“SEC East title here we come. If you can’t talk about it, you can’t be about it.”
Anyone remember the euphoria on West End when Derek Mason was named the head coach in January 2014?
The hot-shot Stanford defensive coordinator was supposed to be the man who brought the program to the Power 5 relevance lifelong fans had so desperately craved.
Mason was following arguably the most successful Vanderbilt coach since Dan McGugin. It didn’t matter. He was undeterred in his enthusiasm.
Mason wasn’t shy when talking about winning SEC East titles and out-performing the back-to-back nine-win seasons former coach James Franklin achieved before bolting to Penn State.
“If you can’t talk about it, you can’t be about it.”
All before he ever coached a game in the black and gold.
Most Vandy fans knew better. Their painful experiences from decades of football futility told them that was too good to be true, even after the back-to-back AP Top 25 finishes Franklin provided.
It didn’t take long for a heavy dose of reality to bring that all-too-familiar doubt back. We all remember that rain-soaked Thursday night when “lowly” Temple took the Commodores to the woodshed during Mason’s debut.
The whole first season under Mason was a trainwreck, highlighted an inept offense that was made worse by a quarterback shuffle that would make Steve Spurrier blush.
Things got better from there, though. Slowly, but surely.
Mason learned that the job he had inherited was more of a challenge than he had ever been presented as David Shaw’s right-hand man in California.
He made changes. He fired a close friend when the offense didn’t work. Took control of the defense when he figured out he couldn’t trust anyone but himself to make it work.
Wins followed as he and his staff groomed Kyle Shurmur into the most accomplished quarterback in program history.
Mason knocked off Georgia in Athens in Year 3 on the way to his first bowl game with the Commodores. He owns a three-game winning streak against in-state rival Tennessee. In a different era, that might be enough to land him a statue outside Dudley Field.
Mason recruited a core of offensive players that was good enough to bring Notre Dame, which would go on to appear in the College Football Playoff later in the season, to the brink of defeat on the Fighting Irish’s home field last season.
But his fifth season, which was teed up to be his best, ended with a 6-7 record and questions about how the program would move forward without Shurmur leading the way.
Still yet, there was hope. Star running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn decided to return for his senior season in 2019, as did NFL pass-catching prospects Jared Pinkney and Kalija Lipscomb.
If Mason could find a quarterback for Year 6, maybe– just maybe, it could finally be the year that he made good on his promise to “be about it” when it comes to competing in the SEC East.
On a Saturday night after a 24-7 loss at South Carolina dropped his team’s record to 2-6 on the season, that seems like a laughable pipe dream.
His program has reverted to old habits. Mason has a complete quarterback carousel on his hands, bouncing between Ball State transfer Riley Neal, former walk-on Mo Hasan and fourth-year junior Deuce Wallace. None of which have come anywhere close to replicating the production Shurmur provided the previous four seasons.
Mason’s defense is not as good as advertised and seems to have regressed since taking the responsibilities off his plate with the addition of defensive coordinator Jason Tarver in 2018.
Year 6 also had its “Temple moment” when UNLV walked into Vanderbilt Stadium and whipped his Commodores just a few weeks ago.
These items starting to feel familiar?
Barring a late-season rally, Mason may be looking at the end of his tenure on West End. Though new Vanderbilt athletics director Malcolm Turner has indicated otherwise, the rumors are starting to swirl as national pundits prepare for their annual coaching carousel.
If this is it, it’ll be sad. Mason is– by most accounts– a good man.
But when his Year 6 starts feeling like his disastrous Year 1… it’s time.