Bronco Mendenhall knows the challenges associated with New Mexico football. Intimately.
After all, he’s coached the Lobos before, first as defensive backs coach and later as the defensive coordinator, a decade into his professional coaching career, from 1998 through 2002.
Mendenhall has since gone on to very successful head coaching stints at both BYU and Virginia, but New Mexico has always been a part of his football journey.
It was where his oldest son was born. Where he learned defense under Rocky Long. And where he crafted a reputation that ultimately landed him a position with the Cougars in 2003.
As of Thursday, Mendenhall is back in Albuquerque, now as the head coach of the Lobos. It’s the third head coaching job of his career.
“As soon as Dave (Williams) and I met with him in Vegas, when he (Mendenhall) walked out I knew he was our coach,” New Mexico athletic director Eddie Nuñez said during a Thursday press conference. “I knew it then. I knew it the week before. And I’m even more proud now to see him as our coach.”
And though the New Mexico job — from the outside looking in — is one of the most difficult jobs in all of college football, with the Lobos failing to win more than four games the last seven seasons, Mendenhall couldn’t be more excited for his return.
“I didn’t quite expect to be emotional,” Mendenhall said in his introductory press conference. “That’s kind of caught me off guard there for a second. Twenty-five years ago, gosh. … This was one of the places (where) we launched our career. And who would have known 17 years later, as a head coach, that we’d be back in Albuquerque. It’s an amazing experience and I’m grateful.”
He continued: “The University of New Mexico has a special place in my heart otherwise I would not be here. This program, I know, is capable of sustained success, continued success and excellence. I’ve been part of it. I’ve seen it. And I’m looking forward to recapturing that right not only occasionally, but consistently.”
The question hovering over Thursday’s press conference and on the tips of tongues was, why New Mexico?
When Mendenhall unexpectedly resigned as the head coach of Virginia in 2021, he said he needed to “reassess, renew, reframe and reinvent — with my wife as a partner — our future and the next chapter of our lives,” and that time away from football was “a chance to re-become.”
Two years later, he has now taken one of the most difficult jobs in the sport and probably the hardest job in the Mountain West Conference, after turning down other opportunities to return to coaching.
In simplest terms, Mendenhall was waiting for the right challenge, and he didn’t know it was going to be at New Mexico.
“I didn’t,” he said. “And (we) went through the process actually along the way with others. Holly (Mendenhall) and I had a really good idea of a kind of place that we’d be looking for.
“As you know, I like the process of transforming. I like the process of helping a program either become or re-become. It was one of the reasons I went to the University of Virginia. I happen to be lucky enough to be able to inherit a process like that at BYU where there had been three losing seasons, it was a pretty rough spot where I was able to help that program. We wanted a chance to help a program re-become or become, and the chance to do it at a place that was special and meaningful to us ended up gaining momentum through the process. And we were considering others as well.”
The challenge of the job at New Mexico is daunting.
The Lobos just finished their best season since 2016 and still only won four games. The Lobos haven’t had a double-digit win season since 1982 and have only won nine games twice since joining the MWC, in 2007 under Long and then in 2016 under Bob Davie.
Whether it be lack of facilities, funding or a high level recruiting base, New Mexico has clearly struggled to find its footing in college football.
As Mendenhall sees it, though, challenges provide opportunities and the bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity.
“I know it can be done (here),” he said “It’s not only that I believe it and I believe it, I know it can be done. I’ve been part of it being done here before. Every challenge comes with an opportunity. And each place has distinct opportunities and challenges.
“So we identify the challenges, we identify the opportunities, we develop an organizational design to address and magnify both of those things, we bring the right people in place to surround ourselves with, we give them schematic and strategic designs that will deliver the type of kids that will come and we can have a culture that’s unmatched, hopefully with the right support.
“And over time, less the better, the results will come. I know what can be done. We all know because we’ve seen it. And I want it to be done. I wouldn’t have taken this job unless I thought I was the person to do it. And is it a challenge? What better challenge to take. I love it.”
Where the turnaround will happen, Mendenhall said, is with increased expectations. He promised that under his leadership, expectations for New Mexico football will likely be higher then ever before.
“It starts with expectations,” he said. “The higher the expectations, the more love that has to accompany that. And so the demand will be beyond what maybe has ever been experienced before UNM, and again I’ve coached here with really good coaches that have very high demand. And I have tremendous respect for Rocky Long and Danny (Gonzalez) both.
“They had high expectations and I have to elevate the expectations even more, which I do. At the same time, the care and relational component of each of these individually have to be at a higher level as well. And when you combine those two things together, it’s amazing what type of performance increase you can get, but also what kind of experience these kids can have.”
That is ultimately what brought Mendenhall back into coaching after his two-year hiatus. The chance to once again influence and develop college football players for the better.
“I love developing young men of integrity and character and intellect. Socially aware, and players that are willing to give back,” he said. “And if that doesn’t happen in place with winning, then this isn’t a successful program. If that only happens, and we don’t win, that’s not a successful program. Right? We want the best of everything at the University of New Mexico. And that is what I hold myself to and what I want you to expect from me.”