HOOVER, Ala. — If former Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin redefined the status quo, then Derek Mason is trying to take it one step further.
Franklin guided the Commodores to a pair of bowl victories and nine-win seasons in 2012 and 2013, reshaping Vanderbilt’s role as Southeastern Conference whipping boy. But when Franklin bolted to fill the head coaching vacancy at Penn State, Mason took the reins with much more in mind.
“We have to get past the idea of playing for nine wins,” Mason said at SEC Media Days on Monday. “Nine wins, it’s really exceptional. But at the end of the day, why have nine when you can 10. Why settle for 10 when you can have 11?”
Mason’s visions of taking Vanderbilt from a perennial cellar-dweller to an SEC championship contender are founded in experience. He was defensive coordinator under David Shaw for three years at Stanford, a Pac-12 team that experienced a meteoric rise in talent and prestige in the past five years.
“[Stanford] won a lot of games over the last couple of years with two-or-three-star players who weren’t as talented initially as some of the guys they played against,” Mason said. “What it came down to was our ability to put guys in position to make plays and those guys’ ability to execute.”
The first-year coach frequently referred to the Vanderbilt brand he hopes to install at Vanderbilt. Mason said the he wants the brand to be similar to Stanford’s – a prestigious academic institution that also excels in football.
But some Commodores have a different definition of their coach’s Vanderbilt brand.
“Its coach Derek Mason, quite honestly,” said junior tight end Steven Scheu. “It’s a guy that’s accountable, a guy you know you can trust to be where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there and be doing what he’s supposed to do.”
Mason brings tactical changes along with his philosophical ones. He and defensive coordinator David Kotulski, who spent the last two seasons as an assistant coach with Mason at Stanford, instituted a 3-4 defensive scheme during spring practice.
The two coaches helped cement Stanford as a national powerhouse that won back-to-back Pac-12 championships and made two Rose Bowl appearances. The Cardinal were notorious for shutting down the league’s fast-paced spread offenses, and Stanford ranked in top 15 in the country in defensive efficiency all three years of Mason’s tenure.
So when Mason and Kotulski decided to switch defensive strategies, the Commodores quickly adjusted.
“We’ve got guys changing positions that played defensive end initially,” said junior safety Andrew Williamson. “But I feel like they’ve made smooth transition to the outside linebacker position because they’re really good football players, not just good defensive ends.”
Players said Mason’s passion and coaching style have been infectious and inspiring. Before long, a nine-win season at Vanderbilt may be a disappointment.
“What [Mason] preaches is SEC title game,” said sophomore defensive tackle Adam Butler. “You don’t hear him talk about anything less. We don’t want to be complacent. That’s his message, and that’s what I love about him.”