Holly Mendenhall gets asked almost monthly about wearing red to the press conference seven years ago when her husband, Bronco, was named BYU’s head football coach.
“Nobody would have thought a thing about it if Bronco hadn’t pointed it out when he spoke that day,” Holly says.
He retorts with a crooked smile, “I was just saying what everyone in the room was thinking.”
But Holly insists she should have been able to wear red to that December event — and any other time she chooses, with perhaps the exception of the week BYU plays the University of Utah.
“I love healthy rivalries, but the BYU-Utah one is over the top,” she says.
Although she still has red in her closet from their time at the University of New Mexico, Holly doesn’t buy red clothes for herself or her three sons — Cutter (12), Breaker (10) and Raeder (8).
“But that makes me mad at myself for letting other people dictate my choices,” Holly says. “Red is a great color, but other people make ridiculous comments.”
Holly isn’t one to hold back her opinions. She struggles a bit with the culture in Utah Valley. She believes many in the LDS faith marry before they are ready. She says Sundays are most definitely not a day of rest. And she wishes Bronco wouldn’t put her wooden spoons in the dishwasher.
But her spirited nature is part of what drew Bronco to her when they married in their 30s after a 10-year hiatus from their first go-around in a relationship.
“If Holly was not independent, I couldn’t be the coach at BYU,” Bronco says. “She is bright, articulate and absolutely strong-willed. She’s also loving, supportive and has a great listening ear. Without these qualities combined, my career at BYU would have been over at year two or three.”
Bronco and Holly stay in tune with each other on their weekly date — Wednesdays from noon to 1:30 — and a “correlation meeting” on Sundays to match their calendars.
“Being the head football coach doesn’t leave time during the day to take care of family matters,” Bronco says. “If Holly was calling every half hour asking me to run to the bank or coordinate a vacation, our football team wouldn’t be successful. The athletes need a high level of care, and this job requires a high level of organizational design. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else.”
Holly’s ability to take care of “everything else,” comes from growing up in Montana, being raised by a mother “who would have made it across the pioneer trail while I would not,” and by having her own career and investment portfolio before becoming a coach’s wife. Her unpaid position as Mrs. Mendenhall is highly demanding and sometimes lonely.
“When Bronco hires a new coach, I say, ‘Have the wife call me,’” Holly says. “When I talk to her, I don’t sugarcoat things. I tell her she’ll have to be OK being the only mom at her son’s maturation program. She’ll be on the soccer sidelines alone. You have to be independent to be married to a coach.”
Holly used to pride her independent self on being able to fit all of her belongings in her car. But this spring, she moved her family of five from American Fork to their new custom home in Highland. Movers and moving trucks were involved, and Holly shook her head.
“I need to go to Africa and remind myself of what I really need and don’t need,” she says.
But in reality, Holly is still low maintenance. She doesn’t own mascara and didn’t purchase all new furniture for their home — she wanted to live there first and figure out what purchases (if any) need to be made.
The Mendenhalls moved to American Fork in 2003 when Bronco took the job as defensive coordinator under Gary Crowton. They were thrilled to live near Bronco’s family — and closer to Montana, where Holly’s mom resides.
“Nowhere in my scope of expectation did I think he would become the head coach,” Holly says.
Although they have loved this Utah County experience, Holly didn’t expect their “BYU chapter” to last this long.
“When we got married, I moved from Montana to Louisiana with him, and then we were off to New Mexico,” she says. “When we came here I was excited for another adventure. Most people think this is Bronco’s dream job, but he didn’t go to BYU as a student. I would be OK with going somewhere else — in fact, I’d love the challenge of something new. But Bronco loves his job and the opportunity to help young men on and off the field. But at some point people get tired of you — it sounds harsh, but it’s true. That’s the world of athletics — it’s about winning games and meeting expectations.”
First And Foundation
Although Holly isn’t shy about the difficulties of being married to a media magnet, she also feels profoundly grateful and wants her boys to feel the same.
“When you’ve been blessed, you have a responsibility,” Holly says. “It’s important to me that we teach our boys to give back. As a parent I want to make them aware of what they’ve been given.”
Holly went to Bronco with the idea of forming a foundation, which was originally the Fully Invested Foundation but is now known as the Holly and Bronco Mendenhall Foundation.
“Like any wife, I have to pick moments with my husband when he’s open to listening and absorbing,” Holly says. “When I pushed, he caught the vision. Once I had his support, doors started opening and things started happening.”
Two events are happening May 19. The Gridiron Rumble kicks off with a pancake breakfast and motorcycle ride with Bronco. The Cowboy Ball is held in a spacious Wallsburg barn filled with linen tablecloths and a sit-down dinner.
“Holly takes the complete lead on the foundation,” Bronco says.
