October 21, 2007
On Meeting Bronco
Posted by Gordon Smith

If you know anything about the recent revival of BYU football, you know the name Bronco Mendenhall. He came to BYU in 2003 as the defensive coordinator under then-head coach Gary Crowton, who is now the offensive coordinator for LSU. Bronco took over as head coach after Crowton's "resignation," and many of us were skeptical. Bronco was 38 years old, one of the youngest head coaches in major college football. He was not BYU's first choice. Utah's then-defensive coordinator, Kyle Whittingham, declined the job, opting instead to succeed Urban Meyer as head coach of the Utes. Bronco also had a reputation for being almost insanely intense, and he had a strong preference for the idiosyncratic 3-3-5 defense, despite BYU's traditional problems recruiting high-quality defensive backs. In his first season as head coach, BYU finished 6-6, and I assumed Bronco was not long for this world.

Last year, however, the Cougars finished with a 11-2 record, including a thrashing of the Oregon Ducks in the Las Vegas Bowl. This year, like last year, the team suffered two early non-conference losses, but BYU appears to be the class of the Mountain West Conference again, having already defeated the second and third place teams in the conference.

But all that is just about wins and losses. What has so endeared Bronco to BYU fans -- and so intrigued me -- is the way in which he has transformed the meaning of his football team. One of the first telephone calls he made as a head coach was to Paul W. Gustavson, a BYU alum and Silicon Valley management consultant. Here's one version of what happened next:

The two proved to be a perfect match. Gustavson was a wellspring of ideas, and Mendenhall was a model student. Regularly flying to Utah to meet with the coach, Gustavson would present ideas and leave articles and books on management. By the time Gustavson would return, Mendenhall would not only have underlined and scribbled notes all over the texts but also have taught the principles to his assistant coaches and built team activities around them.

"He’s a master learner," says Gustavson of Mendenhall, who is now a subscriber to the Harvard Business Review. "He reads, he underlines, he ponders, he prays about it."

Gustavson typically breezes through lesson one, creating a sustainable competitive advantage, in an afternoon. With Mendenhall, he spent two months. Gustavson emphasized that to compete successfully, an organization cannot be just like its competition. The principle meshed with Mendenhall's developing vision of BYU football.

"It became clear to me that I was to make the football program as distinct and different as possible," says Mendenhall, "because this institution and its purpose are distinct and different and unique. BYU isn't like anywhere else. It wasn't designed to be."

Gustavson also stressed that "all organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get." BYU's most recent results were three losing seasons and off-field problems. So if Mendenhall wanted penetrating change, Gustavson insisted, he couldn't just add a fresh coat of paint to the same structure.

So Bronco changed the structure. Among other things, he embraced BYU's Honor Code -- rather than apologizing for it -- and his recruiting pitch started to sound like those television ads for the Marines ("the few, the proud, the Marines"). Naturally, this challenge appealed to many young men, and BYU suddenly found itself again an attractive destination for many of the most talented Mormon football players in the country.

Bronco doesn't make excuses for his players, who are expected to perform in the classroom, in the community, and on the field. The average GPA of the football players has risen substantially, and all of the players perform community service. Over the past two years, he has suspended a number of the team's best players for violating the team's rules, and my sense from talking to some of the players is that they admire Bronco's integrity. The transformation of the program is not yet complete, but progress has been astounding.

On Friday night, my family and I attended a "fireside" sponsored by the football team. Two players (Travis Bright and Garret Reden, both offensive lineman) spoke, as did both Holly and Bronco Mendenhall. The players also sang Church hymns. None of the speakers was eloquent and the messages they offered were simple -- mostly describing the responsibility they feel to represent BYU. The team stages these firesides for both home and away games, and BYU fans come in droves.

Afterwards, my son and I noticed that people were hanging back from Bronco, so we decided to go up to the front and shake his hand. I introduced myself and told Bronco that we had just moved from Wisconsin, where we spent the last several years of fall Saturdays huddled around our computer, listening to BYU games streamed across the internet. But more importantly, I wanted him to know that he and the players had a profound effect on my son. Bronco was clearly more excited to shake my son's hand than he was to speak with me, and after they spoke for a minute or two we parted. Bronco's parting advice to my son as he clasped his hand and looked in his eyes: "Make good choices." I appreciate Bronco.

UPDATE: I promise that I didn't see this article before I wrote the foregoing post. Here is a funny anecdote from the article:

[Stew Liff of Los Angeles, author of "Seeing is Believing" on Visual Management and former chief of Veteran's Benefits Administration's Human Resources Division] toured the Rose Bowl after BYU played UCLA in September, and one of the tour guides remarked how impressed he was that BYU's team actually cleaned up after itself. Most football teams leave it like a party out of "Animal House." When asked about how UCLA treats the Rose Bowl, the guide told Liff, "They still have work to do."

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