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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Bronco Mendenhall took a big risk when he left BYU to take over Virginia's football program three years ago. The Cougars had posted 11 straight winning seasons under Mendenhall. The Cavaliers had put up just one in the last eight years.
The announcement Thursday of a $500,000 gift pledged by Mendenhall and his wife, Holly, for a new football facility is a clear sign he believes he made the right move and plans to be at Virginia for the long haul.
"Why a new building is important, more so than anything else, to make a clear and simple statement that Virginia football matters," Mendenhall said recently. "It's not an afterthought. It's a priority and we intend to be excellent. Like anything else on grounds, we want to be exceptional."
U.Va. announced the half-million dollar pledge, the largest ever by a Cavaliers coach back to the school, Thursday, making it the first gift announced in relation to the athletic department's $180 million master plan.
Mendenhall took over the Cavaliers before the 2016 season. After a two-win season in his debut, he guided U.Va. to six wins and its first bowl appearance since 2011 last year. This season, Virginia is 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the ACC heading into Saturday's game at Duke (5-1, 1-1).
Mendenhall's on-field work has been a big step, but he and athletic director Carla Williams agree, off-field improvements are also necessary to build Virginia into a consistent winner.
"When you consider not beating our rival for 14 years or not being back to back bowl games for 14 years, none of that is accidental," Mendenhall said. "It's not an accident. It's been planned for. The choices have been aligned for. It's time to fix it."
The donation also is a call-to-arms of sorts from Mendenhall to fans he hopes will support the fundraising effort.
"Bronco's vision for the impact this facility will have on the football program is inspiring," Williams said in a statement released by the school. "And I hope his and Holly's gift will motivate others to invest in the future of Virginia student-athletes."
The master plan, still in its design phase, also includes a new Olympic sports facility and grass practice fields.
Mendenhall's program has seen an apparent spike in interest in his brief tenure. Saturday night, when the Cavaliers upset then-No. 16 Miami for their first win over a ranked opponent since 2014, the announced attendance of 42,393 was the third largest crowd at Scott Stadium in his time, behind his debut, the 2016 home opener against Richmond (49,270) and last season's game against rival Virginia Tech.
"We definitely, the players, we feed off that, and we appreciate that and it means a lot to us that people show up, they're loud, they're cheering," senior tight end Evan Butts said. "Those pom poms they had, in unison, going back and forth, that was awesome. When they blast the music, third downs when they get hyped, we see and appreciate that and I'm not sure if fans understand that but it doesn't matter if it's Miami, Duke, Liberty, it helps us."
Of course, Mendenhall believes his "earned not given" mantra applies to the fans, as well, and he's admitted he doesn't expect the stadium to start selling out until the results are consistently there on the field.
Now, he's given his own money to the cause, while he aims to keep winning. That, he knows, is what will eventually earn the most.
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