Running Into the Wind: Bronco Mendenhall - 5 Strategies for Building a Successful Team (Hardcover)

by Paul Gustavson, Alyson Von Feldt


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The Deseret Bookshelf version is enhanced with video.

There is no other collegiate football program in the world like the one found at Brigham Young University. None. Certainly that has much to do with the fact that the school is the largest religious university in the United States, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But perhaps there is an even more unique differentiator—a head football coach who is unwavering in his unorthodox style of mentoring, strengthening, teaching, and even recruiting his players. Bronco Mendenhall's coaching style is considered jaw-dropping by many and ludicrous to some. However, no one can overlook the success the Cougars have had. How does his team consistently win ten or more games year after year? What philosophy and practices did Bronco implement to create this sustained success?

One thing we know is that Bronco's system goes against the grain. He believes that "running into the wind" is an opportunity and is key to ultimately creating a sustained competitive advantage.

The first section, "On the Field," discusses the challenges Bronco has faced as the head coach, the principles and practices he learned to face those challenges, and the on-field applications and results. The second section, "In the Football Offices," looks deeper into Bronco's "system" and the business principles and tools of the "five smooth stones" that Bronco was taught by Paul Gustavson. Whether you're a coach or a leader, the organization strategies and models that Paul taught Bronco can be applied to any business or team. Simply, this section is where the coach of the coach will coach you, too.

Product Details

  • Size:  6 x 9
  • Pages:  400

About the Authors

Paul Gustavson, a former BYU football player, has for more than three decades made an in-depth study of the strategies and design of high-performance teams and organizations. He received the prestigious BYU Marriott School of Management’s William G. Dyer Distinguished Alumni Award in 1999. Since founding his own company, Organization Planning and Design, Inc., Paul’s consulting work has included national and international projects for Fortune 500 companies as well as over fifty startups, greenfield sites, and joint ventures. Paul’s work has been featured in more than fifty books, company magazines, and periodicals.

Alyson Von Feldt is a consultant and writer who has guided major organization design initiatives at enterprises ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies. As a writer, she has developed robust tools and training programs that showcase and simplify powerful design techniques, and she has put to paper the stories of intriguing high-performing organizations. She founded Crimson Corporation with her husband, Doug, to help leaders transform their enterprises. She is a passionate BYU football fan and serves on the board of the Kansas City chapter of the BYU Alumni Association.

Chapter One

Warrior Coach

Coach Mendenhall was in charge of the Lobos’ kickoff team. He had a standard that everybody finishes at the end zone. No matter who it is, you had to finish at the end zone—full speed. Coach Mendenhall stood by that every day. He taught us to finish the job.

He passed out green [Maori] tiki warrior totems to us on the defensive side. We wore them around our necks. He told a story about the tiki warrior and the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. That was intense and emotional. That touched me personally. This is a game that’s fun, but at the same time, I wanted to give him my all. I wanted to give him my all because of the stories, and how important they were to him, and how he shared them with us. I was always trying to give it my all in everything that I did when I was out there playing for Coach Mendenhall.

I don’t have my tiki warrior with me right now in Albuquerque. It’s in my bedroom in Dallas, on my dresser. Some of my things from football I left behind in Dallas, like my jersey. But what I do carry with me right now are the principles that Coach Mendenhall instilled in me. Those principles have helped to get me through the PhD program that I’m in right now. I’m working on a PhD in Special Education at the University of New Mexico. The skills that I gathered in football, and the leadership experiences, and those principles I learned, I really, really do rely on. I thank Coach Mendenhall for those. I’ve never had an opportunity to earnestly tell him, but I go back to the discipline that assisted me in preparing myself to play football, and the discipline to go into a practice with Coach Mendenhall. I rely heavily on those things.

Some nights when I feel laid out, I think, “This is just me practicing. This is just the training piece right here. It’s me toning myself to get in shape.” I don’t physically use my body. I’m using my brain right now to get me through these different exercises that I’m going through as I pursue this degree. Attention to detail. Get the job done. As I work with people, review articles, and put together papers, it takes discipline. It takes staying up longer, or getting up earlier in the morning to get back to what I’m doing. There’s no time for me to say, “I gotta rest.” It’s time for me to get the job done.

—Charles Moss

UNM linebacker 1999–2002

What would you do first if you found yourself to be the head coach of a college football team? What would your strategy be?

Would you design amazing new schemes? Fire all the coaches and hire a new set of the best in the nation? Throw yourself into recruiting with such a degree of enthusiasm and panache that no five-star recruit would turn you down? Redesign fall camp? Deliver a series of locker-room talks to motivate your players to unprecedented performance?

Is there a college football program that you would choose to emulate? Are you a fan, for example, of Nick Saban’s program at Alabama? Do you admire the efforts of Chris Petersen at Boise State? Or maybe Mark Richt at Georgia?

Bronco Mendenhall was named head coach of the Brigham Young University football team in December of 2004. He and everyone else knew he was not the first choice. It was widely reported that Kyle Whittingham was at least one who had been offered the position before Bronco, and Kyle had nearly taken the job before choosing instead to fill the vacancy left at the University of Utah when Urban Meyer departed for Florida.

Bronco was young, without head coaching experience. He was only thirty-eight when appointed, which made him the ­second-youngest head coach in Division I college football. He had a grand total of one bowl game under his belt as either a player or a coach.

As head coach he became perhaps the most public face of BYU (sometimes called the “Y”), the largest religiously affiliated university in the United States and the third-largest private university, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church). But Bronco is a pensive and reserved kind of person who had only very recently first imagined himself at the head of a team. He channels his extraordinary focus and tenacity in private directions except when coaching. To rather suddenly find himself in such a visible role was sobering. And he was already a sober man by nature.

The Church emphasizes values of high character such as honesty, charity, modesty, chastity, temperance, and other classic virtues. These values take their shape in an honor code at BYU in terms of dress and grooming standards; prohibition on the use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco; and abstinence from extramarital sexual relations, among other requirements. Bronco is a model of these virtues. He would need to ensure his football players were as well, especially since troubling scandals involving BYU team members had recently played out in the media, resulting in the suspension or dismissal of fourteen young men from the roster and from the university.

