When the news broke on Friday afternoon that longtime BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall would be leaving Provo to take the top job at the University of Virginia, most observers were shocked — not just because of the sudden nature of the announcement or that it was even happening at all, but also because of the coach's destination.
In hindsight, we should have seen it coming.
Now, as the saying goes, hindsight is (admittedly) always 20/20. But all things considered, Mendenhall was always going to leave for somewhere like Virginia. He was always up-front about his disinterest in becoming a BYU "lifer" and his desire to move on when the time was right for both his family and the program. Nevertheless, he wasn't just going to leave for any opportunity.
Bronco Mendenhall is a unique and somewhat mysterious human being. He's legendarily introverted, extraordinarily principled and humble to a fault in a profession that often seems filled with relativistic, egomaniacal hucksters. It's no surprise that Cougar fans have been trying to unpack and understand exactly what makes the man tick for the last 11 seasons.
And because Mendenhall the man is so unique, it only made sense that Mendenhall the coach would need an equally unique professional situation. BYU was that situation for many years — there weren't many (if any) institutions that matched Bronco's personal sensibilities so closely. But once he got the itch to move on to a new situation, there were realistically only a handful of institutions that would have appealed to him — that he would have seen as reflective of himself, his interests and his values, but also provided him with the professional challenge that he craved.
And that's why the University of Virginia was the perfect storm for Bronco Mendenhall.
In many ways, Virginia is much more like BYU than most Cougar fans realize. In fact, it's probably as much like BYU as any public school could ever be.
An institution filled with rich history and tradition, the school and its administrators are deeply, even spiritually, dedicated to fulfilling the grand mission and principled purpose for the university set forth by its famous founder, Thomas Jefferson. It also offers exemplary academics, making Virginia the third best public university in America, according to U.S. News & World Report. And students are required to pledge to follow a strict "Honor Code," with infractions resulting in "permanent dismissal from the University."
Add all that together and you get a unique environment that UVA students, faculty and alumni believe to be exceptional and unlike any other college in the country — and that outsiders and rivals believe to be marked with a grossly inflated sense of self-importance.
Does that sound familiar to anyone?
Throw in the fact that Virginia is located in idyllic, history-drenched Charlottesville, one of the great (and criminally underrated) college towns in America; that it's surrounded by the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains that offer a scenic motorcycle ride for any coach so inclined to blow off a little stream; and that the on-field expectations are so low after years of football ineptitude that the leash is likely to be more generous than at most Power 5 programs, and it's not hard to see why a man of Bronco Mendenhall's specific tastes would jump at the opportunity.
"Virginia reminds me a lot of BYU when I was named the head coach here," Mendenhall said during his farewell press conference on Friday. He was talking specifically about the football programs, but he could have just as easily been referring to the distinctive identities of the institutions writ large.
Nowhere is quite like BYU — it's a special place in so many ways that can't be duplicated anywhere else. But for a principled, passionate coach who wants to try his hand at a new challenge in one of college football's top conferences, the University of Virginia is about as similar as you can get.