Dick Harmon: BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, UConn coach Bob Diaco share same approach to shaping athletes

By Dick Harmon, Deseret News

Published: Mon, Aug. 25, 2014, 6:30 p.m. MDT

 Connecticut head coach Bob Diaco, left, stands with player Reuben Frank, right, as he talks to his team during the first NCAA college football practice Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, in Storrs, Conn.

Connecticut head coach Bob Diaco, left, stands with player Reuben Frank, right, as he talks to his team during the first NCAA college football practice Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, in Storrs, Conn.

(Jessica Hill, AP)

In UConn football coach Bob Diaco, BYU will go up against a man cut from the same cloth as Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall.

The two have never met.

They are a pair of guys who believe that off-field development, concepts of behavioral science, leadership and teamwork can be as valuable as X’s and O’s.

In other big-picture ways, although both can be very controlling, they aren’t quite in lockstep.

In the past three years, BYU has followed a nationwide trend of limiting media access to practices and players. However, Mendenhall opened more BYU practices this summer than at any time in his tenure. At UConn, no practices are open to the media at all. A few weeks ago, Mendenhall was surprised when receiver Devon Blackmon announced his suspension for Friday’s game on Twitter. Diaco’s policy is that every player on his team shuts down their Twitter account when they come to school.

Both men abhor entitlement in athletes; they believe no individual is greater than the team or the whole. Both are principle-driven, strategy and organization design-oriented coaches.

Diaco recently named his starting quarterback, but he brought all four QBs to the press conference so they could be interviewed equally as a reward for competing. Mendenhall also likes the broad praise approach/opportunity.

Mendenhall has been known to quote scripture, use Book of Mormon characters and icons like the Sons of Helaman and the Title of Liberty. When given the chance, Diaco openly declared his Christianity to the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce after being asked about a controversial quote from his former assistant coach, Ernest Jones, who said players were going to understand that “Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle.”

Diaco said he is two parts. He is at a school representing diverse beliefs, interests, socioeconomic backgrounds and religious disciplines where everyone is allowed to “chase their interests,” change their interests, and “reshape” their minds.

“Then, you have this other side that is Bob Diaco. Bob Diaco, the person, is a Christian. And I read the Bible because I believe in the Bible. I also feel the Bible is one of the most spectacular leadership documents from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Is it our playbook? It is not. It is not our playbook. We have black books. We have offensive playbooks. We have defensive playbooks. We have special teams playbooks.”

Mendenhall loves the warrior motif. He’s read the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” which is filled with quotes like “To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy,” “a leader leads by example not be force,” and “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory — tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

This spring Mendenhall embraced the “chairman of the board” head coaching role, believing leadership is an active role — a choice, not a position — and that it can be shared; thus Nick Howell is the “legitimate” defensive coordinator this season.

Diaco has brought in motivational speakers to address his players. He himself has a passion for motivating, and during his chamber of commerce speech, challenged those in the audience to face anxieties and fears that can be paralyzing.

As quoted in Hartford Courant: "Think about if today is going to be your last day. What would it look like? Would you intend to do what you planned to do the rest of the day? You might, but would your interactions with the people during that time be the same as they would if you weren't going to be here tomorrow, or would the breakfast you just ate taste different? Would you embrace each bite? Would you share differently with your relationships than you have today; if you really focused and spent some time thinking about if this was your last moment, would it create a bolder action? Would you act bolder?"

Mendenhall has taken to the road the past several years, holding fan rallies from St. George to other points throughout Utah. Diaco said he put 2,200 miles on his car pumping up Husky football on a “brainstorming tour.”

Mendenhall has been known to elevate walk-ons. Diaco had walk-ons serve as team captains at UConn’s spring game. Like Mendenhall, Diaco loves to give scholarships to walk-ons and did so with Chris DeBerry, Dominick Manco and Justin Wain.

Said Diaco: “It reaffirms everything we are talking about. It gives an indication of the DNA and character of the team and our coaching staff. You put something in and you are going to get it back out. It is not like we are going to use and use.”

Mendenhall has brought in a sports psychologist, nutritionist and new rehabilitation trainer. Diaco has also overhauled his strength, conditioning and nutrition programs — firming up support elements.

Mendenhall has tried to create a different football culture in Provo, making academics, spirituality, and individual and collective civic development as important as football. Diaco has spent his initial time in Connecticut creating a different mindset than that used by predecessors Randy Edsall and Paul Pasqualoni.

He recently brought in Joe Ehrmann, Adam Ritz and Dewey Bozella to “share their life experiences” publicly, keeping a vow he made at his hire press conference that he would develop great players and impressive people.

Sounds Bronco-esque with his firesides.

Mendenhall has surprised players during two-a-days, breaking for river runs, golf and movies like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Diaco shocked players when he had them pile on busses for a surprise visit to Six Flags New England.

Neither man is reinventing anything.

But it’s interesting their thoughts travel a similar path.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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Brandon Gurney
Aug. 25, 2014
1. Riley Mendenhall
Provo, UT,
Aug. 25, 2014

Yes they do. It is called having the easiest schedule possible.

2. Cougsndawgs
West Point , UT,
Aug. 25, 2014

Whatever you do, don't be original or use the same tired diatribe.

3. Chris B
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 25, 2014

"Diaco recently named his starting quarterback, but he brought all four QBs to the press conference so they could be interviewed equally as a reward for competing. "

Also interesting is that their starting QB said that byU plays in a very good conference. That's how much respect and national attention byU gets outside of LDS wards nationwide.

UConn is much more relevant nationally than byU.

Go UConn!

4. Y-Ask-Y?
Provo, UT,
Aug. 25, 2014



That's gonna hurt every time through the whole season.

5. Sanefan
Wellsville, UT,
Aug. 25, 2014

So no matter who wins the game, all the players have the opportunity to win at life! I'll root for the Cougars, but have admiration and respect for the Huskies!. Wish I could say the same about all the coaches, players and teams in Utah.