Bronco was replacing Gary Crowton, a good friend. They went way back. Bronco had played cornerback at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, when Crowton was the offensive coordinator; some years later, when Crowton was head coach at Louisiana Tech, he had hired Bronco as the secondary coach. Crowton had put in four seasons at BYU. His first was bright and promising; the Cougars opened with a twelve-game winning streak before losing their last two games, including a bowl game. In each of the next three years the team lost more games than they won and never became bowl eligible. Bronco at first balked at the notion of taking his friend’s job. But a persuasive assistant athletic director and some persistent players who advocated for Bronco finally changed his mind.

The three losing seasons had stung the BYU fan base, which is spread across the nation. Predating this downturn, BYU Football had a venerable history of winning and innovating. The beloved LaVell Edwards, legendary for his twenty-nine-year BYU dynasty that delivered a 257–101–3 record, had retired only four years earlier as the sixth-winningest football coach in NCAA history. Early in his tenure, LaVell had championed the development of a passing attack to challenge big schools that could recruit top-tier players. It was a brilliant move. Before LaVell became head coach, the team had won only one league championship in its entire school history. In contrast, LaVell’s teams went on to claim conference titles in nineteen of his twenty-nine seasons, playing in twenty-two bowl games, and winning the national championship in 1984. He coached one Heisman trophy winner, two Outland Trophy recipients, three Davey O’Brien award winners, seven Sammy Baugh Trophy honorees, and thirty-two All-Americans. BYU became known as a quarter­back factory—“Quarterback U”—for its steady production of top-performing NCAA offense leaders including Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer. Celebrated NFL quarterbacks Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Marc Wilson, and Gifford Nielson were all products of the LaVell Edwards era.

Thus Bronco found himself at the turn of the year. The fan base was reeling from scandal and losses, and Bronco’s inexperience weighed heavily on him. Yet BYU Football’s rich history stood to prod a new generation to reclaim national prominence. Bronco faced the formidable challenge of finding top athletes eager for that challenge, who at the same time could enthusiastically embrace the strict BYU Honor Code.

What would you have done if you had found yourself in his shoes?

Here’s what Bronco did: he went in search of ideas. He began a study of concepts and practices from the domain of business strategy and organization design that had applicability in the world of sports. He used these practices to build a football organization that could succeed because of its unique moral values, not in spite of them.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First let’s trace the journey that led Bronco to this unanticipated moment in his life.

• • •

In a corner of Bronco Mendenhall’s light-filled office on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, leans a Maori totem called a tokotoko. Bronco first studied the culture of the Maori tribe, indigenous to New Zealand, when his father was overseeing missionary activities in the South Pacific for the Church. For years the BYU football program has heavily recruited young men of Polynesian descent, but the association between Latter-day Saints and Polynesians goes back much further. Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church, sent missionaries to French Polynesia in 1843, a year before his death and three years before the Mormons embarked on their famous trek to Utah under the guidance of Brigham Young. While Brigham Young was building a society in the desert West and establishing an academy that would later become Brigham Young University, the Church was spreading in the South Pacific. Bronco’s appropriation of Maori cultural artifacts as teaching devices for his young football warriors flows in an elegant continuum from the earliest days of Church history.

Bronco’s tokotoko was a gift from a Maori fan living nearby who also volunteered, with Bronco’s encouragement, to create a tokotoko for each 2008–09 senior, decorated with tokens of the player’s football legacy and the team’s core values.

Another totem stands in the opposite corner of Bronco’s ­office—a custom surfboard emotionally presented to Bronco after the 2007 win over Utah. It was airbrushed for him by a fan, who attributed the roots of a life turnaround to a talk Bronco had given at one of the ritual pregame “firesides” presented by the team.

In Bronco’s drawer: a keychain with the emblematic orange-and-black Harley-Davidson logo. Bronco rides a Harley Road King to work. It’s a family tradition. Two of his three older brothers have long been hog enthusiasts and chopper owners. He dons leather from head to toe, and as the roar of the 110-inch-cubic engine surrounds and isolates him, he commutes thirty-five miles along the winding streets of his rural neighborhood in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains to the linear strips of the meticulous pioneer grid of Provo, Utah. He arrives at the Student Athlete Building on the campus of BYU every morning early enough to study his scriptures before the daily staff meeting. In Bronco’s first years as coach, he also fit in an early workout at the office, but he moved that to his home gym as his sons grew older and he found the morning hours with them too precious to be away.

Bronco’s short-cropped hair is bleached anew each summer in the waters of the Pacific. He loves to surf and vacations at the beach each July with his wife, Holly, and their three towheaded boys, Cutter, Breaker, and Raeder. His smooth face is weathered, skin sunburned, and lips often chapped from afternoons outside on the practice field. He is blue-eyed. A dimple in his right cheek appears at the end of statements, retracting sharply and deeply as if to punctuate his sentences.

Perhaps Bronco’s identity is most revealed not by the artifacts in his office or the weathering of his face but by the way he learned to care for horses as a child. When he was ten years old, after the youngest of his three older brothers graduated from high school, his family moved from Salt Lake City to a ranch in Alpine, Utah. His father, Paul Mendenhall, soon had him mucking out the stalls, hauling hay, and feeding the animals. Bronco was so painstaking and perfectionist by nature that he would at times get down on his hands and knees to clean up horse manure piece by piece.1 “I’ve always had a really obedient and conscientious spirit,” says Bronco. “I desire to please. I want to do things right. I want to do a job exactly as it needs to be done.” His dad came to thoroughly trust him and gave him chores usually suited to an adult or a responsible teenager, such as training a dozen horses, administering their shots, and driving the pickup truck on the farm to help manage a hundred head of cattle.2

Following in the footsteps of his older brothers, Bronco also got involved in sports. “In my family, my brothers were all such strong and vibrant people. They all were either racing motorcycles, skiing competitively, or playing great baseball or football. I wanted badly to be like them.” Bronco adds, “I tried hard to gain acceptance. I wanted people to say of me, ‘That’s one of the Mendenhalls. You can just tell.’ As a little kid, I put all this pressure on myself because I wanted to be like my brothers, and I wasn’t sure I could.” So along with his conscientious spirit and his family pride came some self-doubt. “I was always very self-critical, thinking, ‘What if I don’t play well?’”

