CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Bronco Mendenhall had never recruited Virginia. Marques Hagans embodies everything about Virginia.
So when it came time to learn about the area, Mendenhall turned to the only person on his staff who could teach him everything he needed to know. But there was no three-ring binder, whiteboard or Power Point presentation.
Nope, Mendenhall wanted to learn the old fashioned way: With a ride along. Scratch that; multiple ride alongs.
For an entire week in January, the new coach from BYU and the veteran Virginia assistant coach from Hampton, Virginia, hopped into an SUV and went up down and all around, from Richmond to Newport News, Williamsburg and the Tidewater and down into North Carolina as well.
There were even a few airplane rides to New Jersey and Pennsylvania sprinkled in between. Mendenhall got his crash course in recruiting the East, but the two also got a crash course in getting to know each other.
“Every ride was its own adventure,” Hagans says.
Most days would start this way: A 5 a.m. workout, then in the car around 6:30 a.m. Hagans did all the driving. He never turned the radio on because he had no idea what type of music to play. Then he started wondering what he should say because he did not want to say the wrong thing to his new boss.
The uncertainty was understandable. Mendenhall brought nearly all his coaches with him from BYU. Hagans, who played at Virginia and has been on staff since 2011, desperately wanted to stay. Shortly after Mendenhall was hired, the two chatted for about 30 minutes. Mendenhall was sold.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to retain anyone, but I don’t consider retaining Marques. I consider that I hired him because of how impressed I was,” Mendenhall said. “I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to have him.’”
Hagans would provide the blueprint for getting to know Virginia and the surrounding areas for Mendenhall and his incoming staff. But Mendenhall also knew the time spent together in the car would help him get to know his newest assistant.
The conversation always began easily, once Mendenhall asked, ‘How are you feeling this morning, Coach?’”
“It worked out in a way where I could catch up on a lot of time where maybe I wouldn’t be able to had he gone other places,” Hagans said. “That time to be with him and get his thoughts on how he runs his program and what he expects was awesome. And it gave me an in-depth look at his life.”
Hagans gave Mendenhall all the background he needed to know before they arrived at each school they set out to visit. Then Hagans made the introduction between high school coach and Mendenhall.
“I wanted to give him a sense of what the state of Virginia is, so I took him everywhere,” Hagans said. “From very nice areas, to a lot of inner-city schools where a lot of kids struggle. Some kids don’t have lights on in the house. Every place he went, he was comfortable and people loved him.
“The introduction was the easy part. Sitting back and listening to him and the coaches at the high schools, how genuine it was -- that was pretty cool to watch. I didn’t know how things would go, but he fits into any setting.”
Along the way, Hagans learned Mendenhall can start a conversation with just one question. The first time Mendenhall got in the car, Hagans complemented his shoes. Mendenhall asked, "Why do you like them?" Hagans saw the same thing play out during conversations with the high school coaches.
“Most times, the college coach is always trying to control the conversation,” Hagans said. “With him, it’s: ‘Tell me about your program, tell me what you like to do.’ When it’s like that, it becomes genuine, and that’s how you break the barrier. Every coach walked away feeling they had a conversation and didn’t feel they had been talked to by the head coach.”
When it came time to visit Hampton, Hagans showed it off like a proud papa. He even took Mendenhall to his favorite restaurant, Surf Rider, where they met up with assistant Ruffin McNeill, also in the area recruiting.
Along the way, Mendenhall gave Hagans ideas for books to read ("Talent is Overrated") and movies to watch ("The Cowboys with John Wayne"). He also told him all about his life in Utah, complete with enough land for horses and cattle.
So when the time came for a staff and family Easter egg hunt months after their time riding through Virginia, Hagans felt comfortable enough to get on a horse for the very first time. Very slowly.
“I was so scared, I’m not going to lie,” Hagans said with a chuckle.
It was none other than Mendenhall who helped him ride the horse in a small circle. One helping hand to another.