Virginia Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall shares him love of reading with his team
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Malcolm Cook wasn’t looking for answers when he marched into his new coach’s office last fall. He wasn’t quite ready to say it out loud, but he knew he was done. His career at Virginia was marked by one setback after another — redshirt, multiple injuries, just six games of actual action — and now this: a heart condition diagnosed just days before the 2016 season kicked off. Cook was hanging on now, simply because he didn’t know what else to do. Football had always been his life.
Bronco Mendenhall sympathized. He’d been at Virginia just a few months, but he understood the weight Cook carried into his office that day, and he wanted to help.
“If,” Mendenhall told Cook, “you’re ready to learn.”
At that point, Cook was ready for anything, so Mendenhall pulled a book from the expansive shelves lining the office wall.
Cook wasn’t much of a reader. Growing up, he devoured football, loved the nuance of the game, but when it came to reading, Cook could probably count on one hand the number of books he’d read.
“This one might be of interest to you,” Mendenhall said.
Cook looked it over, flipped through a few pages. He noticed passages already highlighted, notes cribbed in the margin. Mendenhall picked it out just for Cook.
Progress was slow at first, but Cook had plenty of time on his hands. He’d struggle through a few pages each day, but soon he began toting the book with him everywhere he went. He lounged in the locker room, reading. In line at the cafeteria, the book was tucked under his arm. When he ran into a passage he struggled with, Cook pulled his coach aside to ask for input.
“The pages kind of came to life for him,” Mendenhall said. “And he hasn’t looked back.”
It took Cook a couple of weeks to finish that first book, but he immediately asked for another. That one took a while, too, but by season’s end, he was devouring a few dozen pages a day, then more. He’s finished nearly 30 books now on everything from spirituality to psychology, and as soon as one is finished, he returns to Mendenhall’s office for a replacement.
“When you’ve never had that before, and then you’re getting it, it feels good,” Cook said. “… I learned more in those six months [not playing football] than I ever did before.”
Mendenhall’s library has a unique organizational structure, books ordered by influence — favorites to the left, with impact decreasing to the right. On one shelf are books on business and organizational practices. On another, military strategy. At the bottom, there’s a shelf on fitness and health, plus another section with copies of a book he wrote — “Running Into the Wind” — which he was pleased to learn is on the English-class syllabus of a few players. He has books on psychology, on motivation techniques and leadership, and a bunch on teaching. Then there’s a shelf of unread books that’s constantly expanding.
Mendenhall was always a reader, devouring Louis L’Amour as a kid growing up on a horse farm in Utah, but it wasn’t until his first head-coaching job, at BYU, that he realized the impact reading could have on his career.
Truth be told, Mendenhall was in over his head when he was promoted from defensive coordinator at BYU in 2005. He arrived in his office that first day to find a stack of messages from well-wishers and, assuming he was supposed to return each call, simply grabbed one off the top of the pile and dialed a number.
The note he’d picked had the name Paul Gustavson. He was, apparently, a former BYU player, now working as a consultant on organizational behavior. When Gustavson’s wife answered the phone, Mendenhall simply blurted out his situation.
“I’m a first-time head coach, and I’m interested in learning,” Mendenhall said. “It looks like your husband might be able to help.”
Indeed, Gustavson, who later co-authored Mendenhall’s book, had exactly the insight the young coach was looking for. Gustavson recommended a paper on strategy, then a book called “Good to Great,” about success in business, and Mendenhall was hooked.
“I started reaching out to anyone that I respected or admired or was having success and just started asking, ‘Who are your influences?’ or, ‘What’s the best book you read on this?'” Mendenhall said. “That just started building the library step by step.”
Recommendations came with ferocity to the point that Mendenhall had to set a standard for what he’d actually consume. He began taking trips to the bookstore with his kids, adding a few books every week to his collection. The time immersed in reading, he found, also rejuvenated him after the stress of coaching wore him down.
“I’m an introverted, deep thinker who is in an extroverted entertainer’s job,” Mendenhall said.
Every book gets scrutinized for information that can help his team, too. Before team meetings, Mendenhall pulls out quotes and insight from whatever he happens to be reading and puts together a PowerPoint presentation for his players. Some get it, some don’t, but that’s to be expected. Players have to be open to learning, he said, and for some, that takes time.
The key, Mendenhall said, is finding the guys who are struggling. Failure tends to open a mind, and his first year at Virginia was filled with it.
Last season was a struggle. Mendenhall coached 11 years at BYU and never finished with a losing record. In his first year at Virginia, the Cavaliers won two games.
His arrival at Virginia was lauded, at the time, as a savvy hire. Now, in less than a year’s time, a subset of fans was flush with buyer’s remorse. Mendenhall had perfected a pitch to players at BYU — literally written the book on it — but here, the results were harder to measure.
Mendenhall had always preached that football is something players do, but it shouldn’t define them. After a 2-10 season, however, he was struggling with his own image as a coach.
“I had a lot of unique questions of myself,” Mendenhall said. “Part of my identity was as a successful football coach. Well, who am I now? It’s been an interesting struggle.”
Mendenhall found answers in the same place he always has.
He read books on successful politicians, all of whom had lost an election at some point. He read about CEOs who’d been fired from great jobs only to start again. He read about businessmen who’d built empires, lost it all, then scratched their way to the top once more.
What was the point of all those lessons he pushed to his players if he wasn’t going to use them himself?
“There’s nothing easy about [failure],” Mendenhall said, “but it’s really valuable.”
There’s a quote from Albert Einstein that hangs behind Mendenhall’s desk. It reads: “Great spirits are always opposed by mediocre minds.”
Mendenhall sees Einstein as something of a kindred spirit. Einstein was an outsider, too. Neither fit in with their colleagues, but both had ambition beyond the status quo.
“Einstein’s mission was a little different, and I think mine is different, too,” Mendenhall said. “I’d love to win a national championship. I’d love to develop a great program here. But what I’d really love is for every kid in my program to have an amazing life.”
A few days after graduation, Cook was lying awake in bed, pondering his future. He’s back to practicing and expects to make an impact at outside linebacker this season. Football feels like a goal again, but his mind has been opened to bigger possibilities.
He picked up the phone and called his coach.
“What am I going to be doing 10 or 15 years from now?” Cook asked.
Cook has asked his coach plenty of touch questions in their short time together, and Mendenhall always responds with a question of his own: Do you want the truth or do you want the lie?
The lie feels good. Cook knows this. For a long time, that’s what he wanted. But when he took that first book 10 months ago, he asked for the truth — always the truth.
“You’re growing up,” Mendenhall said.
Mendenhall has two wins on his résumé at Virginia, and in the end, he knows this is how he’ll be judged. But he has other goals, too, other victories to secure.
He has read about teachers and psychologists, CEOs and leaders, because, the way he sees it, his job is a little of all those things. And he’s certain if he can reach the rest of his team the way he has Cook, there are brighter days ahead for Virginia.
“Winning,” Mendenhall said, “has just been a byproduct.”