The Case For and Against Derek Mason

Since 2014, Derek Mason has been the head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodore football program. He took over stewardship from James Franklin, who had just led the program through its brightest period in the modern era (2011-2013), which included: 

  • Three straight bowl appearances 
  • Two bowl wins 
  • Two 9-4 seasons 
  • Two wins over Tennessee
  • Improved recruiting 
  • A new indoor practice facility and 
  • A palpable excitement around Vanderbilt football in the Nashville area 

Expectations were high when Coach Mason began, as Vanderbilt football had seen its most success since the 1940s or 50s. Frankly, what Franklin did at Vanderbilt was nothing short of miraculous and it proved that it’s possible to win at Vanderbilt. 

With that background providing context, the Vanderbilt fan base awoke to the fact that it’s possible to consistently compete at Vanderbilt.

What does it mean to “compete” at Vanderbilt?

For the purpose of this article, I will define what fans expect from the program. In this context, “to compete” with regards to Vanderbilt football means:

  • “compete” (in my definition) means: 
    • make bowl games almost every year 
    • beat rivals (especially Tennessee) at least half of the time (they were 5-5 vs UT this past decade) 
    • be in contention to win most games (possible exceptions being UGA,UF, Bama and LSU). Of course, we’ve seen Vanderbilt beat UGA and UF this decade and if we’re truly competitive, we will be in ball games against these teams at times, giving us a chance to win. 
    • win all 4 non-conference games most years  
    • finish 3-6th in the East most years
    • maintain the academic integrity of Vanderbilt University and graduate successful and bright young men who will better the world
  • These were things Franklin did, even cracking the top 25 and improving recruiting by leaps and bounds. If the ball bounces our way one year, recruiting improves, along with growth in play calling schemes and player development, it’s possible for this program to make a trip to Atlanta from the SEC East.

These are things Stanford and Northwestern aim to do (and usually do) in their respective conferences, and Vandy’s done it before. 

Unfortunately, the Commodore football program has not experienced these levels of competitiveness as frequently as Commodore student-athletes, alums, donors, parents of student-athletes and fans deserve. Because of this, I’ve compiled reasons for and against retaining head coach Derek Mason as football coach at Vanderbilt University past the 2020 season. 

*NOTE: This is not an exhaustive guide nor is it the final say on coach Mason’s career at Vanderbilt. I, similar to most of Commodore Nation, like Derek Mason as a person and want any Vanderbilt coach to succeed. He’s done his best to further the football program through his vision. He comes across as a genuinely kind person who helps his players grow into solid young men and graduate with one of the most prestigious degrees in the world. None of this is meant to disparage Derek Mason as a man and I’ll always be grateful for some of his big wins against Tennessee, among his other accomplishments. In year 7 as Vanderbilt’s football coach, however, these facts and opinions put forth should be considered. Ultimately, Commodore Nation deserves a coach who positions student-athletes in the best manner possible to win on and off of the field.

