After years of pleading, the “Fire Mike London” campaign finally fulfilled its mission last Sunday. The movement started quietly after a 4-8 2012 season and steadily garnered a larger and larger following — myself included — after the three losing seasons that followed. It culminated last weekend in London’s sixth loss to archrival Virginia Tech in as many attempts.
The University athletics department announced Friday that BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall will take over London’s job after 11 seasons with the Cougars. Mendenhall has found plenty of success in Provo, taking the team to a bowl in each of his seasons and winning a pair of conference championships back when BYU was still affiliated with the Mountain West. But when Bronco — and his equally-awesome named children — come to Charlottesville in 2016, he’ll be escaping his own “Fire Coach X” campaign.
It’s hard to gauge the size of the “Fire Bronco” crowd, but it was big enough to warrant several articles on the topic in 2014, including this, this and this. To be clear, in 11 years with the team, Mendenhall never had a losing season, averaging nine wins a year. He’s gone 6-4 in bowl games and finished in the Coaches Poll top 25 six times. He is a practicing Mormon that held prayer sessions before every home game. I literally cannot realistically imagine a better fit for BYU football.
Yes, there were some legitimate downsides to the Mendenhall tenure at BYU. He went 3-6 against rival Utah in the once annual “Holy War,” and he oversaw a team that got in an ugly on-field brawl against Memphis last season.
But not competing for a national championship on an annual basis is not a reason for BYU to fire its coach, and that’s the crux of the argument in all the writing that called for Mendenhall’s removal.
The fact that BYU isn’t making the the College Football Playoff isn’t a function of Mendenhall’s coaching. It has to do with BYU’s status as a former mid-major and current independent, its location and its commitment to Mormon values.
Even if BYU went undefeated this season, it would be tough to make the argument that it belongs in the Playoff, considering the toughest team and only currently ranked team on its schedule was currently ranked-No. 14 Michigan. According to Jeff Sagarin ratings, BYU played the 68th toughest schedule this season, worse than every CFP top 25 team other than Houston, Navy and Temple. Notre Dame makes conference independence work by scheduling Stanford, USC and several ACC teams every year, and not a single cupcake. BYU, on the other hand, played a five-game stretch this season against Connecticut, East Carolina, Cincinnati, Wagner and San Jose State.
But even if the BYU athletics department could make its schedule more competitive, BYU will always have a hard time convincing top recruits to come. Elite academics and an honor code that prohibits sex, alcohol, coffee and tea, among other things, make BYU a very tough sell — though you can grow a beard if you get a doctor’s note! And even without a strict honor code, I imagine it would be hard to convince a non-Mormon high school kid from outside Utah to come to the state at all.
The recruiting argument isn’t just theoretical either. According to the 247Sports composite national recruiting class rankings, BYU hasn’t had a top 50 recruiting class since 2010 and none higher than No. 30 since 247Sports started the ranking back in 2002.
And maybe the best argument for why BYU should never be expected to compete for national championships is that it’s losing Mendenhall on the coach’s own terms. National championship caliber programs don't see their coaches leave willingly unless it’s for medical reasons or to move up to the NFL.
So to me, averaging nine wins a year and never missing a bowl game seems to be the ceiling for BYU, and an extremely respectable ceiling at that.
That should be great news for Virginia fans. I expect with the fertile recruiting bases of Northern Virginia and the 757, the marketing advantages of the ACC and an annual schedule that is of the right quality for the Playoff selection committee, Mendenhall should push that ceiling higher here in Charlottesville. Best of luck, Coach.
Matt Comey is a weekly Sports Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @matthewcomey.