MIAMI — Virginia offensive lineman Ryan Nelson smiled, ice cream cone in hand, beach in the background.
Joe Reed took a running start, hopping on a skim board before falling off and into the water. He stood up smiling, watching as a line of his teammates prepared to do the same.
Nick Grant sat in the water, laughing as waves rushed over him. It felt like a vacation.
Playing in the Orange Bowl and spending a week in Miami is a blast. Players give serious answers when discussing the game and schematic challenges, but they lighten up when talking about the day’s schedule of events.
On Saturday, the Cavaliers enjoyed the beach and ice cream cones.
On Monday, the Cavs play in arguably the most important bowl game in program history.
Finding the perfect balance of enjoyment and focus isn’t easy, and it’s impossible to ignore the benefits of an Orange Bowl experience. Reaching the Orange Bowl deserves a celebration for a tremendous season. The Cavaliers don’t intend to waste that opportunity.
“I think it means that you’ve arrived at a different stage in college football, at an elite and exceptional tier,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I think it’s a qualifying bowl that either your program or your staff or your players have achieved something that is remarkable, is to be enjoyed and is exemplary.”
Making the Orange Bowl stands out as one of Mendenhall’s most impressive achievements as Virginia’s head coach. The Cavaliers understand this game matters, but they’re also excited and proud to have earned a spot in the game.
The experience even jumps out to the Cavaliers’ opponent, the Florida Gators. Despite being from Florida, staying on the beach is a bit different than a regular week in Gainesville.
“The opportunity to get out to the beach, to go experience all the different things that they’ve got to experience while they’re here, we embrace that and really try to enjoy the bowl experience,” Florida head coach Dan Mullen said. “The key to our team, though, the one thing is the focus while we’re here, that we’re here to win a football game, then we’re going to enjoy the time and the experience. And as long as you have it in that order, you don’t miss out on the preparation.”
Both teams want an Orange Bowl victory to cap off stellar seasons. In between the events and activities, the teams are scouting, practicing and preparing for a major bowl game on national television.
Mendenhall and Mullen entered their final press conference before the game in suits. Mullen sported a pair of sneakers.
It’s bowl week in South Florida, and the vibe rarely reaches the seriousness of a traditional game week.
The coaches shared positive reviews of the Orange Bowl hospitality and the events this week. Mendenhall called the week “a tremendous experience” and said the hospitality sets the game apart from any bowl game in his entire coaching career.
For the most part, the week of the Orange Bowl is relaxed and fun. When Monday night rolls around, however, it’ll be all business.
As the moderator called for the final question of the press conference, a reporter took his turn addressing Mendenhall. He asked the coach what it would mean for the Cavaliers to win the Orange Bowl.
Mendenhall’s smile faded as he leaned toward the microphone.
“The University of Virginia has one 10-win season in 130 years of football,” Mendenhall replied, nodding a few times before leaning back in his seat.
Mullen looked toward Mendenhall, smiling upon realizing he had nothing else to add. Reporters laughed at Mendenhall’s abrupt ending. Virginia’s head coach stared straight ahead, with a stone-cold look painted across his face.
The coaches shared 22 responses prior to Mendenhall’s final line, and those answers averaged 199 words per response.
Mendenhall ended the press conference with a 13-word answer.
The time for fun is over.
The Cavaliers came to Miami for one reason, and that isn’t to eat ice cream cones or play in the ocean. Virginia came to Miami to win the Orange Bowl and secure only the second 10-win season in program history.
Mendenhall’s team gets that chance Monday night.