No Matter What Happens vs. Clemson, Virginia Football Has Come a Long Way

To even be playing Clemson for the ACC championship three years removed from a 2-10 season is a big deal for the Cavaliers.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — It took six weeks for Bronco Mendenhall’s first Virginia football team to learn how to properly warm up before a practice. That was the second sign that his rebuilding plan here might take longer than expected. The first sign came during his initial team meeting in January 2016 when players, slouched in their chairs and buried on their phones, rarely made eye contact with their new coach. There were other signs, too: a paltry budget, a shortage in staffing and facilities not nearly up to industry standards.

A few weeks into his new gig, Mendenhall realized just what he’d gotten himself into. “There was just disrepair. It was clear that what I had hoped for Year 1 was going to be Year 2,” he says. Mendenhall is speaking while surrounded by a celebration he never envisioned would happen so soon. Music boomed from the Cavaliers’ locker room, players paraded through the bowels of Scott Stadium and fans poured from the bleachers, trampling the field underneath their feet. Virginia’s 39–30 win over Virginia Tech not only snapped the Hoos’ 15-game losing skid to their in-state rival, not only gave them their first conference or division title since 1995 but stood alone as a culmination of a rebuilding effort that few—even the rebuilder himself—saw coming so quickly.

Three years after Mendenhall’s first team won two games and lost 10, Virginia (9–3) is playing in the ACC championship game Saturday against defending national champion and third-ranked Clemson. Don’t worry so much about this weekend’s result against the Tigers (12–0), winners of their last 27 and four-touchdown favorites. For UVA, just to be in this spot is somewhat unbelievable to many around here. This stage provides a spotlight for a program that’s been in darkness for years, arguably decades. The Cavaliers, even with a loss Saturday, are likely bound for the Orange Bowl, their first major postseason game since they appeared in the Sugar Bowl in 1990, and they’ve won nine regular season games for just the second time in 21 years. “It’s special to see the progress,” Virginia athletic director Carla Williams says. “I know the uphill battle the coaches faced.”

You must understand something about Virginia football. This is a place more known for jump shots and study halls than touchdown passes and goal-line stands. This is not a football school, and so it does not have the same football resources as some of its peers. The school’s rigorous academic standards and moderate athletic spending place it on a similar plane as private institutions, says Williams, beginning her third year at UVA. As recently as 2017, Virginia ranked last in football spending among the eight public universities in the ACC, with an expense figure of $22.2 million. Across the state that year, rival Virginia Tech spent $8 million more, and down south, Clemson and Florida State both spent more than $40 million, doubling UVA’s budget in the sport, according to figures from the Knight Commission.

To spend money, one must make it. In football, the bulk of that comes from tickets sales and donations, of which Virginia lags behind. For instance, its competition this weekend, Clemson, makes about twice as much on tickets and rakes in about one-quarter more in gifts. No wonder Williams spent much of Friday’s game against the Hokies popping into suites and clubs inside Scott Stadium.

“I missed a lot of the game,” she says in an interview Friday night. “I’m going around to say hello to a lot of our donors. We depend on our donors and their generosity in order to improve. This win helps us and we will continue to ask for help from our donors because we’ve got to have the resources. The resources are coming in and they will, but right now we are under-resourced in many areas. It’s a hurdle.”

Williams knows a thing or two about football resources. She spent the previous 13 years as an athletic administrator at Georgia, a football powerhouse in the Deep South. According to 2017 figures from the Knight Commission, Georgia athletics received $54 million in donations, the bulk of which is driven by football. UVA pulled in $26 million. Williams calls this an “unfair” comparison. Georgia supporters have spent decades donating to consistently successful athletic teams. “For us, we’re trying to build consistency so that we can honor that type of support over the long haul to allow us to have a program that can be sustained for a long time.”

Things are moving in the right direction—on and off the field. Last year, Williams announced a $180 million athletics master plan that includes building a stand-alone football operations center and new practice fields. That coincided with Mendenhall leading the Hoos to their first winning season since 2011. This year, they’ve qualified for a bowl game for a third consecutive season, the longest streak since the Al Groh–coached Cavaliers went to four in a row in 2002–05.

In an odd twist, Mendenhall attributes UVA’s success to the in-state rival that his squad beat in order to claim the ACC Coastal title. Virginia Tech holds a nation-leading 27-year bowl streak that dates back to 1992. “They’re supported incredibly well in Blacksburg by their fan base and their administration. Virginia Tech made a choice to be good in football a long time ago,” Mendenhall says. Williams believes the Hokies provided a “blueprint” for winning football in the Commonwealth. “However many years ago, they decided they wanted to excel in football,” she says. “There was an investment there.”

Williams is confident the investment is on the way, especially as the victories continue to mount. The Cavaliers have a shot this season to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1989, all coming three years after they lost 10 in Mendenhall’s first season. Mendenhall is a 53-year-old Utah native who had spent his entire coaching career out west before ending an 11-year run at BYU to come east. During his post-game news conference Friday, emotions overwhelmed him a half-dozen times, his eyes welling with tears and voice cracking as he recalled the early years here. He called this the most challenging thing he’s ever taken on.

Eli Hanback, a redshirt senior defensive tackle, remembers that first meeting with Mendenhall, when this hard-driving, defensive-minded guy from out west strode into the team room and described to his new squad the hell that awaited them. Exhaustive conditioning work, intense weight training and military-style practices. In the audience, Hanback feared his fun days of college were over. Dang. What did I get myself into? I’ve got four long years left of this? More than 10 players that offseason left the team. “I was scared,” he says, “but I hung tough, I believed and bought in.”

A defining moment in Mendenhall’s first season came in the second game of the year at Oregon. During a 44–26 loss to the Ducks, the Cavaliers fought hard to the end, scoring the last two touchdowns. Oregon players couldn’t understand why the Hoos were battling so hard in a game already over. They asked them. “We told coach that, and coach said that was his most memorable moment of that year,” says receiver Hasise Dubois, a true freshman on that team. Three years later, Dubois and the Tigers are producing something other than just a grinding work ethic. The now-senior leads the squad with 849 yards receiving, and the Cavaliers have taken on their head coach’s defensive persona. They are 27th nationally allowing 336 yards a game. Their quarterback Bryce Perkins, a jack-of-all-trades, is leading the team in rushing (687 yards) and passing (2,941). He’s accounted for 27 of Virginia’s 48 touchdowns.

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Perkins gives confidence to a team that many are writing off this weekend. “It’s not an accident that we’re going,” Mendenhall says. “We don’t intend just to take a trip just to see what it looks like. We’re going to go try to win the game.” But what if they don’t? The exposure alone is significant for a program that even on its own campus is overshadowed by a slew of other sports. UVA’s men’s basketball team won the national title last season and so did the school’s men’s lacrosse team. Men’s soccer, the No. 1 seed in the on-going NCAA tournament, plays a quarterfinal match this weekend, and the field hockey team made the Final Four.

And then, of course, there’s football, now more than just an afterthought. Williams admits this weekend’s game will be a great challenge, but “everything we’ve done has been a challenge,” she says. Mendenhall knows all about that. While resources are better at UVA, the Cavaliers are still legions behind their conference brethren. When Mendenhall took over, Virginia had zero analysts on staff. He now has one analyst, he tells a reporter outside of his team’s locker room. Do you want to know how many analysts Clemson has? Mendenhall smiles and shakes his head. “It’d probably intimidate me to hear it.”