expertise overlaps with Bronco's. I swear, if you say BRING IN ANDY REID, I will punch you in the mouth.
But let's pretend, for a moment, that the school gets rid of that requirement, and says only that the HC must be comfortable representing the values of the school (whether that's a good idea or not is probably for another article). Who are names that could be reasonably targeted?
Before we make a list, you have to follow the money. BYU hasn't officially released the financial terms of Mendenhall's salary (and as a private school, I can't FOIA it), but others have estimated it to be around $900,000 a year.
That seems like a lot of money (I mean, it IS a lot of money), but compared to the profession, it really isn't. If we operate on the assumption that the salary is 900K, that would put Mendenhall at 74th among all college coaches in compensation. It's not like that list is full of powerhouses. Schools like Colorado State, Memphis, Air Force, Navy, Wyoming, and South Florida are all paying more, sometimes, a LOT more. Utah's Kyle Whittingham makes nearly 2.5 Million a year.
So in a world where BYU can go after any coach they want, unless they're willing to significantly increase the salary they'd commit to a coach, they're going to have a hard time getting somebody to take a pay cut. Maybe you try to get Matt Wells? You could probably afford him (He's due $502,000, but if he wanted to leave, somebody else will probably make him a millionaire), but do you want to commit that much money to the idea that he's better than Bronco? Ball State's Pete Lembo is affordable, and has coached at selective institutions (Dartmouth, Elon, Lehigh), but there would be a major bidding war for him, and he's never coached in the West.
Firing a guy just to fire a guy is very dangerous, especially when you're not an elite job. Minnesota, Florida International and Nebraska famously did this recently, to disastrous results. The teams kicked Frank Solich and Glen Mason t o the curb after both programs decided 8 wins wasn't good enough, only to make terrible hires right afterwards that the school is *still* trying to dig themselves out from. Without any clear alternatives, I think seriously wanting to #FireBronco is dumb.
I do think it's fair to say that Mendenhall's tenure has not been without reproach. If the program wants to keep him, but maintain more aspirational goals, I think one thing needs to significantly improve.
Outside of the 2010 class, BYU has consistently landed outside the top 50 in their recruiting classes. The relationship between recruiting stars and on the field success may not be totally linear, but it's very much there, and if you're going to decide to constantly schedule teams that are full of 4 stars, you're facing an uphill battle if all you can counter is with 2s and 3s.
I'm aware that BYU will never sign top 10 classes. I am aware that it's a tough sell to convince highly rated athletes to go to a school where you can't drink or get laid. I'm aware that BYU shares a state that doesn't produce a ton of D1 talent with two other FBS schools. I'm aware that the dearth of black people in Utah County can make recruiting hard for some people. I'm aware that BYU also has high academic standards.
BYU isn't Harvard. Virtually every school in the Big Ten and ACC has academics that are just as rigorous, if not more, than BYU, and they get kids through, often with higher APRs. Sure, finding a talented athlete who is willing to live in a dorm room without access to internet porn can be hard, but Stanford has found ways to get top 25 recruiting classes when all of their players are rocking 31s on their ACTs. Vanderbilt has the same sky-high academic standards and brings in better recruiting classes. So does Northwestern.
I'm not saying that BYU needs to lower their standards, but other schools that have similar selective requirements are finding ways to bring in top rated kids. When you watch BYU play a Wisconsin, or a Washington, its clear who has the bigger and faster players. BYU's "average-ish" recruiting classes were near the top tier of the MWC. If you want to upgrade your schedule, you need to upgrade your talent.
Look, it feels like half of the entire college aged LDS population spends their summers hawking security systems or knifes or whatever. We can't have one of those guys grow up to be a BYU recruiting coordinator and sell a free education to high school kids?
The comparative lack of talent and depth along the offensive line this season was very apparent, perhaps aggravated by the Go Fast, Go Hard system. The lack of speed at wideout for players not named Cody Hoffman was evident. This program has done a very good job coaching a few 2 and 3 star kids into excellent football players (Daniel Sorensen, Jamaal Williams), but they need reinforcements, and a single 4 star a year, or every other year, isn't enough.
So TL;DR, I don't think the Mendenhall administration is faultless, but firing the guy because the teams have been merely "good-to-very-good" seems totally unrealistic to me. If the program can restock the talent cupboard a little, and find efficiency in their offense, those aspirational goals are still in reach.
Haste can turn you into Minnesota. You don't want to be Minnesota.