Outside, a biting wind howled. It was warmer inside the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, where generations of former University of Virginia football players gathered Saturday at the invitation of new head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Some 250 football alumni showed up, with representatives from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s and 2010s. Even Welsh, the former Virginia coach who’s in the College Football Hall of Fame, stopped by the building that bears his name.
“Really impressive turnout,” said David Sloan, who played for the Cavaliers in the mid-’70s.
“There’s a lot of guys here that you haven’t seen or heard from in a while,” said Kase Luzar, a four-year letterman in the early 2000s.
“I think everybody’s excited,” said Brandon Isaiah, who lettered at UVA in 2002, ’03 and ’04 and is now the head coach at nearby Albemarle High School.
That was apparent Saturday. It’s not every day, after all, that such former Virginia standouts as Morgan Moses, Aaron Brooks, Frank Quayle, Wali Rainer, Jamie Sharper, Tyrone Davis, Ras-I Dowling, Wali Lundy, Brent Urban, Joe Hall, Kai Parham, Brent Urban, Ahmad Hawkins, Anthony Harris, Darius Jennings, Kenny Stadlin, Matt Blundin, Chip Mark, Luke Bowanko, John St. Clair, LaRoy Reynolds and John Phillips are in the same place. But the alumni were eager to meet Mendenhall and his staff and to see the team practice.
“I think this is the first time collectively that a lot of guys from all generations of the program have had an opportunity to come get a closer look at what’s going on,” Isaiah said.
“There’s a unique bond amongst every generation. But for us to be able to come together here – you’re talking about guys from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70, ’80s, even the younger guys who just recently graduated – I think it gives them a better perspective of the tradition and the family atmosphere that’s been created over the years, and it looks like Coach Mendenhall is really excited about continuing to build on that,” Isaiah added.
Mendenhall came to UVA from Brigham Young University, where he won 99 games in 11 seasons, with 11 bowl appearances. Virginia has finished with a winning record only twice in the past 10 seasons: in 2007, under Al Groh, and in 2011, under London, Mendenhall’s predecessor.
The former players are hungry to see the Wahoos win again.
“I think it’s tough for anybody who’s a fan,” Isaiah said of the program’s struggles. “I think we’re obviously uniquely invested because we played here, we put out a lot of blood and sweat, and we have high expectations. But I think it’s a new time, a new era, and we’re excited about the work that these guys are doing. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”
“It’s a new time, a new era, and we’re excited about the work that these guys are doing. It’s a lot of fun to watch.” Brandon Isaiah, UVA football alumnus
Senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins said he understands that the football alumni are tired of losing. So too, Wilkins said, are the current players.
“We want it just as bad as anybody else,” Wilkins said. “Those guys won, those guys have won before, so it’s time for us to win, it’s time for us to change [the trend] of losing.”
Sloan, as a Charlottesville resident, has had an up-close view of the program’s peaks and valleys.
“I think there’s always hope,” Sloan said, “and I certainly think that Bronco and his crew come from a background [at BYU] similar what it takes to win at Virginia.”
The ’Hoos are coming off a season in which they finished 4-8, and no one knows exactly how long Mendenhall’s rebuilding project will take. Still, Sloan said, “I think the people I talk to are, for lack of a better term, cautiously optimistic.”
Many of the alumni met Friday night for a dinner at the Aberdeen Barn. Early Saturday morning, Mendenhall addressed the group in the meeting room at the McCue Center.
“I’m excited about the direction of the program,” Isaiah said, “and I think [the other former players] are excited. I think they’re looking forward to the season and the steps we’ll take.”
The bond between the football alumni and his program matters to Mendenhall. His assistant coaches include former UVA great Marques Hagans. Mendenhall’s graduate assistants include former Virginia players Daquan Romero and Sean Cascarano. Another former Cavalier, Rijo Walker, is a graduate intern in the football office.
When practice concluded Saturday, the coaches posed for a group photo with the current and former players on the field. Then Mendenhall addressed the alumni.
“I hope you had a great day,” he said. “I hope you have a clear idea of the direction we’re going. I hope you have a clear idea that you are welcome back and we value what you’ve done. I look forward to partnering with you to make this an amazing place as we go forward. It already has been. We want to do our part to continue that.”