She handled so many details of the complex event last year that she didn’t think through what her boys would wear until the day of — which meant they squeezed into outgrown cowboy boots. This year she’s hoping their strongest memory of the night won’t be blisters. She wants them to remember why they are raising money. The Mendenhalls are creating a grant system where families can apply for $1,000 to $10,000 for expenses such as a new wheelchair, a handicapped-accessible bathroom, or paying for a wife to return to school after losing her spouse.
“We can’t touch their medical expenses, but I like to call it ‘happy money,’” Holly says. “These people are in situations they didn’t plan on being in. We want to provide a little bit of support and let them know someone loves and cares about them. We want to make their daily existence more manageable.”
The Thursday’s Heroes program, also supported by the foundation, is a “make-a-wish” of sorts for Cougar fans facing challenges. The selected heroes come to football practice and hang with Bronco and his band of brothers.
Holly is also planning a “run to the Y” in October to raise foundation funds.
Mom’s the Word
Holly’s motherhood career began at age 32 with the birth of Cutter, and at first she wasn’t sure about the title of “stay-at-home” mom. She had owned her own adventure travel company in Montana and also spent time working at the Delta ticket counter — “anything to be in the travel industry,” Holly says.
“But the minute I held that baby, he was my deal,” she says. “For the past 12 years I’ve said no to a lot of things so I could be with my boys. Bronco is already gone so much — if I was also heavily involved, our children wouldn’t have anyone around. I want to capitalize on my time with them.”
In fact, Holly’s favorite time of day is the drive to and from school when they watch for the hawk they named “George” and talk soccer and scouts.
“We don’t listen to music or watch movies — we just visit,” she says.
After she watches their backpacks disappear into the school, she switches gears and tackles a list of projects — many related to the foundation. But in the afternoon motherhood takes center stage again, with its accompanying piano lessons, soccer practices, homework and boredom.
“I want my kids to experience boredom so they can learn how to make their own fun,” she says. “We don’t do computers or video games. Kids need time to play and they need fresh air.”
Holly’s parenting techniques are largely patterned after her own mother.
“It used to drive Bronco crazy that I talk to my mom every day,” Holly says. “But he realized it’s not negotiable. They broke the mold with my mom. At age 73, she can outdo me physically. She plays tennis and has won medals at the St. George Senior Games.”
Holly’s mother was born in Midway and married a man from Detroit who was doing his orthopedic residency at the University of Utah. They moved to Montana to raise their family. Holly’s mom was LDS and the children were baptized, but Holly is now the only member of her family who is active in organized religion.
“Because I wasn’t raised in a devoutly Mormon family, and because I didn’t go to BYU, I haven’t been a lifelong BYU fan,” Holly says. “My family members aren’t football fanatics and don’t get the mania of BYU football. They don’t give a rip if we win or lose — they want to know what I’m fixing for dinner.”
Football, Firesides and Family
When Bronco took on the role of head football coach with his characteristic intensity, he initially kept his home life and football life separate.
“But about year three, I realized my two worlds had to be the same if I wanted to sustain longevity in this career,” Bronco says.
Holly takes the boys out of school at noon the day before away games, and the family travels with the team. The team hosts firesides where Bronco and Holly speak and their sons participate in musical numbers.
When it’s game time, Holly is “happy to say that I’m a chicken and prefer to watch the game inside a box.”
“I don’t want to hear comments about players and coaches,” she says. “They are doing the best they can at any given moment. Most of these guys who blab on about what the coaches should be doing wouldn’t last a day in their position.”
Holly also keeps media out of her home to avoid hearing comments about Bronco’s livelihood.
“I refuse to contribute to an entity that one day thinks you’re amazing and the next day rips you to shreds,” she says. “I realize nobody is going to buy a newspaper that says everything is happy and good, but I don’t have to participate in that.”
Exceptions to the media ban? The family enjoys movies and Holly — yes, Holly — likes college football.
“Holly is actually a bigger football fan than I am,” Bronco says.
Football is a passion and a career for the outdoor-loving couple, but they don’t plan on their sons making a life on the gridiron. Cutter reads during games, but Breaker begs to play tackle football and makes playbooks to show to his dad.
“But he won’t play tackle until he can’t last another day without it,” Bronco says. “Preferably ninth grade.”
Holly puts the sport in perspective.
“As we drive toward LaVell Edwards Stadium and pass the BYU intramural fields, I tell the boys, ‘This is why you play sports — so when you get to college you’ll know how to play, which will help you stay healthy, have fun and make friends,’” she says. “We live the stressful world of college sports, but I don’t necessarily want that for my sons.”
BYU is fun and games, but it’s also serious for Holly, who often wants to “circle the wagons” around her family.
“We care about our dad and his well-being,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s the five of us — these are the people I adore. In my world, family does come first — before church and before football. Life is about priorities.”