Bronco ultimately became captivated most of all by football. His dad had been a defensive end for BYU in the 1950s. Two of his older brothers were successful players who provided inspiration as well. Mat, a starting defensive lineman for BYU, was picked in the second round of the NFL draft by the Washington Redskins, where he played for two years and started in Super Bowl XVII. Marty, closest in age to Bronco, played first at Snow College, then at Weber State and the University of Utah.

Bronco grew up attending BYU football games. “My mom and dad used to take me out of school on Fridays to travel to Fort Collins [Colorado] and Laramie [Wyoming] to watch my brother Mat play,” he says. “It was a big deal. When I’d get up to leave class, it was a huge thing to the other kids because my brother played at BYU, and I got to leave school because of that. It made me feel special. I idolized my brother. My identity was tied to sports performance.”

And Bronco did play well. He became the captain of the American Fork High School football team where he was a tight end and defensive back. He showed unrelenting dedication at practice and put in extra conditioning hours on the weekends. He was hailed by his coach as a fierce competitor, reliably conscientious and tough, but also “a genuinely thoughtful person” and an earnest friend to the underdog.3

Though he was only 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, Bronco made plans to become a career player. He believed that if he worked hard enough, he could set his sights on the NFL.

Bronco’s dreams of playing for BYU were dashed, though, when the Cougars did not offer him a scholarship. The only scholarship that came, in fact, was from two-year Snow College in Ephraim, Utah. So Bronco followed in Marty’s footsteps. Starting both years as cornerback, he contributed to the 1985 team’s perfect 11–0 season and National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championship. He earned top laurels including a first-team all-­conference spot, second-team NJCAA All-America ­accolades, and Junior College Gridwire Academic All-America honors. Still, when several scholarships offers were extended to him as his career with the Badgers concluded, BYU again failed to pony up. Bronco was irritated. He chose Oregon State mostly because BYU was on its schedule. Now he longed for a win against the Cougars.

For the Beavers, Bronco again started both years—this time as free safety, strong safety, and linebacker—and captained the team his senior year. Bronco’s longed-for win over BYU came in his junior year. He was so thrilled that, after the game in Provo, he threw himself spread-eagle on the stadium grass to savor the victory, looking skyward.4

He continued pursuing the dedicated work ethic he had cultivated with the horses as a youth, but what foreshadowed his future path was not his success as a player, but as a leader. At Oregon State, he won the Leo Gribkoff Memorial Award, an honor given to the team’s most inspirational player. Having received solid recognition during his college career, he eagerly anticipated the spring NFL draft, hoping to be selected by a team recognizing his work ethic, his leadership potential, and his whole-hearted playing style. When draft day arrived, though, Bronco’s name was never called. He was devastated.

But he held out hopes of getting on as a free agent. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and then continued at Oregon State, pursuing a master’s in education with an emphasis in exercise physiology. He took a job as a graduate assistant in the football program. He was biding his time as he waited for the NFL offer to come, training intensely every day. “Realistically, looking back,” says Bronco, “it was a waste of time. I wasn’t a good enough college player, nor were my chances strong enough. I was just chasing a dream that wasn’t realistic.”

As graduation approached and the NFL dream withered, Bronco did not know where he would get a job. That last semester, to save money, he lived in his office. “I had a little piece of foam for a bed,” he remembers. “Literally everything I needed was there. My work was there, the gym, the weight room, the showers.” Oregon State was a struggling football program at the time, so work was intense. Living at school and working feverishly, Bronco was so engrossed in football that he actually lost his car. He recalls:

On weekends, during that semester, we were playing games, and then I was staying afterward to break down the film late at night. The weekend would come and go. I mean it’s Monday, and all I’d done on Sunday was go to church and come back and work. Because Sunday was a workday, I really didn’t have weekends. So I found that one week went by, then two, then three, then four, and I hadn’t ever driven my car. It went from weeks to months, and that’s how all-encompassing what I was doing was. And eventually when it came time to leave to go home, I didn’t know where I had put my car! It wasn’t where I thought it was.

Bronco reported it stolen to the police. They found it in the school parking lot, covered with leaves.5 “I’m pretty obsessive, and I have a one-track mind. Even for people who know me, they still think it’s weird that I lost my car. But I’m kind of all or nothing when it comes to doing things.” So for Bronco, failing to drive his car for an entire semester was all in the course of a season’s work.

After that season, the entire coaching staff at Oregon State was fired when Jerry Pettibone was brought on as the new head coach. All of the professionals that any other year would have been Bronco’s advocates as he sought a job were themselves on the hunt. So he went home to Alpine to train horses again with his dad. “I loved being with my dad and I loved the horses, so I was just kind of doing it as a filler. He was paying me a salary because I was working the colts for him.”

Then a call came from Paul Tidwell, the head coach at Snow College, who had been Bronco’s defensive coordinator when Bronco played for the Badgers. Paul offered him the secondary coach and defensive coordinator spot. It was a ninety-minute commute worth only $4,500 a season, so the rest of the year Bronco continued to work with the horses. After a couple seasons of this, “I just was kind of at the end of my rope, thinking, you know, I don’t even know if I want to coach.” But then Steve Kragthorpe, who had been a graduate assistant along with Bronco at Oregon State and was now offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona, helped him secure an interview in Flagstaff. Bronco got the secondary coaching job, and that started his full-time coaching career. Bronco loaded up his dad’s horse trailer and moved himself south. He was named codefensive coordinator the following year.

Soon contacts at Oregon State brought him back to his alma mater. He became the defensive line coach under coordinator Rocky Long, with Jerry Pettibone still in the head coach slot. The Rocky-Bronco pairing would prove to be a long and fruitful collaboration. When Rocky landed the head coaching spot at UCLA, Bronco was promoted at Oregon State and became the youngest defensive coordinator in PAC-10 history, at only twenty-nine years old. Pettibone was fired a year later, though, so once again Bronco was in search mode. Louisiana Tech head coach Gary Crowton had been an assistant coach at Snow College when Bronco was a cornerback there, and Gary offered Bronco a job coaching the secondary in Ruston, Louisiana.

