The Vanderbilt Commodores were carried out of the cellar of the SEC by former coach James Franklin and developed into a respectable program with three straight bowl appearances. But with Franklin moving on to be the new head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions, Vandy needed to find someone to lead the program in taking that next step towards competing for the SEC title. They have found their man in Derek Mason, former defensive coordinator of the Stanford Cardinal, and he will make the Commodores a contender in the SEC.
Mason is uniquely qualified to build a winner at Vanderbilt thanks to his time at Stanford under both Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw. Harbaugh resurrected Stanford football and brought a winning culture to Palo Alto without sacrificing the rigorous academic standards of the school. Shaw took that foundation to the next level, taking the Cardinal to three-straight BCS bowls and back-to-back Pac-12 titles. Vanderbilt holds their student-athletes to a similarly high academic standard which would scare away most football coaches who would rather not deal with that hurdle on the recruiting trail.
But not Mason, who says that the academic structure of Vanderbilt was a major reason why he took this job. When talking with The Tennessean, Mason described it as a “great job” and continued:
“I think it’s a great opportunity to be in a place that does it right. James Franklin did a wonderful job of putting this program on the map. He made it relevant. That debt of gratitude is definitely owed to him.
“I saw it when Jim Harbaugh did the same thing (at Stanford)…(Vanderbilt) is a program steeped in the right temperament, the right accruement for success.
“It plays in one of the best football conferences in the country, the SEC, and I think when you put those two together between the academics and the football accruement, I think it can be a winning combination.”
Mason has been attached to a number of job openings over the last two seasons, but has been very selective about which jobs he accepts interviews for. When asked about what type of job he would leave Stanford for in the leadup to the Rose Bowl, Mason said “It’s got to be the right job,” though he didn’t elaborate on what that meant. Now we know he meant an environment that blended academics and football in the right way and Vanderbilt fit that bill.
He takes over a program that has gone 24-15 over the last three seasons with three-straight bowl appearances. Mason has a reputation as one of the best defensive minds in coaching right now after building the Stanford defense into one of the toughest units in the country. The Cardinal have ranked as the No. 1 scoring defense and No. 1 rushing defense in the Pac-12 each of the last two seasons, making him an excellent architect for success in the physical world of the SEC.
The first thing on Mason’s agenda as head coach will be to get onto the recruiting trail immediately. Vandy quickly lost half of its recruiting class following Franklin’s departure and Mason will be hard-pressed to get things going before National Signing Day. That means he will be on the road meeting with recruits and parents to begin building the program in his image. He’ll face some challenges in the process as he tries to build his staff on the fly (a challenge for any first-time head coach) and make in-roads for the first time in SEC country (he has never coaches in the South).
But if there is anyone prepared to meet that challenge and overcome it, it would be Derek Mason. The defensive-minded Mason has a blueprint for building a winning program at a prestigious academic institution and he will take Vanderbilt to the next level. Will he get the Commodores all the way to the top of the SEC?