Setting The Standard: An Oral History (Part II)
Friday morning’s practice signals the official start of Bronco Mendenhall’s sixth preseason camp as the head football coach at Virginia. That that practice will take place on the new grass fields behind the McCue Center is just one indication of how much has changed at UVa since Mendenhall and his staff arrived from BYU in December 2015.
UVa fans have watched the program grow from the days of “Hoos Rising” to “The New Standard” to now #TheStandard. They’ve seen the Wahoos make three consecutive bowl appearances, end the program’s long losing streak against Virginia Tech, win a Coastal Division title, and compete in an ACC title game. But it all began with Mendenhall stripping his new players of their V-Sabres and jersey numbers and forcing them to earn their way into the weight room and onto the practice field.
Those exercises—and program mantras like “Earned, Not Given” and “Will Before Skill”—are standard procedure at Virginia now, but for the players on that 2016 team that first preseason under Mendenhall was anything but. From winter workouts in plain black T-shirts and a memorable brawl at one spring practice, to an emotional night picking numbers and an unannounced visit from a pro wrestler to do some yoga, that first preseason may not have led to the on-field success that fall that the Hoos were anticipating, but it laid the foundation of where Mendenhall’s program sits five years later.
Here's the second of our three-part series, Setting the Standard: An Oral History of Bronco's Arrival at UVa. You can check out the first part here.
Part II: Earned, Not Given
At his introductory news conference, Bronco Mendenhall told both the media members in attendance and his new Virginia football players that he would emphasize traits like accountability, discipline, and effort. That was on display from the Cavaliers’ first spring practice, which was conducted at a brisk pace and included drills being restarted countless times—often before they even began, because players failed to properly take the field in unison.
DONTE WILKINS (senior defensive tackle): At the time it was like, ‘Why are we doing this? What does this have to do with football? What does this have to do the defense, or me two-gapping the center?’ You have those thoughts come into your head.
ERIC SMITH (senior offensive lineman): Speaking as a veteran at the time, going into my fourth year, we just expect football. Spring ball is spring ball. When you literally have to learn how to take the field, you’re like, ‘What do you mean?’ He said it before we actually started doing it and we’re like, ‘Coach, what are you talking about? What do you mean, take the field?’ How we do one thing is how we do everything, and he implemented it literally from Day 1.
CHRIS PEACE (sophomore inside linebacker): Come out with some weak energy or you just come out lackadaisical, looking like you don’t want to practice, he’s sending you back in. Even if you’re 15 or 20 minutes in, you’re starting over from scratch.
MATT JOHNS (senior quarterback): Very efficient. We were on the field for no longer than an hour and a half, and it was going to be a grueling hour and a half. You were not allowed to walk anywhere. It was a sprint. If you did not sprint you were going back. We were doing up-downs. You name it, anything to instill that mindset that you have to be mentally stronger than your opponent in order to beat them is what they were really trying to get done that first year.
ZACH BRADSHAW (senior inside linebacker): It was a shock at first but I actually think that for the people that stayed on the team, I think that everybody bought into that. Because we were so desperate to win, especially for guys who had been there for two or three seasons already just losing over and over and over again. We were willing to do anything if it was gonna help us win.
QUIN BLANDING (junior free safety): Some days we were just like, 'Let's just get through the day. Let's make this one time. Let's just get through it. We got this. Let's do it one time and be done.' But that's not how it went because when people got fatigued, that's when everything showed. That's what they wanted us to see: When we got fatigued, are we gonna outlast our opponents or what?
DONTE WILKINS: When you actually go through the program you know first of all, how you do one thing is how you do everything. You talk to Coach Mendenhall, you’re gonna hear it. The small things. The attention to detail. Everything matters when it comes to the game of football. How you take the field is the most important thing. When you have a sudden change, the quarterback throws an interception, are you gonna drag onto the field or are you gonna be excited to play another down? So that was just the little things that Coach Mendenhall was trying to get ingrained into our heads.
NICHOLAS CONTE (senior punter): We went from having everything to not having much. To not even being able to make it through a warmup for the workout you’re about to do because we couldn’t do it perfectly right away. There’s always a little bit of frustration in that, when things get taken away or when you don’t get to the part of football that you really want to do. But it was a learning experience for all of us, and we just kind of stepped up and took it on the chin, and we did it the right way. We learned, we failed, but you learn when you fail. We just kept failing and learning from it and building and building, and it kind of built a culture around it and built some strong guys around it.
