NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Derek Mason channeled the late Dennis Green earlier this week when sizing up the challenge that awaits his unbeaten Vanderbilt football team.
“They are who we think they are -- good!” Mason said of the No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.
Mason, by contrast, is hardly who a lot of people thought he was, at least as a head coach, in the infant stages of his Vanderbilt tenure. He lost his first game as head coach to Temple 37-7 in a dreadful performance at home and five of his first six games before finishing the season 3-9, with the three wins coming over Massachusetts, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion.
The same worn-out hot takes were running rampant in Nashville among fans and media who had just watched James Franklin lead the Commodores to back-to-back nine-win seasons for the first time in history. Those hot takes ranged from Mason was in over his head, to how Vanderbilt would never be competitive in the SEC on his watch, to how Mason would be lucky to see a third season in Nashville.
Wrong. Wrong. And wrong.
“It takes time, and that’s the ingredient everybody is fighting for, to solidify a culture,” said Mason, whose Commodores have won seven of their past 10 games dating back to last season, with victories over Kansas State, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Georgia.
Mason, who’s coached or played under Jim Harbaugh, David Shaw, Andy Reid and Brad Childress, learned a long time ago to be oblivious to what people think about him. And even during the bleakest times back in 2014, his vision never wavered despite the unrest and despite some of the built-in obstacles that any coach at Vanderbilt faces going against the football factories in the SEC.
“Here’s the thing: Sometimes you just have to be where your feet are,” Mason said. “Somebody else’s house maybe looks a little better. Maybe somebody’s shoes, somebody’s suit, somebody’s locker room looks better. All that stuff that looks good. But to me, it’s about the people, about the people on the journey. I’ve got great support here. My family had to make a tough transition, but this whole thing has become about family, everybody from the support staff to the administrative people to these players.
“We’re all loyal to one another, and nowadays, sometimes that’s missing.”
Mason has made tweaks, such as taking over the defense himself after the 2014 season, but he’s stuck to his plan and the program has steadily improved each year. Defensively, the Commodores have been as good as anybody through the first three weeks of this season. They’re the only team in the country ranked in the top 5 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, third-down defense and tackles for loss.
“At the beginning of the season, nobody gave us a chance,” Mason said. “All they talked about was how were we going to replace [former linebacker] Zach Cunningham. You look at Emmanuel Smith. You look at Oren Burks. Those dudes have played hard. You look at everybody around them, the juniors and seniors. They’re all playing hard. We’re a no-name defense with a bunch of dudes named Charles Wright, LaDarius Wiley and Ryan White, just a bunch of dudes who probably aren’t household names, but they love to play football.”
Mason could see it coming a year ago. He told ESPN.com before the 2016 season that he thought Vanderbilt was a bowl team, and the Commodores delivered by winning their last two games over Ole Miss and Tennessee to earn a bid to the Independence Bowl.
Much of Mason’s confidence was fueled by the fact that he finally had some depth and experience, and that’s even more apparent this season. The Commodores have 26 juniors and seniors in their two-deep, including 20 who are fourth-year or fifth-year players.
It’s a given that Vanderbilt is going to play great defense under Mason, but the improvement goes much deeper than just one side of the ball. The Commodores were minus-24 in turnover margin in Mason’s first two seasons. In their last 16 games, they’re plus-8. And on offense, as junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur has made major strides, Vanderbilt has become more balanced and more consistent. The Commodores scored more than 17 points only seven times in Mason’s first 24 games. They head into the Alabama game Saturday having scored 28 points or more in four of their last five regular-season games.
“I don’t think we’ve arrived at all,” Shurmur said. “We’ve still got a lot of ball left, but I certainly think we’ve gotten a lot better. We all trust coach Mason. We’ve all grown with him. We love playing for him, and he’s a guy you want to play hard for.”
Mason is brutally honest with his players, who know what the standard is both on and off the field.
“Everybody talks about all the other stuff, but what about the glue, the brick and mortar,” Mason said. “It’s about trust. It’s about honesty. It’s about character. It’s about doing the right things. These kids are told to do the right thing all the time, and if they don’t, I’ll get them out of the program. But if they do and work hard, and I’m not lying to them, but one day they will have an opportunity to be a champion.
“I don’t know when that is. But when that day comes, they will know that it would have started with that first group in 2014 that had to go through all those tough times.”