THE CASE FOR DEREK MASON

  • He’s a likable person: Derek Mason runs a clean program, something that is an important priority for Vanderbilt University and for Vanderbilt fans. He aims to develop each player into a solid young man and he graduates the majority of the players he’s recruited and coached. His players and the parents of players seem to like him as a person and coach. 
  • He is also very charismatic and has a great sense of style and understanding of popular culture which endears him to recruits, fans, and the media.
  • Record vs Tennessee: Derek Mason beat the Vols for three years straight (2016, 2017, 2018). This is a large reason why he received his earlier contract extension. In my book, any coach who can beat the team from the east consistently deserves recognition. He is 3-3 against Tennessee.
  • Bowl appearances: Derek Mason has led the Commodores to 2 bowl games under his direction. This is no small feat when considering Vanderbilt has only played in a meager 9 bowl games during the course of its history. (2016 Independence bowl [L], 2018 Texas Bowl [L])
  • Recruiting wins (247 Rankings): Coach Mason has landed some major recruits during his tenure, including: 
  • 4* DL Nifae Lealao 
  • 4* OLB Josh Smith 
  • 4* DB Joejuan Williams (NE Patriots) 
  • 4* LB Alston Orji 
  • 4* WR Cam Johnson 
  • 4* QB Kyle Shurmur 
  • 4* S Emmanuel Smith 
  • 4* S Brendon Harris 
  • 3* Ath/S De’Rickey Wright 
  • 3* LB Salua Masina 
  • 3* S Donovan Kaufman 
  • 3* ILB Anfernee Orji 
  • 3* QB Mike Wright 
  • 3* QB Ken Seals.
  • Players to the NFL: Under Derek Mason, many players have developed into legit NFL talents, including: 
  • DB Joejuan Williams (NE Patriots)
  • DT Adam Butler (NE Patriots)
  • RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn (TB Buccaneers)
  • LB Zach Cunningham (HOU Texans)
  • OL Justin Skule (SF 49ers)
  • FB Khari Blasingame (TN Titans)
  • LB Oren Burks (GB Packers)
  • CB Tre Herndon (JAX Jaguars)
  • OL Will Holden (BAL Ravens)*
  • OL Spencer Pulley (NY Giants)
  • WR Kalija Lipscomb (KC Chiefs/GB Packers)*
  • TE Jared Pinkney (ATL Falcons)*
  • WR Caleb Scott (GB Packers)*
  • WR Trent Sherfield (AZ Cardinals)
  • DL Stephen Weatherly (CAR Panthers)

(* indicates practice squad/practice squad/FA signing)

  • Relative success despite lack of commitment to the football program from administration: When evaluating a Vanderbilt football coach, it is necessary to evaluate how they are able to maximize what few resources they are allotted. Unfortunately, it’s always appeared that Vanderbilt University simply doesn’t care about/invest in its athletics programs like other SEC schools do. Under Derek Mason, there have been no major facility upgrades to the stadium, practice facilities, or locker rooms. This past summer, it was rumored there would be upgrades to the locker room for the 2020 football season, although these upgrades never came to fruition in the midst of the worldwide Covid pandemic. Athletic Director Candice Story Lee did confirm that the new football locker rooms would be completed by next summer (2021) at the latest.
  • On top of these issues, there are even reports from Vandysports.com’s Chris Lee on The Vandysports.com Podcast that the nutrition program is sub-par for promoting maximum strength and conditioning gains within the program. He’s also reported that basic needs like AC in the facilities/locker rooms were out for large portions of the 2020 summer workouts. Any coach or player attempting to compete against SEC schools without these basic conditions being met should be acknowledged and applauded. I believe that coach Mason wants to see facility upgrades occur, but his hands are tied and he has been unable to put them into place
  • Covid-19: Vanderbilt has had a large number of players opting out of the season, something that Derek Mason doesn’t necessarily have control over. These players would have been key contributors and their absences take away experience and skill, hurting the Commodore roster. The opt outs include:
  • OL Stephen Spanellis
  • OL Cole Clemens
  • OL Jonathan Stewart
  • OL Bryce Bailey
  • K Oren Milstein
  • LB Feleti Afemui
  • Contract extension/buyout: Derek Mason received a contract extension in 2017 for three years, as well as an extension in February of 2019. Due to Vanderbilt’s status as a private institution, it’s impossible to know what his buyout looks like. Vanderbilt generally retains coaches, but we did see Bryce Drew get fired after a dismal 2018-2019 basketball season. Mason’s contract, along with Vanderbilt’s trend of retaining coaches, appear to be favorable for Coach Mason to continue coaching the Commodores until at least through the 2021 season.