Injured players were relegated to what became known as ‘Muscle Beach,’ working out in a group on the side as the Cavaliers practiced. Peace started spring camp with his arm in a sling because of a shoulder injury, while Bradshaw was still recovering from a knee injury suffered during the 2015 season. Before being able to join their teammates on the practice field, those injured players had to qualify by passing their tempo runs.
CHRIS PEACE: I actually passed it my first time. It kind of caught me off-guard because they made me run it as soon as I got off the sling. I got it, but I was damn near on the stretcher after, though.
ZACH BRADSHAW: I finally passed the conditioning test and I blacked out right before I finished the last one. Holding in, trying not to throw up. But they did the conditioning test right at the beginning of practice. So I passed this conditioning test—which was normally at the end of a workout, and then you’re done—they sent me right up to practice. And anyone who has played football knows you’re not just instantly in football shape. It’s completely different. So I’m already gassed and I go up there for the first practice and I was struggling so hard just to even run back-to-back plays. I was dying.
A nagging hamstring injury suffered while doing tempo runs kept Conte out for the entire spring. With just a week before the start of preseason camp, the fifth-year punter was healthy but still hadn’t qualified to practice.
NICHOLAS CONTE: With my position group and my size, we had five 300s and it was a minute to run them. The first two, no problem. But by No. 3 your legs are getting really tired, your lungs are hurting. Four is the hardest one. And then five you know you just have to go until you collapse, essentially. I remember running my last one down, and Vince Croce was the one timing me, it was, ‘Five, four, three, two…” and right at two I dove across the line. I gave it everything I had, and that was something we never truly had to do…But then the elation and support that you got from your teammates and coaches. I was one of the last guys to do it because of my injury, and Coach Mendenhall came out there and watched me finish, and picked me up and gave me a huge hug and congratulated me, celebrated with me. And then I went inside to the weight room, I qualified for practice, and they stopped the workout and celebrated that I had passed it. Everybody supporting you, you get really happy.
DONTE WILKINS: It made everybody come together. You had to come together because we were all fighting, all competing, all working our butts off everyday to just play football. Even to qualify to be in a practice uniform that didn’t even have a jersey number on it. When you put that much time and effort into something and you finally earn it, and it’s only a select group of guys that made it through that process. Some guys, it took a little bit longer than others, so regardless of whenever they got it done, they were embraced and they were loved by everybody because they knew what they just had to do.
One of the most visible changes that came with Mendenhall's arrival at Virginia was the stripping of the V-Sabre logos and jersey numbers from players’ practice gear. Players worked out in plain T-shirts and shorts and practiced in blank white or blue jerseys and blue helmets with their names taped across the front.
ERIC SMITH: At the time we didn’t know what he was saying so we didn’t believe what he was saying. You’re gonna be stripped of everything? What could he possibly mean? So we get back in our locker room—the same locker room that we’ve been in for the last three, four years—and names are gone. Numbers are gone. Anything that was Virginia logo was gone. He made it obvious.
MATT JOHNS: It was the 'Earned, Not Given' motto. He believed that we had to earn the right to wear the V-Sabre. We had to earn the number that we were gonna wear the rest of the year. It was a way for him to instill the culture that he wanted to instill.
MICAH KISER (junior inside linebacker): Bronco came in when I was going into my senior year in school, redshirt junior year in college. So I'd been through a lot in football and kind of life as far as the average college kid, but I had to start over. That was a shock, really. Not being able to get any gear. Having to wear gray T-shirts and black shorts, not being able to have a jersey. Even though the jersey number wasn't super important to me, because it was honestly just given to me. It's not like I picked No. 53. Nobody I think would pick that number. But it was just weird having to start from scratch, being so old.
NICHOLAS CONTE: You’re being broken down to build it back up, but that’s what we needed. I think we all realized it right away. They stripped the UVa symbol off of everything. You’re in plain clothes. Black and gray shirts and white socks, and we had to earn every step of it. So the first week or so, couple weeks, it was tough.
