After one ugly season on the job, Derek Mason knew a change was necessary.
He had earned the right to become Vanderbilt’s head coach in 2014 by coordinating dominant defenses at Stanford. But after his first Commodores team struggled on defense, ranking 12th in the SEC by allowing 5.72 yards per play, Mason made a rare move for an FBS head coach. He named himself as the Commodores’ defensive coordinator.
“When you’re comfortable being who you are, I think that’s the greatest part of my maturation is not worrying about what people expect me to do, but doing what I know I need to do for my program to make sure that we can have success,” Mason said.
Mason’s unusual decision seems to have made a big difference. Vandy moved into a tie for sixth in the SEC in yards per play (5.17) last season and stood sixth in total defense (350.5 ypg), developing into arguably the most improved defense in the conference.
However, Mason insists he is not breaking new ground. He is one of just two FBS head coaches who serve as their own defensive coordinator -- San Diego State’s Rocky Long is the other -- but Mason said hands-on head coaches are all over the sport.
“You start to assemble a group of people around you that allow you to do your job,” Mason said, crediting offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig for capably handling that side of the ball. “So for me, I had to break my day up to making sure that I can be CEO or head football coach with oversight of my program: what it takes financially, what it takes media relations-wise and trying to get those things right.
“But then the football thing is the easiest part of what I do. Coaches never get a chance to do enough of that, and what I’m doing is not new,” Mason continued. “Offensive coaches have been doing it for a long time, so when a defensive coach does it, it’s sort of like it’s new. This isn’t a new blueprint. [Stanford head coach] David Shaw has been calling offense for a minute. When you look at guys like [TCU’s] Gary Patterson, it’s not new.”
It’s true that it is more common on the offensive side. Six FBS coaches -- Mike Leach (Washington State), Paul Johnson (Georgia Tech), Jeff Brohm (Western Kentucky), Nick Rolovich (Hawaii), Mark Whipple (UMass) and Doug Martin (New Mexico State) -- serve as their own offensive coordinator and many more call their own plays even if they don’t carry the coordinator title.
In fact, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn vows to go back to being more of a hands-on offensive coach this season after taking a CEO-like approach in 2015 with disappointing results. Like Mason, Malzahn said he needs to do what he does best to enjoy success.
“The first three years I was a head coach, I had a coordinator, but I was quite a bit hands-on and last year I tried to be a little bit more of a head coach and I made a mistake,” Malzahn said. “I think every coach is different. Every head coach is different. When you look at the Steve Spurriers, he always did his offense, and that’s what I enjoy doing and that’s one of my strengths.
“So I’ll be a lot more hands-on in meetings, on the field, all that, as far as the offense goes. That’s not a cut to my offensive coaches last year. It’s just a preference for me, knowing what I need to do to be successful.”
As Mason mentioned, there are dozens of head coaches who could easily carry a coordinator title if they chose to do so. After all, Alabama is running Nick Saban’s defense no matter who serves as his coordinator. But with everything that it takes to keep a program running -- particularly at the most prominent FBS schools -- it helps to have capable coordinators who can take some of the planning responsibilities off the head coach’s plate.
“There’s no doubt,” Malzahn said. “There’s times you’ve got to deal with things that you won’t be in every single meeting.”
Make no mistake, though. That’s where the coaches would prefer to spend their time.
Following up on academic progress reports or disciplinary matters, handling media commitments and rubbing elbows with booster groups are all part of a head coach’s job. All of those responsibilities take away from what most coaches actually want to do: coach football.
“That’s what I enjoy,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “I enjoy coaching. I enjoy being involved. I enjoy the day-to-day operation, and that’s part of it.”
And so Muschamp keeps a hand in coordinator Travaris Robinson’s plans and also coaches South Carolina’s safeties himself.
“I’m in every defensive meeting, I’m in every installation meeting, I draw the coverage notes on everything we do, I draw the pressure notes on everything we do,” Muschamp said. “It’s not a whole lot different from what I did when I was a coordinator.”
Over four years in his previous stint as a head coach at Florida, Muschamp learned the same lesson that Mason now credits for aiding his development at Vanderbilt. He will lean heavily on his own expertise to give his team its best chance to succeed – a successful formula for many a winning head coach.
“I think you stay in your wheelhouse,” Mason said. “You do what you do and understand.”