As players and coaches, Bronco Mendenhall and Justin Fuente have invested more than six decades in college football, a holistic passion rooted in winning games and forging young men for life after the cheering stops.
They are head-coaching rivals, Fuente at Virginia Tech, Mendenhall at Virginia, but they share well-founded concerns about the sport’s future, concerns accentuated by last month’s earthquake of Big 12 cornerstones Texas and Oklahoma bolting to the SEC.
In separate one-on-one interviews, Fuente in his office, Mendenhall on an outside bench after the Cavaliers’ first preseason practice, the coaches lamented college football’s leadership vacuum and wondered if the enterprise will splinter further.
The Texas-Oklahoma news was personal for Fuente, an Oklahoman who played quarterback for the Sooners before transferring to Murray State. His mom graduated from OU, his dad attended Oklahoma State and Tulsa, and the family frequented games at all three schools.
“First of all, the sentimental part of me, as a kid who grew up in Tulsa, it kind of bums me out,” Fuente said of OU and Texas bailing and leaving Oklahoma State and others behind. “I grew up in the Big Eight. Then it became the Big 12. There’s so much history. When Nebraska left [for the Big Ten] it was awful, and when [Texas] A&M left [for the SEC], it was awful. So it’s very disappointing. …
“I don’t understand what we’re doing. What is the end game here? Whenever we’re faced with a problem, I always like to think of it backward. What is the end result we want, and let’s work our way backward. I don’t know what the end result we’re shooting for is, and if anybody is in charge of it.
“As a big believer in college football, and what it’s done for so many people: What is this going to end up looking like, and is it going to be unrecognizable?”
A former Oregon State defensive back and Brigham Young head coach, Mendenhall has no Big 12 or SEC connections, but he, too, believes the Oklahoma-Texas move highlights the need for centralized college football leadership. Moreover, without a commissioner charged with the Bowl Subdivision’s collective well-being, he envisions additional consolidation of the sport’s most powerful brands and wealthy programs in one or two super conferences.
Indeed, whenever the Sooners and Longhorns officially change addresses — the announced target is 2025, but the move could be earlier — the SEC will be home to seven of the 12 schools that have won national titles since the 1998 advent of the Bowl Championship Series.
That breakdown: Tennessee, Oklahoma, LSU, Texas, Florida, Alabama and Auburn from the SEC, Miami, Florida State and Clemson from the ACC, Southern California from the Pac-12, and Ohio State from the Big Ten.
Mendenhall foresees a collection of the richest, football-obsessed institutions embracing “the entertainment and the financial component of college football. … The others that do not, that still prefer the academic model, even if they’re Power Five schools, [will join with] those that just don’t have the resources to buy their way in to the next level. So I see a split coming.”
Alas, Mendenhall and Fuente may be prescient. When the powerful run amok, there’s no telling what might transpire.
Neither Virginia nor Virginia Tech resides in the same financial stratosphere as football’s bluebloods, and upcoming television deals for the Big Ten and SEC will compound their monetary advantages. Notre Dame, an ACC member for other sports, could help the conference close the revenue gap by forgoing football independence, but unless the Fighting Irish sense their College Football Playoff access compromised, no one foresees that happening.
Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick was a primary architect of a proposal to expand the playoff from four to 12 teams, and if the 11 university presidents who govern the CFP approve the model, Irish independence will be reinforced.
In exchange for ACC partial membership, Notre Dame is contracted to play, on average, five ACC football opponents annually, and that rotation includes trips to Virginia Tech and Virginia in 2021.
“I don’t love the arrangement,” Fuente said, “and I don’t think I’m out of line in saying that. I think I have some understanding as to why we have the arrangement. They have no incentive yet to join the league. So why would they? Until they do, I can’t imagine that they’re going to.”
Aspiring to compete nationally despite these inherent disadvantages, UVA and Virginia Tech are raising money for hundreds of millions in facility upgrades for football. Tech recently opened a new weight room and nutrition center, while Virginia hopes to start construction of a dedicated training/office complex in 2022.
Mendenhall began publicly lobbying for such a building the day he was introduced as the Cavaliers’ coach in 2015. He’s still waiting.
“I want world-class academics while we win the ACC,” Mendenhall said, “and there’s no ceiling or governor on what we can or cannot do, maybe either based on spending or branding. So I want it all, in a world of college football that’s only increasingly pursuing the football. …
“At UVA, I think it’s totally possible. What I won’t do is compromise the development of our young people and their education in the pursuit of entertainment. … So the reality is, right, that I love the progress we’re making, but there’s a lot of decisions to be made. Is there an appetite for amazing football with amazing young people who are getting a world-class education without compromising character or values or anything? … It seems to me that would be something worthy to support.”
Even as they stump for donor support and prepare for the season ahead, Mendenhall and Fuente acknowledge their challenges just became steeper.
“It really hurts me,” Fuente said. “This is something that I feel strongly about, and I feel like we’re ruining [college football], and that’s sad, for me. … And we all know why: because it became too big a business. It became too financially lucrative to do it any other way. Kinda sucks.”