It was during this time that Bronco reconnected with Holly Johnston. Holly had introduced herself to Bronco ten years earlier when he was playing for the Beavers in Oregon. Mutual family friends, members of the cutting horse circle in which the Mendenhalls and Johnstons moved, had sized up the young Holly—an outdoorsy freshman from Montana who loved horses, skiing, and travel—and declared their intent to find her a “Mormon cowboy” to marry. They urged her to contact Bronco, whom she had never met. That is, they urged her repeatedly. So finally she put pen to paper. “I am not kidding you,” she says. “I wrote him a letter that said, ‘Dear Bronco, my name is Holly.’”

They soon met and dated for a time but then parted ways for a decade. They reunited again by chance at an airport. While waiting for her flight, says Holly:

I saw this guy who had an Oregon State jacket on. I was just sitting there waiting, so I said, “Hey, do you happen to know Bronco Mendenhall?”

He said, “He’s right there.” I walked over, and Bronco was reading a book. I was just so impressed, because it kind of broke the football mold. He’d been a player when I dated him before, and my parents thought he was a knucklehead, a football jockhead. We had both really changed.

Bronco proposed just after being fired from Oregon State. The couple’s honeymoon was the romantic drive from the Northwest down south to Louisiana Tech. “It was a terrible drive down there,” says Holly. “It was just long, and we had really bad roads, and there were blizzards all through Montana and Wyoming. Then when we got to Kansas, we stayed in a tiny motel, because that’s all there was. They had just washed the carpets. So our feet were squishing in water. It was the only room they had, and we were in the middle of nowhere.”

The drive to the South may have been cold and wet, but the couple was happy. Still, they both had second thoughts about Bronco’s career choice. He and Holly were far from home and family. They did not have as much time together as they wanted. Of that early period in their marriage, Holly says:

I grew up in a family where my dad was totally on his own schedule. If he wanted to go on a family trip, he blocked out the time. Bronco’s schedule was rigid, strict. He was never home. He’d leave at 6:00 in the morning and come home at 10:00 at night. I’d left my family, left everyone; I didn’t know anyone in Louisiana. It was an extremely different culture than what I was remotely used to. Bronco was gone all the time. I had no friends. I thought there was a competition between the men to see who could get to the office first and who could stay the latest. There was one coach’s wife who took me under her wing and taught me the ropes. I will forever be grateful to her for being a good friend and teaching me what a coach’s wife does and what the season is about. I mean, we went 9–2. I had no idea how great that was!

Besides all the time away from Holly, Bronco was also dismayed by other facets of his work life. The cockroaches scurried when he flipped on the lights in his office; the projector screen in his meeting room doubled as a barrier to the visitor’s restroom, which was noisome and often strewn with dirty laundry.

There, in muggy north-central Louisiana, Bronco Mendenhall’s commitment to coaching was profoundly shaken. Was this really what he wanted? Were the sacrifices worth it? How had he ended up here? Bronco plumbed his depths, striving to grasp hold of a purpose that could help him find peace, to call forth the inspiration to invigorate the pursuit of his current course.

Though passionate about football, a deep-rooted aspect of Bronco’s personality is spiritual. Grandfathers on both sides served in careers for the Church, one as the Presiding Bishop (the leader of the administrative arm of the Church), and one as an administrator of the Church’s labor missionary program. His father had recently completed a three-year term as a mission president, where he had directed the labors of dozens of missionaries serving within the boundaries of the Church’s New Zealand Auckland Mission. Then he had become a stake patriarch, which is a formal appointment to be the mouthpiece for inspired blessings and counsel to Church members, particularly young people. As Bronco and Holly contemplated having children, Bronco now realized that his work was no longer and could never be ultimately meaningful to him for his personal advancement alone, but only as it furthered something of intrinsic worth.

Did he find that higher purpose, something that could attach him to football coaching in a way that satisfied his desire to reach beyond himself, to serve others, and to contribute to a transcendent cause? He did indeed. After much contemplation and prayer, Bronco came to believe that the greatest value of his work was the opportunity to develop and shape young men, to teach them to consistently put forth their best effort. Perhaps this was a fulfillment of his inclination since a youth to reach out to the underdog. When Bronco envisioned this as his paramount goal rather than the winning of football games, when he realized that he could define his life’s work as dedicated service to others, then the intense devotion he was giving to the game seemed worthwhile.

“At some point, I had to decide why I was doing this,” he says. “I concluded that I like to see kids try hard. I like to see them develop. I don’t coach for Saturdays. I coach for the day-to-day thrill of watching them show up and do the very best they can. That’s how I gain the greatest satisfaction. Since I came to that conclusion, I’ve been at peace with what I’m doing.”6

In a few years, Bronco’s understanding of the meaning of his career would be augmented in important ways. But this initial burst of inspiration refreshed him and provided a backdrop for the unusual leadership approach that he would go on to develop at UNM and BYU. Some of the principles that would later prove startling and fascinating to the national media grew out of his inner struggles in Ruston, Louisiana.

After a year at Louisiana Tech, Bronco heard again from Rocky Long, who was now the head coach at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. “Hallelujah!” thought Holly. “We’re headed back north! I’ll be two days from Montana!” Bronco took the job eagerly, if nothing else, to get Holly closer to home.

By the time Bronco left Albuquerque, where he was the defensive coordinator, he had become known for his gifted ability to help even disadvantaged players reach unexpected heights of performance. His recruits at UNM came from Los Angeles and Texas—rough, street-smart survivors who cared mostly about football and little about academics. “They were a very diverse group of young men trying to survive life experiences that you and I can’t even imagine,” says Bronco. “I’d coached all these other young men in my career, but I hadn’t really looked yet.” At UNM, Bronco saw deep into the hearts of his players. He felt he might be able to connect with youngsters who but for the game of football would be difficult to reach.

