New blood in the state’s most storied rivalry.
While the game Nov. 26 in Blacksburg’s Lane Stadium marks the 99th meeting of the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech to contest the Commonwealth Cup, there will be two important first-timers on the field: the new head coaches at both schools. UVA’s Bronco Mendenhall and Tech’s Justin Fuente were outsiders to the rivalry just a year ago, but now take center stage for their inaugural seasons in Virginia.
Here’s how each of them got here:
University of Virginia
Rebuilding the Program
Mendenhall joins a team on the tail end of several lackluster seasons. UVA has won just eight ACC games in the last four years, last went to a bowl game in 2011 and most recently beat Tech a distant 13 years ago. He acknowledges that the recent rivalry has been “one-sided.” But, he says, “My job is to ensure UVA wins its share. UVA has the reputation of being the best school in state, but it has to happen in football too.”
Reinforcing His Strengths
Mendenhall built his reputation as a defensive specialist at BYU, where the Cougars ranked for eight seasons in the top 20 nationally in points allowed (third in the nation in 2012). Still, while Mendenhall emphasizes a physical, grinding style—“I want my team’s identity to be smart and tough and talented”—he isn’t afraid to change his game plan to suit the particular strengths of his players if analysis dictates. A book detailing Mendenhall’s use of strategies from the world of business administration while coaching was published in 2012: Running into the Wind: Bronco Mendenhall—5 Strategies for Building a Sucessful Team.
Reloading After a Legend's Departure
Fuente will step into the shoes of Tech legend Frank Beamer. In 29 years of “Beamerball,” the Hokies went to 21 straight bowl games and seven conference championships, and won a National Championship in 2000. But Fuente says that he doesn't worry about being in his shadow: “We embrace the legacy that Frank Beamer had here. We want to celebrate it. We want to live up to it.” Beamer’s continued involvement in the program (as special assistant to the athletic director this year) has even been beneficial, he says. “I don’t feel pressure from Coach Beamer himself. He’s been incredibly supportive.”
Rebranding with a New Attack
Tech historically has a workmanlike defense and special teams-first mentality. Longtime Beamer assistant Bud Foster stays on as defensive coordinator, but with Fuente calling the shots, Tech’s game plan is expected to focus on a new up-tempo offense. His high-octane offenses at TCU and Memphis played at some of the fastest rates in college football. Still, Fuente says he won’t shortchange the defense. “I have a reputation as an offensive coach, but at TCU I worked for Gary Patterson, one of the greatest defensive minds in football.”
They've Met Before
In the only previous meeting between the coaches, at the Miami Beach Bowl in 2014, Fuente’s Memphis Tigers beat Mendenhall’s BYU Cougars in overtime, 55-48. During post-game celebrations, the two teams engaged in a bench-clearing brawl. “It is kind of ironic we ended up in the same state after that,” says Fuente.