NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Derek Mason admits he hasn’t had much time to stop and think since being named Vanderbilt’s coach just weeks before national signing day last month.
He hit the recruiting trail running and was able to land some key signees in the final hours, which was critical when you survey how Vanderbilt’s 2014 class was crumbling following James Franklin’s exit for Penn State and the fact that Franklin took some of the Commodores’ commitments with him.
Mason, who came to Vanderbilt after spending the last three seasons as Stanford’s defensive coordinator, is now gearing up for the start of his first spring practice at Vanderbilt on March 11. He inherits the kind of expectations that this program, after back-to-back nine-win seasons under Franklin, has rarely, if ever, had.
But that’s OK, because Mason’s expectations are equally lofty, and he comes from a program at Stanford that has also done it at a high level both on the football field and in the classroom.
Mason has been touched by the outpouring of support he’s received at Vanderbilt. Although he said he’s yet to speak with Franklin since taking the job, he was visited recently by former Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson and has also spoken with two of the Commodores’ most famous football alums -- record-setting receiver Jordan Matthews and NFL quarterback Jay Cutler.
We recently caught up with the engaging Mason on campus and covered an array of topics. Here's a taste:
You had other opportunities to leave Stanford and didn’t. What about the Vanderbilt job appealed most to you?
Derek Mason: I always live by the 100 percent rule. I think you go 100 percent wherever you’re at, and what’s meant to be will happen. Being at Stanford, I wasn’t comfortable, but I was in a good place and growing and learning and moving in the direction that we needed to go in order for our program to be where we wanted it to be. When this opportunity came along, it was the one that was most like the place I currently was, Stanford. I wanted something similar to that, a family-oriented organization that had the potential to do what I believe can be done at this level, where athletics and academics can overlap and give you an opportunity for success on both ends. You don’t have to compromise one for the other.
Recruiting is obviously the name of the game in the SEC. What can Vanderbilt fans expect in terms of taking that next step and competing for championships, especially given your experience at Stanford and the Cardinal’s blueprint?
DM: It wasn’t about getting four- and five-star recruits. It was about getting guys that fit what we do, and David (Shaw) did a great job in leading us. Coming here, I see some of those same things in place. You have the infrastructure on campus in terms of the administration that understands what they want in terms of a football program that can compete in the SEC on the football field and in the classroom. Then when you look at it, the timing is right. They’re past that stage where they want to be respectable here. They want to win championships. I think I’ve been through enough of that and seen enough of that that I know where we need to go in order to get this program there.
What were your conversations with Johnson and Matthews like?
DM: Coach Johnson is awesome, just an awesome man from an experience and wisdom standpoint and has a true understanding of what this place is. He recruited a lot of players that have been here over the last couple of years and had success here. Jordan gave me a call before heading to the NFL combine, and he wanted to let me know that he would be back and wanted to make sure that I knew he loved the program. In talking to Jordan, I got the true spirit of what coach Johnson was, in terms of a man of integrity, a man who cared about kids and cared about educating kids and playing great football. Now, maybe it all didn’t happen on his watch, but I will say this: He laid the foundation for it to happen.
Do you envision playing much the same way at Vanderbilt as you did at Stanford, particularly when it comes to being physical?
DM: We can’t be a cookie cutter, but this conference is built on being able to play up front. This game has always started up front, on both sides of the ball. We want to be physical. We want to make sure we can control the line of scrimmage on either side and play that same style of ball, attacking, aggressive style of ball. And on offense, it’s a style that we’re going to line up and get to different personnel groupings, different sets, and as we start to bring the ball downhill at you, there’s always the possibility of getting the ball down the field with tight ends and making sure we mix the run with the play-action pass.
How did you view the SEC from afar while coaching in the Pac-12?
DM: I view the SEC as the best football conference in the country, bar none. But I think what that speaks to is how those teams are at the top and what they’ve been able to do in winning BCS national championships. Now, I think the Pac-12 is deep from top to bottom. Anybody can win that thing. I don’t care who you’re talking about. Anybody can win it, and it’s a quarterback’s conference. You have top quarterbacks going at it week by week by week. If you look at the statistical numbers, it proves it. It lends itself to a different brand of ball top to bottom. So as I compare the Pac-12 to the SEC, I think the SEC is better in the upper half, but I think the Pac-12 is better from top to bottom. But I would still give the edge to the SEC in terms of what it looks like and how the game is played.
What’s your take on competition and what it will be like this spring at Vanderbilt?
DM: Competition is always free. That’s how you tear it down and build it back up. Every year, you come to those guys and tell the last recruiting class that my job as a coach and our job as staff members is to make sure we recruit guys who are better than them -- period. We’re going to go get better guys, so every year their job is in jeopardy. Hold onto it if you can. Hold onto it if you really want it. Hold onto it if it really means something to you. But what you really need to understand is that I’m going to get somebody that’s better than you. If you can’t maintain it, let’s not pout. Let’s make sure you find your role, make sure you fit in and help this team be as good as it can be. Your opportunity is going to come again, and when it comes, you better be ready.