THE CASE AGAINST DEREK MASON

  • Overall record: Derek Mason’s career record at Vanderbilt is 27-50 (as of Oct. 19, 2020). That is a winning percentage of about 35.1%. He is also 0-2 in bowl games. His best seasons have posted a record of 6-7 (twice: 2016, 2018) with his worst overall record being 3-9 (twice: 2014, 2019).
  • SEC record: As of Oct. 19, 2020, Coach Derek Mason has an SEC record of 10-41, a conference winning percentage of 20%. His best SEC records have included two 3-5 seasons (2016, 2018) with his worst being an 0-8 SEC record in 2014 and two 1-7 seasons (2017, 2019).
  • Never recorded a winning season: In 6 full seasons as the head coach, Derek Mason has never had a winning season, posting his best overall yearly record of 6-7 twice (2016, 2018).
  • Year 7: In year 7, it’s fair to say that Coach Mason’s strengths and weaknesses have been displayed with a sufficient sample size detailing who he is as an SEC head coach. As previously noted, the records aren’t pretty (only 10 SEC wins after 6 full years for an average of 1.67 conference wins a year). Additionally, we’ve seen roster/team management issues, including: 
  • Staff overhauls, including the hirings of new defensive and offensive coordinators multiple times
  • Lack of QB development/recruiting success at the QB position to replace Shurmur in 2019. This led to a class of inexperienced Commodore QBs in 2020, with none having been on the roster before the season. Although I believe Ken Seals is a talented QB and will have a solid career at Vanderbilt, it’s never ideal for a true freshman to start at quarterback
  • Stubbornness in philosophy: Coach Mason has received criticism for his fidelity to schemes that are better suited for teams like UGA, Alabama, or Pac-12 pro-style schools. It has led to multiple rounds of assistant coaches and coordinators joining the staff.
  • Offensive philosophy: Mason’s run-heavy, clock management ideologies have led to a lack of excitement on the offensive side of the ball in an era of explosive offenses, as well as to boring, inefficient, and inept offensive showings incapable of keeping up with many opponents. Vanderbilt generally doesn’t have the size or depth to play a game of “3 downs and a cloud of dust” ground and pound game against SEC competition.
  • Defensive philosophy: On the defensive side of the ball, Mason has generally run a 3-4 base defense that struggles to consistently pressure opposing QBs. Part of this is due to the inability to recruit more athletic prospects, leading to smaller and less talented players running schemes better suited for blue-chip recruits and NFL veterans. This makes it more difficult for Vanderbilt to rely on its defense to win games when even traditional powerhouses run offenses designed to score points in high volumes.
    • Additionally, Commodore teams have displayed poor tackling in recent years, something that should be a strength for a Derek Mason coached team.
  • Growing apathy among Commodore Nation: As the only private school in the SEC, Vanderbilt will always have the smallest fan base of member schools. The number who still attend games, however, has dwindled horrifically in recent years. Many fans have lost faith in coach Mason putting together competitive teams. 
  • The picture below was taken during Vanderbilt’s Senior Day vs ETSU in 2019 and shows the sad state of morale among the fan base. Surely, another year under Derek Mason may lead to the lowest amount of season tickets sold in recent history (unless they’re all sold to opposing team’s fans who look forward to visiting Nashville and taking over the stadium due to Commodore Nation’s apathy). It’s very bad news when a coach has lost the general support and faith of the fan base. 
  • Additionally, a look through Vanderbilt Twitter or a Vanderbilt message board online tells you all you need to know about where fan sentiment is on the current state of the program. Below is a tweet from a dedicated and usually positive Commodore fan after Vanderbilt’s recent loss to South Carolina in 2020: 
  • Overall recruiting class rankings: Derek Mason’s classes have ranked as follows (per 247Sports)-
  • 2014: 46th nationally, 14th SEC
  • 2015: 49th nationally, 14th SEC
  • 2016: 54th nationally, 14th SEC
  • 2017: 65th nationally, 14th SEC
  • 2018: 41st nationally, 12th SEC
  • 2019: 58th nationally, 14th SEC
  • 2020: 53rd nationally, 14th SEC
  • Vanderbilt’s 2021 class currently ranks 66th nationally and 14th in the SEC as it continues to fill out. It’s tough for Vanderbilt to recruit against fellow SEC institutions, but Vanderbilt should aim to be top 50 nationally, at the least, to successfully compete. To state it bluntly, recruiting under Derek Mason hasn’t filled needs within the program as well as it should. (See 2019 QB situation)
