If Bronco Mendenhall doesn’t like you, you won’t play football at the University of Virginia.
That’s what Virginia’s head coach told the media when discussing his recruiting philosophy and the players he officially signed to his 2020 recruiting class Wednesday. Whether it’s a five-star recruit or an underrated prospect, if you don’t align with Mendenhall and the values of UVa, you won’t be playing college football in Charlottesville.
“I don’t know if I’ve shared this, but I simply won’t recruit anyone or won’t allow anyone, coach, player or staff member, to be in our program unless I like them,” Mendenhall said. “If I don’t have a personal affinity, they’re not getting in. There is way too much time we spend together to be enduring people rather than enjoying people.”
This philosophy leads to certain types of people finding their home at UVa. Few players on the current Virginia roster are known as trash talkers, and many of the players on the roster are introverted athletes who go about their business without needing much praise.
Jordan Mack, arguably the best player on the Cavaliers’ defense, fits that mold. He’s a quiet leader who leads by example. Bryce Perkins, the team’s offensive leader, shares similar traits. He’s not as quiet as Mack, but Perkins rarely boasts and tends to let his play do the talking.
Recruiting humble players who value the daily grind and incremental improvement leads to rather uneventful signing days. While some players or schools release elaborate hype videos when a player commits, Virginia and its players normally share brief videos and graphics that don’t have much variation from one player to the next.
“Usually, if there is drama in the recruiting process, it’s not a good sign,” Mendenhall said. “That’s atypical, I know, to the recruiting process. I know it’s supposed to be someone jumping out of a helicopter and picking a hat or whatever parachute they pull is that mascot. That’s an exaggeration, but you get the point. I just prefer the opposite, and the families that are choosing us prefer the opposite.”
Finding families and players that share those values and beliefs can be a challenge. It’s easy for high school kids to get caught up in the hype surrounding their talent and signing day, which can easily create recruiting drama that plays out online.
Mendenhall places an emphasis during the recruiting process on understanding how each player thinks and what values they have.
Mendenhall also looks at the parents of a player and how they may fit into the program’s vibe.
“Sometimes the family … I don’t want to sign up for in terms of sometimes the helicoptering or just the over engagement,” Mendenhall said. “My approach is to develop young people, and that’s really hard when parents aren’t used to having that happen with some level of autonomy.”
Finding the right players is important to Mendenhall and the program, as UVa operates on an “earned not given” philosophy.
“You don’t get a number right away. You have to earn your number,” Virginia receiver Terrell Jana said. “You don’t get flashy gear. You get a white t-shirt and white shorts.”
Not all prospects are ready for that kind of environment or want that type of environment, which makes finding players who fit Virginia’s program even more critical in the recruiting process.
Virginia’s head coach uses in-person visits to determine whether he and the player gel. Sometimes, the player and coach determine they probably aren’t the right fit and they head their different directions.
Other players hit it off with the coach and ultimately sign with the program.
Finding players that fit Mendenhall’s vision and philosophy helps keep players and coaches happy.
“It just keeps the culture of our program vibrant, alive, and more people smiling,” Mendenhall said, “especially the head coach.”
As players and teams across the country announce their commitments with flashy videos that rival that of gender reveals, Virginia players commit in a more subdued fashion.
Jana used to pay attention to those things. After spending time in the Virginia program, his focus is on growing as a player, person and teammate. For the junior receiver, the flash and merchandise surrounding signing day pales in comparison to what you learn as a person once reaching the college ranks.
“Seeing all the videos and all the gear, I’m just thinking like ‘it just doesn’t really matter,’” Jana said. “What matters is who we’ve become and who we’re continuing to become. I think, just as a person, you couldn’t have had a recruiting plan that would show me what I’ve gone through here and how it’s helped me. You can’t put that in recruiting like in a little brochure or something like that. I think the true value in going to college and playing football at the collegiate level, it can’t really be shown. You have to come and see for yourself.”