At the University of Virginia, on the football field, the phrase “hard work pays off” couldn’t be more true. First-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall, is making some major changes for the Cavaliers. But if you sit back and watch, what he’s doing is kind of cool.

The number an athlete wears on their back can become iconic. Think about it. You see the number 23. Who do you think of? Michael Jordan. Number 10? Lionel Messi, of course. 15? All Gator fans know it is Tebow. The point is, players become remembered by their numbers, some of them may even have a “lucky” number that they wear their whole career. But for Mendenhall, he wants his players to get something more out of the number they wear… that is, if they get to wear one.

When he was hired back in the winter, Mendenhall took away his players’ jerseys and handed them all a black shirt for off season workouts, remembering what he read in Legacy about the All Blacks rugby team in New Zealand. This new head coach took away their numbers and he wasn’t just going to give them back. No, each and every player had to earn their jersey and their number; they had to work for it.

This past weekend, Mendenhall experienced what he told USA Today was “one of the most memorable [nights] of my coaching career to this point…”: it was the night the players got their jerseys. But even after they had shown their effort, Mendenhall still threw another special twist on the night. He made it what he called “peer-driven.” Splitting the team up into groups (as he called them “platoons”), Mendenhall had a group leader in each platoon pick the order of which each player would pick the number they wanted to wear. According to USA Today, Mendenhall was inspired by Legacy to make his players work hard for the jerseys so many players take for granted. And he wanted his players to be apart of the special selection process:

“I thought that would have a lot more impact on the players knowing when they were selected by their peers to choose a number. I think it allowed really a lot of transparency as to what their teammates valued. It doesn't take long before you see a thread of what the team members were selecting on.”

The Cavaliers face Richmond on Saturday, and right now, they are only dressing 61 players. And Mendenhall has made it clear, they will dress no more than 72 players in any game. As of now, 11 spots stand vacant, most likely to be taken by first-year players that didn’t participate this past weekend.

A football team can carry more than 100 players on their roster. So what is he doing here, what is the message he is sending? Bronco Mendenhall is setting a new foundation for his team. He is building their team values on hard work and character. If each teammate works hard and proves themselves as a player and as a person to their coaches and teammates, they earn a spot on the team and then they get their jersey. 

Just think about how much more weight these jerseys carry for these players. A player literally can’t play in a game without a jersey and these players weren’t just handed a jersey with their scholarship. The scholarship was only the first step; they still have to earn the jersey to get on the field. 

 Each one of those players earned them. They not only got validated by their coaching staff, but also by their peers who told them to go pick their number. So as Virginia runs out of the tunnel on Saturday, in a way, those 61 players’ hard work is already paying off.

Lead Image Credit: Virginia Cavaliers' Official Instagram