  • UNLV 34 – Vanderbilt 10: On October 12, 2019 in Derek Mason’s 6th year as head coach, Vanderbilt was annihilated by visiting Mountain West foe UNLV. The game seemed to be a breaking point for many in Commodore Nation, as many who still believed in Mason’s vision lost faith in his leadership. This loss came as part of a very disappointing 2019 season. UNLV would go on to fire it’s own head coach after the season, despite demolishing an SEC opponent on the road.
  • 2019 Kentucky Post-Game Quote: After a very disheartening drubbing from the Wildcats, in which Vanderbilt was on the wrong side of a 38-14 score, Derek Mason said the following in his press conference after the game:
  • “But I just think collectively there’s a lot of talent here. And Vanderbilt’s always going to go in waves. It just is. There’s going to be cycles of bowl teams and opportunities. It’s not going to be an every-year opportunity, unless, unless these guys get it young and we hit it hot. I mean, there’s going to be waves and cycles in this deal, and I’m just in a wave right now. I’m just in a wave and cycle where we’re not where we want to be, but we just got to continue to keep pushing.”
  • Wow. To hear this from a head coach is depressing, especially if he’s talking about his own program. Even if it could be remotely true, it shouldn’t be something uttered by the leader of the future for the public or for players to hear. This was a moment when more fans lost hope in Mason as the man to lead Vanderbilt football. (If you’d like more analysis of the quote, Tom Stephenson of Anchor of Gold wrote a solid piece here)
  • Large number of players transferring out: Just within the last year, Vanderbilt has had a large number of players transfer away from or leave the program. The exodus has included, but is not limited to:
    • RB J.R. Tran Reno
    • QB Deuce Wallace
    • QB Mo Hasan
    • S Tae Daley
    • S Tre Douglas III
    • LB Colin Anderson
    • WR CJ Bolar
    • QB Allan Walters
    • OL Devin Cochran
  • These transfers/players exiting have caused depth issues on the roster. The unusually high numbers could potentially signal deeper culture issues within the program.
  • Coaching malpractice (2019 season): 
    • Offense
      • Vanderbilt would shuffle quarterbacks all year long between Riley Neal, Deuce Wallace, Mo Hasan and Allan Walters. The results were not pretty and led to one of the worst offenses in football in 2019.
      • The star trio of TE Jared Pinkney, WR Kalija Lipscomb, and RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn returned for their senior seasons in 2019 and expectations were high that Vanderbilt could compete for a bowl game. Commodore fans and reporters could not have been more wrong. The offensive play calling under 1st (and only) year offensive coordinator Gerry Gdowski was atrocious. This would lead to under usage of Jared Pinkney and Kalija Lipscomb (emphasized by terrible quarterback play) that would cost Pinkney and Lipscomb NFL money. Vaughn went on to have a solid season and be drafted, but Pinkney and Lipscomb went to the NFL as undrafted free agents. Solid seasons from them both would have assuredly led to draft picks and more money.
    • Defense:
      • Mason’s longtime friend and defensive coordinator in Jason Tarver led a porous Vanderbilt defense that gave up 32 points per game. Besides the Missouri game, this defense couldn’t tackle and couldn’t get stops. This same defense gave up 34 points to a bad UNLV football team.

CONCLUSION

Although there are more reasons for and against Coach Mason, it’s clear that Vanderbilt football needs new energy. An 0-3 start in 2020 hasn’t helped Mason’s case. Many speculate that Covid has gifted coaches at any school across the country more time in their respective positions, despite any hot seat rumors. 

New Chancellor Daniel Diermeier is also a wild card, as he’s given some signs of renewed commitment to athletic excellence. Would Diermeier make such a historically radical change and hire a new coach over an underperforming incumbent within his first year at the helm of the university? Will he, along with Candice Story Lee, announce and begin construction of long overdue facility upgrades? Only time will tell. Commodore Nation can only support the student-athletes, respectfully voice opinions and ask for tangible signs of commitment to athletics. For the soul of this fan base, I hope some positive changes with regards to football are made. Hope among supporters is dwindling.

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