The defensive players may have come to the meetings for the game, but what they began to get from Bronco was something else: a message about who they fundamentally were deep inside. “We were from different faiths,” Bronco says, “and it wasn’t appropriate in that setting for me to be talking about religion.” Instead, he turned to the world’s great warrior cultures to capture the attention of his players. He began an informal study of the Zulu, Apache, Samurai, and Pacific Islanders. He found that presenting stories from these cultures and examining their bonding and rites of passage were engaging and intriguing to his young men. On Fridays, Bronco would share a quote with his players about a warrior group. He would expound on the story, the culture, and the principles or practices lived by these heroes.

For example, he told a story his father had repeated throughout his childhood of Maori Battalion 28 that in 1943 faced the German troops of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel in Egypt. Surrounded one day by Rommel’s tanks and greatly outnumbered, the Maori forces coalesced at dawn before the invading army and performed the haka, a ceremonial war dance, fiercely chanting Ka Mate! Ka Mate! and brandishing their tattooed bodies before the stunned Germans. Though casualties were high that day, the Maori troops broke through the German lines, opening a passage for their battalion’s trucks and guns.7

“The point I made with the players is that in moments of absolute uncertainty and indecision, warriors revert back to who they really are. I trained the kids so hard and gave them such great challenges to bring them right back to the question, ‘Who am I?’” In the same way that Bronco challenged himself relentlessly as a youngster in order to prove himself, he now worked his players mercilessly so that they, too, could discover who they were deep inside.

Bronco arranged for a visit from Maori officials. “The leader stood up in front of our team and told a great story about his father, and how he fought off a thousand men,” says Nick Speegle (UNM outside linebacker 2001–04; team captain). Nick recalls:

It was just so inspiring. At the end of that speech, the other tribesmen did the haka in front of us. I mean, they were spitting on the people in the first row. It was awesome. Then we flew up to Colorado and played a great game. They went on the flight with us and watched the game. That’s just one more example of going that extra distance for us—just us. Bronco cared so much about us that he would go that extra mile.

“We called the style of defense we were playing at UNM an effort-based system,” says Bronco, “meaning you worked as hard as you could. We went to great lengths to make sure there wasn’t anybody, anywhere, who was practicing harder or trying harder than we were. It was the rite of passage. There was something special waiting for them that was not for everybody. Those who really wanted it had to demonstrate their desire.”

Bronco gave each defensive player a Maori tiki—a small, carved pendant—to betoken the World War II Maori Battalion story. They wore them around their necks to remind themselves of their true identities. “These kids were from all different cultures and walks of life, and they valued these emblems,” says Bronco. “They knew how to be warriors. They knew how to act tough. But did they know how to be resilient? To persevere? To continue on when really challenged? The common message I had for them was simply that they each have greatness inside of them. They are blessed with unique and different gifts, but inside each of them at those critical moments is where they need to look. These moments are when their greatest growth will happen.”

Bronco adds:

I allowed them to watch themselves go from wondering about their abilities, to carrying themselves with confidence and viewing themselves as someone of value, as someone who could make a difference, rather than just another kid from this area or street. They actually had great potential. I saw the change manifested most in camaraderie, in cooperative behavior, in caring for one another. Did I change their off-the-field behavior? Did they still drink? Almost every player there did. Were there tattoos from head to toe? On almost every kid. Did they attend strip clubs? Probably. But when they walked through the doors of the building, they found this unique other place that they liked. Not only a physical place, but a mental place.

For all this talk of changing lives and helping youth, Bronco is not a particularly gregarious person. He could never be described as easygoing (though Holly sometimes teases him by calling him “Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky”). By his own admission he does not naturally reach out to others. He is slow to chuckle when amused; his father brags that he is one of the few who can get Bronco to laugh outright. Still, he can be outgoing and friendly in the right circumstances. “You could see this expression on Coach Mendenhall’s face when things would go well and everything was clicking on the football field,” says Charles Moss (UNM linebacker 1999–2002). “He would smile. You’d see that smile come out. Then he’d run around and have fun on the football field. It was fun to see him. He was just a very stern guy, but he approached life with the belief that there’s a time and a place for everything.”

Bronco is über-intense. He is captivated by the game, engrossed and absorbed. He cannot easily put it out of his head.

Also, in the words of his wife, Holly, he is “extremely private.” He is not one for small talk. Even players who greatly admire him have described him as “standoffish.” BYU players would later notice that he avoided extraneous social contact by exiting out the back door of the athletic building. On the whole they would find him unapproachable, especially during his earlier years of coaching. Yet in a few years, the same BYU defensive team he intimidated would feel such admiration and loyalty that they would eventually step up to formally advocate his promotion to head coach.

The apparent paradox is resolved by an understanding that Bronco’s successful connection with young men comes not so much through his informal relationships with them, nor through any random moments of jocular exchange or social banter. Rather, his deep concern for their well-being is revealed by his unlimited hope for their potential and his willingness to help them learn about their true selves. He never asks more of them than he asks of himself, never expects them to be or give any less than everything of which they are capable. His hope for their everyday greatness emits like a fiery furnace, warming them even without beckoning them to come too close. When he does invite them in, his concern is perceptive and sincere.

“He expected perfection,” says Nick. “There are a lot of coaches who coach by fear. He didn’t coach that way.” Nick continues:

He just demanded perfection because in his mind, that’s what it takes to win. It was a whole new level that he brought his players to. Everybody wanted to win. I mean, you say you play for yourself, but a lot of us were playing for him. We wanted to win for Coach Mendenhall, because of how hard he worked and the type of person he was. He led by example. He would never do the lazy thing. He would always be the first one out at practice. He would never take the elevator; he’d only take the stairs. He’d always do things the hard way because it would make you that much better. As a player, I would think, if there’s a lazy option and a hard option, Coach Mendenhall would always take that difficult, hard path. So I was inspired to do the same.