QUIN BLANDING: I'm not gonna lie: We were pissed. We were pissed because we came in with these numbers, so we were like, 'That's our number. You can't take that from us.’
CHRIS PEACE: People weren’t happy about it, for sure, especially the guys with the lower digit numbers already. People were pretty pissed about it. I wasn’t personally pissed because I had No. 31 at the time, so I already wanted a new number, but a lot of guys that had those lower numbers or numbers they were used to for a few years already, they weren’t the happiest or most welcoming with it.
MICAH KISER: We went through like all winter, all spring and you're thinking like, 'Oh, we're definitely gonna get stuff.' And that didn't happen until like middle of July, we finally got gear that said Virginia on it. So you're talking seven months of hard work before we got anything that had a Virginia logo on it.
DONTE WILKINS: At first it was kind of like, ‘Is he serious?’ And as soon as we realized he was serious it was like, ‘Oh, so what number are you gonna get?’ I was joking with Smoke [Mizzell], he was my roommate, and I was like, ‘What are you gonna do when I take No. 4 from you?’ He just starts laughing and was like, ‘I’m not worried about it. It’s not going anywhere.’
QUIN BLANDING: At first we went about it the wrong way. Some of us were mad. I'm not gonna lie, I was kind of mad, just because it was different. I was like, 'No numbers? How are you gonna know who people are?' But over time we were just like, 'You know what, we'll be all right.’
DONTE WILKINS: It’s just all about mindset with Coach Mendenhall. That’s the No. 1 thing. You’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to earn the right to get on the field. You’ve got to take the field correctly. And then once you get on there, you might not have that sweet jersey number that you had all your life. At first there was tension. Guys trying to earn their numbers, fighting to get the number, do whatever they can. It was kind of cool to see how that all played out.
NICHOLAS CONTE: You learn quickly that nothing was gonna be given to you. It didn’t matter if you were a three- or four-year starter, didn’t matter if you were a five-star coming out of high school, didn’t matter who you were. You could be the best player, you could be the worst player. But if you give your effort and you want those things, you’re gonna do everything you can to earn it. And it was one of those things that got celebrated every time you made another level and you made a step up. So earning those things back was kind of a thing of pride. At first, obviously people weren’t a fan of it. But it became a sense of pride, like, ‘Hey, I earned my V-Sabre. I earned my jersey number.’
MICAH KISER: I just remember the little milestones we would hit. Like I remember when we finally got all gray. We got gray shorts and gray shirts that had the Virginia logo on it, and we burned the old stuff.
ERIC SMITH: We all went out to this camping site Bronco took us to and we just hashed out everything, every problem that we related to, what had kind of held us back in the past, and we brought it forth. And we literally burned it in a giant bonfire. At that point we all committed to forgetting about the past and buying into the future. He kind of got us in a place where we would run through a brick wall, not necessarily for just our coach but for each other.
MICAH KISER: The way Coach Mendenhall describes it is every culture has certain rites of passage, and building that into the football program was cool. It gave you something to look forward to and something to grind for.
The first jersey ceremony didn’t take place until a week before the Cavaliers were set to open the 2016 season. The Hoos gathered at Scott Stadium, with the responsibility for deciding who got to select a jersey number falling to the team’s task unit leaders.
MICAH KISER: There were six teams of task unit leaders, and there were two task unit leaders in each unit, so 12 guys. And we picked it based on how you were doing in workouts, accountability, were you late, were you showing leadership. All kinds of stuff went into it.
MATT JOHNS: I would say 95 percent of the time it was pretty unanimous, in the sense that everyone was on the same page. There was always maybe one or two guys that you'd argue, 'No, he deserves it above this guy,' or 'He deserves it in front of this guy.' A lot of that has to do with probably off-the-field behavior, and your peers have the best ability to I guess judge that character. It was pretty spot-on in terms of we all agreed.
DONTE WILKINS: As a leader, me and the other guys just tried to make it as fair as possible. It was really cool to see who we thought had earned it, and who we thought had put in work since spring ball, from winter workouts to the summer to camp. It was pretty cool to see guys like, ‘I got the respect of my team. I got to pick a jersey tonight.’
