HOOVER, Ala. -- A year ago, Derek Mason was confident. He strutted into SEC media days as the new guy in town, sporting a sharp bow tie and high expectations.
James Franklin had elevated Vanderbilt to a program that could win nine games in a season, and Mason was determined to raise the bar even further as his successor.
“Why have nine when we could have 10?” he asked the crowd of reporters in Hoover, Alabama, in 2014. “Why have 10 when we could have 11?”
Taking it a step further, he said, "Our opportunity to compete for an SEC East title is now."
But Vanderbilt didn’t get to 10 or 11 wins. They got nine -- losses, that is -- and finished last in the East the past season.
It turns out Mason didn’t know what he was getting into. He thought there wouldn’t be a talent drop-off. He thought the culture to win already was in place. He thought wrong.
He thought that just because Vanderbilt was in the SEC, it would play like an SEC team.
“And we didn’t,” he said Monday. “That’s on me.”
When Mason entered the Hyatt Regency Birmingham in Hoover for media days this week, his tone was noticeably less bold. The bow tie was gone, along with the sense of high expectations.
It’s not that he is giving ground; he is still as confident as ever. But after a tumultuous rookie season in which nothing seemed settled, he is happy to report Vanderbilt is a different team this year.
“We look like an SEC team,” he said.
It’s a small victory but a victory nonetheless.
“Sometimes you make assumptions,” Mason said. “Playing spring ball, you can make assumptions about your team. As a first-year head coach, I went through some of that. You don’t know what kind of team you have until you start playing games.
“That growth through Year 1 made me understand we need to be a more consistent football team, a more competitive football team week in and week out.”
The turning point, Mason said, was a seven-point loss to Tennessee. That’s when Vanderbilt hit the reset button.
“Since then, it’s been not about being right, but about getting it right, with staff hires, team culture, structure,” he said. “It’s been about finding smart, Vanderbilt ways to get it right. I believe that’s what we’ve done.
“It’s culture. It’s changing culture. I thought I had it right, but listen, it’s like I said: It’s not about being right but about getting it right.”
With an unsettled quarterback situation, questions on the offensive line and two new coordinators, Vanderbilt has a ways to go. But at least there seems to be a clearer sense of direction.
“That team I was on last year and the team I’m on this year is some of the more talented teams I’ve ever been on,” senior center Spencer Pulley said. “But at the same time, we didn’t have that mentality last year. There were some guys that had it, but as a team across the board, we didn’t. That’s something different this year, and that’s something it takes to win.”
After going 3-9 in 2014, national expectations for Vanderbilt are low. It’s no longer about hitting or surpassing the nine-win mark. It’s about showing progress.
Mason isn’t talking records this time. He’d rather lie low.
“Sometimes the best position to be in is last,” he said. “You start gradually picking off teams as you ride by. That’s what horse racing or dog racing is about. That’s what we’re in: We’re in a race.”