As Bronco’s experience as a coach broadened and he honed his ability to coax a farm work ethic, technical precision, and a new sense of personal worth from players of all backgrounds, his brand of character development never wavered from an unyielding expectation of excellence in football performance. Bronco’s players worked hard and did well. He himself continued to innovate defensive strategies. At New Mexico, he and head coach Rocky Long developed a new defensive scheme for the Lobos. The defense there amassed impressive stats including a three-year run in the Mountain West Conference as the top rushing defense, while leading the league in total defense in 2002 and in sacks in both 2001 and 2002. Bronco coached “Lobo-back” Brian Urlacher, who was picked in the first round of the NFL draft by the Chicago Bears, claimed the 2000 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, and was voted into eight pro bowls (as of the 2011–12 season). At UNM, Bronco coached in his first-ever bowl game: the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl.

Finally, Bronco’s achievements earned him an offer at BYU in 2003—not as a player, as he had dreamed as a youth—but as a coach.

“It was difficult to leave New Mexico,” he says. “In fact, Holly and I didn’t want to leave. I’d just been promoted to be the assistant head coach and things were going great. The players were making tremendous progress.” But after some deliberation, he and Holly made the decision to return to Bronco’s native Utah. He was rejoining head coach Gary Crowton, this time as defensive coordinator.

Bronco was glad to be back home after more than ten years of living far from his roots. He and Holly were now the parents of two little sons, and it was good for the boys to be so near at least one set of grandparents. A third son was born to Bronco and Holly a few months after their return to Utah. Bronco was also pleased to be reconnected with Crowton.

But that first season at BYU, when he found himself in Albuquerque playing against the Lobos, he felt like a traitor. The Lobo defenders were wearing their tikis. Bronco remembers, “I had coached the kickoff team there, and the whole kickoff team turned to face me and saluted me with upraised fists, which is what we used to do.”

Nick Speegle comments:

That was our thing. In the huddle we would raise our fists in the air. That was his thing. When he was gone, the team didn’t want to do that anymore. When we played BYU, I just remember myself standing and looking at him with my fist raised. I was just showing him: “Coach Mendenhall, we still love you. You did what you had to do for your family, and we’re still going to run down on kickoff.”

“That will be a moment I will never forget,” says Bronco. “They were remembering. That was all I needed to see to continue that same approach, applied now in a completely different setting, to a greater extent, including faith at the very core, but with the same motive of inspiring people to reach their true potential.”

All was well.

But at the end of Bronco’s second season at BYU, the world turned upside down once more. Crowton resigned in the wake of three losing seasons. Bronco shed tears at the press conference when his friend stepped down. He had hoped that Crowton would be given more time to prove himself at BYU, and he regretted not being able to do something that would have prevented this turn of events.

Driving in his car shortly thereafter, an unnerving impression came to Bronco. He immediately called Holly, who was in the kitchen making dinner. He said, “This is going to sound really crazy, Holly, but I think I’m supposed to be the next head coach here.”

She said, “You’re kidding! What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

Bronco replied, “Nothing. I’m just saying, I just had a really strong feeling as I was driving around that I’m in line.” He had never mentioned a desire to be the head coach before.

“For a long time he had wanted to be a coordinator in the NFL,” Holly says. “He was a great coordinator.” But he had never spoken of being a head coach.

Nevertheless, when the media reported that Kyle Whittingham, a former BYU star linebacker and then defensive coordinator at the University of Utah, had been chosen as Crowton’s successor, Bronco and Holly prepared the family to move on. Holly says:

We brought the kids together—it was around Christmas—and we sat them down and said, “We’re probably going to move. We’ll have a new adventure. We’ll meet new friends.” You know, in coaching, you just go wherever. You’re grateful to have a job. Then we got in the truck and we went to look for a Christmas tree.

Bronco had the radio on, which was really unlike him, because he never listens to the sports shows. The broadcaster said, “We expect to hear any moment the announcement that Kyle Whittingham will be named the head coach of BYU.”

Bronco shut it off. I said, “Amen! We don’t need to listen to that!”

But then Urban Meyer decided to leave Utah, and Whittingham abruptly took the head coaching spot for the Utes instead of for the Cougars.

Now Bronco’s defensive players at BYU made a play for their coordinator. They had come to love and respect him, grueling practice regimen and all. “Twenty-five guys knocked on my door one day, all defense,” says then-assistant athletic director Tom Holmoe. He had seen these guys “getting their butts whipped” each day on the practice field by their uncompromising coach, yet it was Bronco’s “victims” who now pled that he be considered for the job. Tom says, “He was very hard on his defense, but as a unit they wanted him. And that left a very strong impression on me.” Tom met with Bronco, but he was a reluctant candidate. He was deeply loyal to Crowton and peeved by his dismissal. He could not fathom himself as a head coach. He was pointed and frank in initial interviews, even downright abrasive. He rejected the suggestion that changes needed to be made with the team.

So Tom pressed Bronco for a second interview. “He was so loyal to Coach Crowton that he didn’t want to say anything bad,” says Tom. “I said, ‘Bronco, by you suggesting that there are different ways to lead a team, that’s not disrespectful to Coach Crowton. I fired him, okay? I don’t hate him. I’m concerned about this program. If you’re going to lead it, I’ve got to know what you’re going to do. What are your thoughts? What are your passions? Show me something.’” Bronco reoriented himself and opened up, sharing more of his personal philosophy, of his passion for serving young men, and sketching a possible vision for the team.

Tom offered him the job. “I think we got the perfect guy,” says Tom, whose first choice had unequivocally been Whittingham. “In hindsight, Bronco is our guy. This is the perfect fit. I wouldn’t have hired him if I didn’t think he was going to be successful. But I must say that it happened faster, way faster, than I thought it would.”

Chapter 1: Warrior Coach

^1. Jeff Call, “Being Bronco: Mendenhall Developed Work Ethic at Young Age,” Deseret News, March 30, 2005,­article/600122374/Being -Bronco-Mendenhall-developed-work-ethic-at-young-age.html.

^2. Call, “Being Bronco.”

^3. Davis Knight, as quoted in Call, “Being Bronco.”

^4. Ibid.

^5. Ibid.

^6. Ibid.

^7. Paul Mendenhall, telephone conversation with Alyson Von Feldt, May 1, 2012.

