Reflections on Coach Bronco

As I swung my leg over the saddle of a chestnut quarter-horse and locked eyes with Bronco Mendenhall I thought to myself, “life is so surprising.”

I grew up with pretty typical American football exposure – my dad watched games every weekend while I played at his feet and absorbed bits and pieces of the strategy, excitement, anger, and talent of the various teams. Never in my most creative dreams did I imagine that many years later my work at a manufacturing company in Indiana would afford me the opportunity to rub shoulders with one of the most iconic college football coaches of my time: Bronco Mendenhall. But honestly, meeting him didn’t turn out to be my biggest surprise…that honor was reserved for this: discovering what Bronco was like.

The story goes like this: ABI attachments has been my place of work for just about seven years. I actually started there on the shop floor, building arena drags, water trailers, and manure spreaders. We would ship those tools all across the country and only later (when I moved into the customer service department) did I really understand the scope and power of our work equipping people to get outdoor work done.

One day in mid-June I had just pulled out of the parking lot when I got a call from upstairs. One of our long-standing factory reps had just spent close to an hour on the phone with Bronco Mendenhall. Yes, that Bronco Mendenhall (…do you think there are any others?), and he had called in to say how much he really loves the ABI tool he’s been using at his personal ranch in Virginia. Take a quick guess on how many people in this world call a company to just say, “Great job! Thanks!” I’ll give you a clue: it’s not a high number.

But even over the phone Bronco’s character and regard for excellence were evident. I called him back with a genuine curiosity about how he’s putting our tools to use. He said, (this is a Bronco paraphrase, not a quote I could ask him to sign later): “how about you come down and see for yourself?”

Fast forward three weeks and 678 miles and I’m walking around the HB3 ranch, not just Bronco’s personal home and oasis, but also the grounds for his outstandingly unique recruiting and coaching strategy. The 30-acre property is personally maintained by Bronco and his family.

As we rolled to a stop in the driveway, I immediately recognized the shape of a TR3 parked by the stables and remembered my years spending early mornings in the shop building that very tool. Bronco uses it regularly to groom his horse arena. The ABI-enthusiast in me wanted to hear him say that it’s the most valuable tool he has, but I recognized quickly that Bronco considers his most valuable tool to be his own two hands.

Every morning (and I mean *every* morning), Bronco starts his day shoveling the manure from his horse stalls. He considers the practice to be an honor, a way to set his intention for the day where he will serve with diligence and with no expectation of praise. As I walked the property with him I was struck by the natural beauty of the land and the way Bronco and his family consider it a gift they can steward.

The acreage is only a 15-minute drive from the UVA campus, (a high priority for Bronco so he can be home for family time), but feels worlds away. I thought initially that ABI was serving Bronco by equipping this man to create for himself a retreat and a joyful place of balance from his demanding work, but the more questions I asked, the more Bronco shared about the ranch being connected to UVA. The land is connected, the horses are connected.

To my delight, Bronco asked if he could show me what he meant. I’m not one to be easily intimidated, but this dairy-farm boy does not have a lick of experience with horses. But the moment I got myself in the saddle I got to experience Bronco as coach. He was…startlingly warm, firm, confident, and attentive. For a couple of hours, I had the attention of this man who spends his life not just developing football players, but developing people. Saying so may sound cliche, but I actually feel like a better man after being with him.

Bronco uses his land to do that. Every UVA recruiting candidate, player, and coaching staff member comes to his ranch and spends time with Coach on horseback. And they leave as better people.

After a surprisingly profound visit, I had eleven hours worth of driving to get back to Indiana. I was with a handful of co-workers and we debriefed our collective experience the entire way home…there wasn’t space for any silence. We had collected too many thoughts that were taking root in our own minds and hearts. I find myself in this moment wishing there were more or better words to describe the level of sincerity and depth on the HB3 ranch. I don’t have 30 acres, powerful horses, or a team of talented football players to develop…but I do have my own two hands. And my Bronco-inspired question is this: how will I use them?