Bet on Bronco 


Without claiming to be psychic, I hit the hiring of Bronco Mendenhall as University of New Mexico football coach on the nose. Like a blitzing linebacker crunching a quarterback.  

Within hours after Danny Gonzales was ousted as Lobo head coach, my thoughts turned to Mendenhall. In my mind, he was the perfect hire, even a better fit than the about-to retire Nick Saban or the soon-to-be released Bill Belichick. Crazy, right?  

This conviction seemed odd considering I hadn’t talked to Mendenhall since 2002 when he left the UNM football program, where he was assistant head coach and defensive coordinator under Rocky Long.  

But there was something about Mendenhall that stuck with me. Perhaps his demeanor and quiet confidence or successful stints turning around programs at BYU and Virginia.  

After a recent conversation with the 58-year-old Mendenhall, I’m more optimistic than ever he can make Lobo football relevant. Not an easy task, considering UNM has had just three winning seasons in 17 years.  

“That is not discouraging to me. That’s actually captivating to me,” Mendenhall said about the task ahead.  

By the time Mendenhall and Long left UNM, fans cared.  

“I felt a lot of pride and satisfaction,” turning the program around, Mendenhall said. “I’ve always held that as a really special time.”  

But why does he feel it can happen again? First, he’s had “the experience of doing it,” at BYU and Virginia. Plus, Mendenhall listens to experts, who “have been customizing programs to fit places with limited resources and unique challenges.”    

The makeup of the Mountain West Conference also raises hope.  

Photo courtesy of University of New Mexico
First-year University of New Mexico football coach Bronco Mendenhall during spring practice.

“I see parity — every program being similar in terms of resources, funding and identity,” he said.  

Mendenhall believes UNM can take advantage of the transfer portal and NIL “to have New Mexico be competitive, and in a relatively short amount of time — UNM has an exceptional program around NIL.”  

Some players have left the program, but 21 transfers joined New Mexico soon after the new staff arrived. More are likely as the portal heats up this spring.   

Getting the best talent — no matter where they are from — is the goal, but landing New Mexico’s best is an integral part of Mendenhall’s vision. 

“I noticed the first time at UNM, the kids who were most passionate about our program were from in state. In my short time here returning, it’s the same.”   

Right now, three Valencia County student-athletes are listed on the roster: Zach Doyle, Tyler Kiehne and Bryce Santana, all from Los Lunas.  

From one perspective, Mendenhall is something of a rebel. The Utah native could have stayed at BYU forever but grew restless. Mendenhall and his wife Holly “started framing where else in the country are there programs that really care about something other than football? That want to compete at the highest level and that also are currently struggling?”   

The answer was the University of Virginia, a basketball school with high academic expectations. During five of his six years at UV, the Cavaliers were bowl eligible; however, near the end of his tenure, Mendenhall “felt like there was going to be a status quo — like this is enough, we’re relevant enough.”   

That didn’t sit well with the rebel inside Mendenhall.  

“The simple case of reciprocity is when there is success to continue to invest and become even more,” he said. “That matters to me in terms of a partnership.”  

With that, Mendenhall resigned, but didn’t retire. For two years, he lived on a small ranch in western Montana, where Holly has ties, and hung out with family and horses.   

Notice his first name?  Bronco? Mendenhall grew up in the cutting horse business. In addition to football, horses and surfing are among his passions. The names of two of his three children, Cutter and Breaker Blue, reflect that.   

There was a noticeable pause when Mendenhall was asked how he has changed since his first stint at New Mexico.  

“Balance” was finally his answer. Mendenhall is still “obsessed” with football and winning but “it wasn’t satisfying enough without amazing family relationships, without some time for friends, without a chance to give back outside of the world of football.”   

Mendenhall acknowledges that success on the field allows for greater impact.  

“If we’re not winning, not as many people care. The chance to do good is uniquely tied to ‘outcome,’” the coach said. “It is a pretty strange thought, but relevant. It just adds more to my plate, which I love and embrace.”  

Right now, his plate is full with recruiting and spring practice, which continues through April 27. The season kickoffs off Aug. 24. It’s a gauntlet, with Arizona, Auburn, Washington State plus Mountain West rivals and a trip to New Mexico State. Full plate indeed. 

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Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.