Powerful Principles Consistently Applied

by  Matt  -   reviewed on  September 13, 2013

I've known of Paul's "Five Smooth Stones" for nearly 15 years, and in that span I have called upon them countless times to revitalize and align organizations of which I've been a part. While I am not at all suprised to see that BYU's recent football success is due in part to the application of these principles, it is nonetheless inspiring and heartening. It speaks to Broncho's humility as a leader, as well as Paul's immense capacity in his field, that these principles were so completely and thoroughly embraced and implemented. The story of how this was done is well worth anyone's time and effort.

Fantastic read!

by  Justin  -   reviewed on  December 30, 2012

I thoroughly enjoyed reading and learning about great leadership and organizational design through the example of Coach Mendenhall and the BYU football program. The concepts and principles I learned have spurred many new thoughts as to how I can more effectively lead and design my organization and team to achieve sustained success. These principles can be applied in any environment. I couldn't put the book down. I loved the experiences that were shared, both on and off the field...the challenges and the great success. And, great admiration and respect for Coach Mendenhall and his commitment to an even higher purpose. A truly fantastic read!

insightful and practical

by  Customer  -   reviewed on  August 27, 2012

This book does a superb job sharing the story of Bronco Mendenhall's success but also puts his success into a context. Bronco has brought his "band of brothers" philosophy into the BYU football program. He has based his insights on sound managerial principles. Paul has been a wonderful coach to the coach. He has helped Bronco adapt management principles to the football program to ensure sustained success. This book should appeal to BYU fans who want unique insights into the success of the BYU football program. It should also appeal to those interested in management practice as a blueprint for sustained organizational success

A must read for business leaders!

by  Michael  -   reviewed on  September 04, 2012

As someone who is enjoys BYU football, I thought this would be a fun read. Bronco's story of how he has transformed a stumbling football program into a highly successful operation is both insightful and inspiring. As a business leader, I found this book to be more entertaining and applicable than, The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. If you are a business leader, parent, community leader, and/or coach who wants to improve your organization, family, or team - this is a must read! Why? This book will help you: 1. Recognize what is unique about you and your organization 2. Understand how to align your resources to your strengths and uniqueness 3. Realize that your organization is perfectly designed to get the results you get 4. Identify what knowledge is most important for you and your organization 5. Capture hearts and minds! Bottom line: This book teaches powerful principles using interesting stories and unexpected examples of leadership!


by  Emilee  -   reviewed on  September 13, 2012

This book was amazing! I gained an appreciation for Bronco Mendenhall and his leadership skills. Not only is he a leader, he is an inspirational teacher and coach who motivates his athletes to become better. Yes, this book is for the "sports guy," however, it is for ANYONE who wants success in life. In this book, you will learn 5 strategies for building a successful team. One could apply his principles to work, school or church. There is always a need to build upon oneself. The amazing part about this book is that you get to learn more about Bronco and the difficulties he faced as head coach. You also learn more about Bronco's "system" and the principles and tools he learned from Paul Gustavson. I absolutely recommend this inspirational book to anyone that has a dream. Reach for your dreams and succeed.

Learn the 5 Strategies for Building a Successful Team

by  mark  -   reviewed on  August 30, 2012

Readers of Running Into the Wind will benefit on three levels. First, you will learn the remarkable story of Bronco Mendenhall, who has led and inspired the perennial Top Twenty BYU football program as head coach. You will learn the degree of commitment and drive necessary to accomplish great things at such a young age. Second, readers will learn Paul Gustavson's 5 strategies for building successful teams. From his first weeks on the job as a fledgling head coach, and on an on-going basis, Bronco has engaged Paul as an organizational design consultant and diligently applied principles of strategy and organizational design to the task of building sustainable competitive advantage. Finally, readers will benefit from the fruits of co-author Alyson Von Feldt's interviews with dozens of players, assistant coaches and peers who tell personal and often heart-felt stories about life under Bronco's leadership. Alyson is a truly gifted writer, and her presentation of anecdotes and accounts of the BYU football program are engaging and enlightening. I recommend this book for anyone interested in more than just a good read -- there are principles and methods covered this book that we can all apply to our lives and work.

Recommended For All Audiences

by  Nate  -   reviewed on  September 02, 2012

When people ask me, "What does Paul Gustavson do?" I respond that he is an organizational design consultant. This answer inevitably leads to another question, "What does that mean?". Every time I get this question, I struggle with the answer. It is not easy to encapsulate what Paul does in just a few sentences--not because his work can't be described, but rather because his genius can be too easily understated. Listing Paul's clients adds credibility to my assessment of Paul's genius (American Express, AT&T, BP, Exxon, GE, Pennzoil, Bristol Myers Squibb, Wells Fargo, eBay, NuSkin, Xerox, and Colgate Palmolive among others) but it doesn't get any closer to explaining what he does. For those who want to understand what Paul Gustavson does and why some of the best companies in the world seek out his guidance, I no longer have to struggle with the answer. I will now just direct them to Running into the Wind, written by Paul Gustavson and Alyson Von Feldt. The book is structured around Paul Gustavson's Five Smooth Stones, in reference to the stones that David, from the Old Testament, used to slay Goliath. Just learning what the stones are is worth the time spent reading the book. But thanks to Paul's unprecedented access to Coach Mendenhall and dozens of former BYU players, Paul walks us through the actual implementation of his five principles. The book seamlessly transitions from theory to application--we can see firsthand how Paul's principles, when implemented by a "Level 5 Leader" like Coach Mendenhall, lead to unprecedented consistency and success. I cannot recommend the book highly enough for those fans who want an "inside look" at the BYU football program. But for me, the most intriguing aspect of the book is its widespread appeal and application. Learning Paul's principles has helped me become a better person and father. I believe that this book has something for everyone. The BYU football storyline is intriguing in its own right, but when combined with Paul's time-tested theories on leadership, I can confidently recommend this book to anyone, knowing that the principles that Paul teaches are applicable to all people.

