Bronco Mendenhall -- BYU's head coach since 2005, a Utah native and a coach who's only spent one year of his 27-year career east of New Mexico -- is leaving to become the head coach at Virginia.
This is surprising because Mendenhall's name didn't appear in any UVA rumors, because he has no apparent connections to his new region and because of his own religious ties to the institution he's leaving, where he was the second-winningest coach in program history.
It also sets up an especially critical BYU coaching search that will be unlike that of any other school looking for a coach this year. So Steven Godfrey asks Matt Brown, a Latter-day Saint, how this works and what's at stake.
Godfrey: It's apparent now that Bronco was ready to leave. Do you think BYU was ready to move on?
Matt: I think there was a certain segment of BYU fans who looked at Mendenhall like, say, Nebraska fans did towards Bo Pelini or Georgia fans did towards Mark Richt. "We like the guy, but can he get us better?" After every loss against a Power 5 program or dip outside the Also Receiving Votes section of the AP Poll, you'd find people clamoring for his firing, but I don't think that represented the majority of BYU's fans.
Mendenhall was awesome at everything else that comes with being the coach at BYU. He recruited high-character kids, could discuss the school's mission and faith comfortably, lead a fireside, etc. Because of all that, and because the team was still successful, I feel like BYU would have been happy to keep Mendenhall, even if most people didn't really expect him to be a lifer.
Godfrey: What are the chances BYU would back off of its stance that the head football coach needs to be a practicing member of the LDS church?
Matt: I think basically zero. BYU has held firm on refusing to play other sports on Sunday, after all, and has shown it's willing to take a competitive hit to stay true to its ideals. To the school, BYU football isn't just about winning championships, but serving as an ambassador for the school and, to some extent, the faith. Given what a unique place and job BYU is, the school electing to give its head job to somebody from outside that tradition would just completely shock me.
The coach has to deal with half his roster leaving for two years on LDS missions; a strict honor code that forbids drinking, sex before marriage, pornography and beards; being viewed as standard bearers for a worldwide church; rigorous academics; life as an independent; and huge fan expectations, all without big money. You might have to be LDS anyway to want to deal with all of that.
Godfrey: Of the current LDS candidates, who fits BYU the best right now and the near future?
Matt: That's a tough question, since there isn't an obvious answer. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is by far the most accomplished LDS candidate, but he's probably out of BYU's price range, and it's doubtful he'd want to go to BYU even if it could afford him (he's turned BYU down before). Navy's Ken Niumatalolo is LDS, but that would mean hiring a triple-option coach at what has historically been a more passing-heavy program.
I think that Oregon State defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake or Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson might be the best choices, as both are young, high energy, have records of accomplishment and have shown they can recruit the BYU footprint.
Godfrey: Is there a member of Bronco's staff who might be considered for the HC job?
Matt: One of the knocks on Mendenhall from the fanbase was that he wasn't great at developing assistant coaches, so there isn't an obvious replacement candidate. There are a few on staff who will probably get looks, though. The biggest name would be OC Robert Anae, who also coached at Texas Tech and Arizona and is the architect behind BYU's fast-paced offense. LB coach Kelly Poppinga and OL coach Garett Tujague could also get looks.
Godfrey: Is there a wildcard name out there we should be watching?
Matt: A real wildcard name might be Weber State head coach Jay Hill. He's only 40, only been at Weber for two seasons, and hasn't exactly set the world on fire in the standings, with an 8-15 career record. He did coax some major improvement from the Wildcats this season and has 13 years of experience as a Utah assistant. There isn't a ton of names BYU can really go after, and it's shown before it's not afraid to take a chance on a newer name.
Godfrey: What kind of salary range is the next coach looking at? You've mentioned BYU doesn't pay like a Power 5, even though it schedules like one. That would seem to hurt the hiring as much as the LDS requirement, even more so with assistants.
Matt: BYU is a private school, so the exact contract details might not get released, but BYU's salaries across the board have been much lower than Utah's or other programs of similar caliber. Throwing around $3 million at a coach, even if BYU boosters agreed to do it, kind of flies in the fact with how BYU likes to operate. With the exception of Whittingham, I'm not sure there is a name on this list that would really command big money, but I would be surprised if BYU went much over $2 million a year.
Godfrey: About that schedule: 2016 answers the question you and I asked this year, whether or not the Cougars could survive as an independent and create a potential Playoff resume, because it's loaded. The BYU fanbase is national and varied, but is there any kind of commonly held expectation for the next few years?
Matt: BYU loses a few important pieces from this year's 9-3 team, but the Cougars are returning (at least) one excellent QB, a slew of interesting running backs and wideouts and some parts of defense, so they expect to at least be competitive against a really hard 2016 schedule. After that though, who knows? Fans and administration hope to be in a Power 5 conference in the near future, but what that might look like could depend on how well they make this next hire.
Godfrey: Not to play with hyperbole, but considering the long-standing campaign for BYU to join a Power 5 (most likely the Pac-12 or Big 12), is this the most important hire in the program's modern history?
Matt: I don't think it is hyperbolic at all. BYU cannot afford to drop into mediocrity now. This athletic program will be in a tough spot if it misses the hire and goes 4-8 over the next few seasons.