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Column: Parallels to FSU in how Mendenhall rebuilt Virginia

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The program was in disarray. Four straight losing seasons. Culture concerns. A coach fired.

Meet Virginia.

This is the program Bronco Mendenhall inherited when he left the stability and success of BYU for Virginia. In 2016, his first season, the Cavaliers went 2-10 with seven losses by double figures.

The program was in disarray. Back-to-back losing seasons. Culture concerns. A coach fired.

Yes, Florida State.

This is the program Mike Norvell inherited when he left the stability and success of Memphis for FSU. In his first season, the Seminoles are 2-6 with five losses by double figures.

Nobody wants to hear about the process or growing pains, about the challenges first-year head coaches face. But these are often the realities of a re-start. It can be tough to watch. But it is also necessary to shape what are, taking an optimistic viewpoint, better days ahead.

Are there parallels between FSU and Virginia? You may be quick to dismiss as Virginia’s football history and FSU’s are vastly different. But read this quote from Virginia defensive back Nick Grant to ESPN.com in Sept. 2019.

“It was only a matter of time that things were going to turn around,” Grant said. “After my first season, we had 15, 20 people quit or transfer. Everything that had been going on for so long built up at Virginia had been slowly weeding itself out, so we were becoming a real team.”

Compare what Grant said to what FSU is going through now. Depending on how you run the numbers, and college football is vastly different now with the transfer portal not to mention playing through a pandemic. But FSU has surpassed 15 players who have transferred, mostly on offense — Tre’ McKitty, TreShaun Harrison, D.J. Matthews and Isaiah Bolden among the most prominent names as well as Khalan Laborn’s departure and midseason opt-outs from James Blackman, Tamorrion Terry and Cory Durden.

Virginia bounced back from that ugly 2-10 season and has gone 6-7, 8-7, 9-5 and now 4-4 going into the FSU game on Saturday. If you are looking for optimism for FSU’s future in the face of losses and roster turmoil, Mendenhall presents a model for Norvell.

“It is toughness, physicality, guys that play the game the right way, fundamentally sound,” Norvell said. “There definitely is a process of what it takes to win games. And they do it the right way. We’ve seen that these last few years, how the program has grown.”

Mendenhall told ESPN.com that to leave BYU he was looking for a Power 5 school that was “awful” and cared about more than just football. He described the players’ body language upon meeting them for the first time. “This was a football team that had no interest in playing football,” Mendenhall told ESPN.com.

While this has not been explicitly stated by Norvell, let’s continue the parallel: FSU was awful in football for two years, is a top-10 program in the all-sports Director’s Cup, a top-25 school academically and of course is in a Power 5 conference. And Norvell, a student of body language, likely has had similar meetings with his players.

For some background on Mendenhall, the Osceola reached out to a beat writer in Virginia for insight into Mendenhall:

There weren’t a lot of bad apples at Virginia because Mike London is a great guy, but there was a sense of impending doom that rose up once something started turning bad. He fixed that and has succeeded in changing the culture and expectations of the players. Much of his staff came with him to Virginia and has remained. He’s also filled a few spots with Virginia players from the past who had really good careers and some NFL time. All high character folks, and that’s essential to play for or work for Bronco.

Mendenhall has found his game plan for rebuilding Virginia. And it could be similar to what Norvell is doing at FSU, with short-term pain but optimism that the rebuild will deliver success over the long haul.

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