CHRIS PEACE: I think it made everybody’s number that much more special, especially when they re-earned it. Because some guys ended up losing their number that first year.
The first choice of jersey numbers went to redshirt sophomore running back Jordan Ellis, who entered that 2016 season with just 24 career carries for 74 yards. Ellis went on to earn the first choice of jersey numbers prior to the 2017 and 2018 seasons as well. While he wore No. 1 for those final two seasons, Ellis elected to stick with No. 10 heading into the 2016 season. With the second choice of numbers, Wilkins went with No. 1.
MICAH KISER: I think it was kind of like setting, 'These are the expectations.' It kind of reflected the state of the program, really. And I think it spoke volumes that a guy like Jordan Ellis, who doesn't talk much but is just this silent, hard-working guy, this silent assassin really, who just comes in, does his job, and just grinds. It's kind of telling of the program and where we wanted the program to be, the fact that he was the first to pick his jersey three times in a row. That right there is setting the standard of 'This guy right here is the standard for Virginia football.’
DONTE WILKINS: He outworks everybody. It’s not even close. Jordan Ellis is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met in my entire life. He loves the game of football. He knows that everything he’s gonna get, he’s gonna have to earn it. He’s never been given anything. And I think he just knew, this was his chance to show what he could do, and he earned everybody’s respect on the team. You could just see it.
CHRIS PEACE: Jordan was my roommate, and I’ll tell you that Jordan was usually the first guy in the locker room, one of the last guys to leave. He was literally working out like three, four times a day. He was just insane in the weight room. He was just a grinder. It wasn’t hard to see, so he most definitely deserved that first pick all three years. He was consistent with it.
DONTE WILKINS: It was unanimous. There was no arguing. Maybe a couple guys tried to throw my name or somebody else’s name up there, but I made it clear that Jordan was the guy that was gonna pick his jersey number first. And to be honest, Jordan wanted to pick No. 1 that year. But just out of respect for me — and it’s the person Jordan is, he told me, ’Hey, I want you to wear No. 1.’
CHRIS PEACE: Everybody knew he wanted No. 1. That’s what he wore in high school. But he also knew that was Donte’s last year, and Donte was working his ass off too. I remember he told me, we went back to the room and I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you get that No. 1?’ He was like, ‘I’m gonna be here like two more years. I already know there’s gonna be another opportunity for that.’ That’s the type of guy he is.
But not every player left Scott Stadium that night satisfied with the way the jersey number selection process unfolded.
JACKSON MATTEO (senior offensive lineman): Those task unit leaders they were—for lack of a better word—tasked with driving the culture for the team. We took it seriously. We met a few times about it and we talked about it, and there were guys that were hurt by it when they didn't get the number they wanted or didn't get to pick where they thought they would pick. And we knew that, but we still did it because we thought it was the right thing for the program.
NICHOLAS CONTE: I think it’s kind of a gut check for people who think that they put in the effort but they really didn’t. Or they got through it but getting through something and doing it just to do it, and then being excited and working through something, it’s a little different. That’s something that Coach Mendenhall taught us, that there are different levels of excitement and work ethic.
QUIN BLANDING: It was fun. A lot of people at the time were like, 'This person better not get my number.' There was a lot of that going on. But I was just like, it is what it is. If they get your number, they get your number. That means they worked harder than you and did what they were supposed to do.
DONTE WILKINS: I can’t tell you the name of the player, but he was so upset that he didn’t get to pick his jersey number that first night that he started throwing up. He got sick to his stomach.
ZACH BRADSHAW: He had been in the same number his whole career. And then I want to say a freshman—I can’t remember why the freshman got to pick before him, there may have been an injury or something—and he took his jersey number. And knew that it was his jersey number, and still picked the jersey. And the room went silent, and everyone turns back in their chairs and is like, ‘Is this kid serious? Is he really taking this number?’
CHRIS PEACE: He was sweating through his shirt when it happened.
DONTE WILKINS: They even tried to buy the jersey number, that’s how serious it was.
CHRIS PEACE: Most of these guys had been wearing these numbers since high school, so it meant something to them. So they took the jersey number thing pretty serious. But I think it also made people work harder because they realized, ‘I’m gonna have to work my ass off to get the number I want.’
ZACH BRADSHAW: It definitely set the tone.