Anyone who coaches football at Virginia will inevitably be compared to George Welsh, a College Football Hall of Famer who has his name on streets and buildings around The Grounds of UVA.
Fair or not, that’s particularly true for second-year Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall, who prior experience and the state of the UVA program upon arrival are similar to Welsh.
Both men had success at a program with good football tradition, but uncommon institutional challenges. Welsh had four straight winning seasons at Navy before jumping to Virginia; Mendenhall won 99 games at BYU.
Mendenhall came to a Cavs program in the midst of an extended down period. Virginia football had never really been up before Welsh arrived and took it to its first ever bowl game.
The heights Welsh took Virginia to included a 134-86-3 record, the No. 1 ranking for a brief time and two ACC titles. And he did it all after going 2-9 and 1-5 in the ACC his first season. You couldn’t blame Mendenhall if he liked to point that out after going 2-10 last year.
But Bronco Mendenhall also faces a vastly different college football landscape in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the ACC, which presents a new set of challenges.
When Welsh took over in 1982, Virginia was the only major-conference program in the state. Virginia Tech had yet to hire Frank Beamer and was stuck as an independent. Beyond that, Old Dominion didn’t have a football team; Liberty played Division II ball; and James Madison wasn’t far removed from competing in Division III.
There’s no denying that Virginia Tech’s entrance into the ACC took away one of the biggest advantages the Cavaliers enjoyed when recruiting against the Hokies. Now ODU is a member of Conference USA, and coming off a bowl game. Liberty is making the move to FBS with seemingly unlimited funds and JMU is the defending champion at the FCS level.
ODU, Liberty and JMU aren’t direct competition the way the Hokies are, but with scholarship limits that didn’t exist in Welsh’s heyday, plenty of good players who might have wound up at UVA in a different era will wind up at those schools.
Last season, James Madison had multiple in-state players on the roster that may not have been stars in the ACC, but could have offered the Cavs some much needed depth.
Khalid Abdullah, an All-American running back from Newport News, could have gotten carries at UVA, while offensive lineman Aaron Stinnie and wide out/kick returner Rashard Davis are Charlottesville products who could have filled voids on the depth chart.
The ACC is also a much different league than the one Welsh entered. Florida State had yet to join — not to mention Virginia Tech, Miami, Boston College, Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville.
One of the conference’s only true football schools, Clemson, was dealing with sanctions from recruiting violations.
The door was open wide for Welsh back in the early 80s, and he certainly took advantage. Returning Virginia back to a place where it competes for ACC championships is going to be more difficult for Mendenhall. That’s not to say he can’t be successful, but it’s important to remember it’s a different world for Bronco Mendenhall and Virginia in 2017.