What James Franklin did in his three seasons at Vanderbilt was nothing short of special. Call it astounding, fantastic or incredible.
Perennial SEC cellar dweller for most of its existence, Vanderbilt became relevant under Franklin.
No one will forget the transformation the program underwent thanks to Franklin, but it’s time to move on, and that’s exactly what the football team is doing now that the Derek Mason era is well underway.
“James guided the ship, but those guys won games,” said Mason, who was Stanford’s defensive coordinator before arriving at Vanderbilt. “That’s what they see now. It’s really not about who’s at the helm, it’s about what they can get done collectively. You have to have great leadership in order to find great success.”
Franklin, who is now the head coach at Penn State, went 24-15 in three seasons at Vanderbilt and instilled a tough, winning mindset that catapulted the Commodores out of the “pushover” column. Last fall was a heck of a finale for Franklin, as Vandy beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all in the same season for the first time ever.
Now, the Commodores are looking to build off that success and take the next step with new management. They want to go from competitive to champions under Mason.
“We thirst for that,” defensive lineman Adam Butler said. “We thirst for the SEC championship. We thirst to be better than we were previous years. We feel like we’ve been downplayed for so long. It’s time to make a change.”
That’s something Vandy has never experienced, but this group believes Mason, who has yet to coach a game as a head coach, can take the program to that level because of his résumé and his more verbalized vision for the program.
The goal under Franklin was to win immediately -- one team, one game. For Mason, he wants his players thinking, breathing and talking championships. Mason’s theme is to think big in order to do big things. It sounds cliché -- because it is -- but it’s also a motivator for the Commodores. After having to stay quiet when it came to the word “championship” or even “bowl,” players are practically screaming about them.
“[Mason] thinks about championships – you gotta talk it to believe it,” safety Andrew Williamson said. “That’s what I really look forward to, just going out there working with him and working toward a championship because that’s really our next step.”
Butler said he also likes the approach Mason takes to work. He knows when to flash that infectious smile and when to show his tough, business side. It’s that side that Butler said has helped the Commodores keep their edge.
“Well, you know Coach Franklin, a lot of people like to call him a walking headline,” Butler said. “He’s about the camera, he loves the camera, he loves the media. So does Coach Mason, to an extent, but Coach Franklin had his own sort of way of saying things. It was in a more joking way. He was serious when he needed to be, but Coach Mason, he doesn’t play any games at all, and that’s what I love about him. He’s serious, he’s about business, and he’s about winning.”
And Mason sees that same personality in his players. They aren’t looking for sympathy after losing their last coach. He sees a little anger in guys and plenty of players looking to prove something, just like he is.
“We’re not afraid of anybody, and we’re not going to back down from anything,” Mason said. “We’re going to play every game, and I tell you what, we’re going to find ourselves on the big side of wins, rather than the small side of losses.
“This team is an audacious team. They understand who they are, and they understand what everybody’s perception is [of Vanderbilt]. The only perception that counts is theirs.”
And the perception in Nashville is that Vandy will continue to be a winner without Franklin. The metaphorical chip has been securely placed on the Commodores’ shoulders, and they’re ready to move on with their new captain.
“We have a tremendous amount of pride in what we’ve done here and what we’re doing,” tight end Steven Scheu said. “We’re building a power in the SEC, which pretty much everybody in the nation did not think Vanderbilt could do. It’s nice to be able to show everybody that we are to be reckoned with and that it’s not impossible to win at Vanderbilt.”