Great read. I would encourage all to read and apply it's principles.

by  Cameron  -   reviewed on  September 02, 2012

This book gives you an inside perspective how Coach Mendenhall turned a team around from 3 consecutive loosing season. As a player on the team during this time I saw firsthand how the principles in this book led to us coming closer as a team and achieving more on and off the field. The principles shared in the book i've applied in my own life and business pursuits and would encourage everyone to read the book and apply them as well. The digital book also includes links to videos where Coach Mendenhall and Paul discuss the transformation process of the program which are extremely beneficial. A must read!

Great book with rare insight

by  stewart  -   reviewed on  September 06, 2012

This book tells a remarkable story - about how football and business principles were fused together to produce a great football program. A program based on sound design principles, excellent leadership, the diffusion of knowledge,a willingness to take a hard look at yourself and a strategy based on differentiation. If you read this book, you will learn a remarkable set of principles, strategies, tactics and techniques which will help you replicate Bronco's success. I highly recommend this book.

Great Insights from a Great Book!

by  Tom  -   reviewed on  September 13, 2012

For almost twenty years, I've had the pleasure of working with and learning from Paul Gustavson. As I read Running Into the Wind: Bronco Mendenhall--5 Strategies for Building a Successful Team, Paul's words and wisdom continued to leap off the pages to me, one after another! Many of the lessons and insights in the book have been shared with me by Paul over the years, but the book does an outstanding job of providing clear, entertaining examples of the insights in use. For business leaders that need to understand how Paul's organization principles come together to create a desired culture and improved results, just read this book! For others, it's a great, inspiring read! On an added note, I usually prefer to read a traditional book, but I was so excited to read Paul's book that I downloaded an e-copy before the hardbound copy arrived. What a terrific surprise to be able to link directly to the video's of Paul and Bronco discussing on stage the principles used to transform the BYU team! The experience added a new dimension to "reading" and demonstrated one of the book's principles at the same time. I encourage others to check out the multimedia experience of the e-version of Running Into the Wind: Bronco Mendenhall--5 Strategies for Building a Successful Team!

Loved it!

by  Kathy  -   reviewed on  September 13, 2012

This book has not only been interesting, but very uplifting. Bronco is an amazing coach that really has raised the BYU team to higher expectations and spirituality. It’s been fun to read and learn how he’s done that. It’s caused me to look at my own life and pick out strategies that I can use in my own family. Thank you to Alyson and Paul for getting the story told!

Fabulous, enlightning, inspiring.

by  eric  -   reviewed on  September 21, 2012

I purchased the book on Saturday and finished it on Wednesday. I couldn't put it down. It occupied all of my non-work and non-church service time. I wrote copius notes and received promptings about how I can apply its principles in my personal, family and professional life. I am anxious to implement the concepts taught into my daily routine.--Eric, Arizona

Interesting, Insightful, and Inspiring

by  Julie  -   reviewed on  October 05, 2012

Paul and Alyson do a great job of capturing a wide array of audiences. This book is not just about football and business but about real life. It offers something for everyone. As an educator and a coach many of the concepts hit home for me. I enjoyed how the authors shared the stories and first hand experiences from the BYU football program and applied the principles from there, giving me an image or example of how it works. I like how they summed everything up towards the end of the book and helped me see how I can apply these principles personally in my own life and with my own team. I was eager to make sure to record in my journal the parts that interested me and inspired me and I found that by the end I had pages and pages of notes. As I read I also felt inspired to share certain parts of the book with friends and family. This book offered me great factual insight that I now feel confident I can apply into my own endeavors as a teacher and a coach. I feel empowered with new knowledge and am excited to incorporate the things I've learned.


by  Richard  -   reviewed on  November 02, 2012

It has been my experience over the years that many business publications have a tendency to be rather dry and somewhat boring while they articulate important business principals. In contrast, I found Paul and Alyson’s book to be just the opposite. They do a wonderful job of using sports metaphors to illustrate the business strategies and principals that have successfully been employed in some of the world’s largest and most prestigious business organizations – including the BYU football program. This, to me, makes Running into the Wind a FUN read - while simultaneously presenting important organizational learning’s to the reader. The five stones, as Paul affectionally calls the five business principals he uses to design successful organizations around, are crucially important to any leader regardless of the size of their organization, or whether it is a family or business unit. An added plus for me was to get to know Bronco on a more personalized manner and to learn about the quality of person Bronco actually is; especially in today’s world where many coaches and mentors appear not to be of this same caliber. In essence, as a CEO, and as a member of a successfully functioning family unit, I strongly recommend “Running into the Wind” book to anyone in a leadership role – business or family – as an important and must read! Richard Feller, MBA, Ph.D.

Big Return on Time Spent

by  kreig  -   reviewed on  November 08, 2012

I guard my time because it is the most limited resource I have. This book was worth the time. I gained professional and personal insights that will benefit me for the rest of my life.

This is a great book

by  Ray  -   reviewed on  November 26, 2012

I just finished reading this book and found it to be both interesting and informative. It provided me with great insights into the BYU football program that I would not have known or understood without the benefit of this book. I also enjoyed learning about the five strategies for building a successful team and can't wait to apply them to the groups I work with. Thank you Paul for a great book at a great price. Ray

A must read for anyone interested in increasing performance-- even if you are not a football fan

by  A  -   reviewed on  December 23, 2012

If you are a football fan, it goes without saying - you will find this book a tremendous leadership and team resource using a metaphor you know well. I must admit that I am not a football fan--yet there is so much value in learning about Bronco's practical tools and profound "lessons learned" that I am here writing a recommendation you read it, even if you are one of the last to jump at "sports metaphors." Why? In short, this book explains in clear terms what any business person seeks to do-increase performance. Section one takes you through Bronco's compelling story, giving you the context for understanding how the team has applied core principles about knowledge and learning to drive performance in an extremely competitive environment. Fascinating--especially since many would not guess that a football team would be such a great model for how any organization works. As a leader, Bronco is an inspiration to anyone like me, a CEO trying hard everyday to make the best decisions for the organization. Section two, explains the nuts and bolts of Gustavson's consulting work, in essence the roadmap that Bronco followed to achieve his results-an invaluable resource for any business person looking to expand their organizations ability to learn, grow and win! Ann Herrmann-Nehdi

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