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Friday, January 17, 2014
Mason lands Vandy program full of dreams

By Chris Low

Stanford has been able to do it. Why can't Vanderbilt?

By "doing it," I'm referring to establishing itself as an elite program in football at an elite academic institution.

The Commodores dared to dream under former coach James Franklin and won nine games in each of the past two seasons. The last time that happened at Vanderbilt was ... never.

Franklin's critics will point to his 4-14 record against teams that finished with a winning record, and it's also true that only two of his 11 SEC victories came against winning teams.

Derek Mason
Coming from Stanford, new Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason knows what it takes to become a national football power at an elite academic institution.
But what's undeniable is that he made Vanderbilt football relevant. He gave Vanderbilt fans a reason to believe the Commodores could regularly go to bowl games (and win), go head-to-head against traditional football powers on the recruiting trail and win some of those battles and become a regular in the final top 25 rankings.

Only two teams in the SEC's Eastern Division have finished each of the last two seasons nationally ranked -- South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Florida didn't. Georgia didn't. Neither did Tennessee.

But Vanderbilt did.

Let's be honest. Who saw any of this coming at a school in the SEC with stringent academic admission standards, and moreover, a school that had experienced all of one winning season in the 28 previous years to Franklin's arriving on campus?

Sure, Franklin had an edge about him that rubbed some people the wrong way, but he also proved that winning in football at Vanderbilt wasn't some half-baked fantasy.

Bobby Johnson probably didn't receive the credit he deserved for laying the foundation for Franklin and upgrading the talent level. A lot of the players Franklin won with were recruited by Johnson. But what Franklin did was take it to another level for his successor, Derek Mason, and the challenge now is for Mason to do at Vanderbilt what his former bosses, David Shaw and Jim Harbaugh, have done at Stanford.

That's take Vanderbilt from a consistent winner to a consistent contender in the SEC and nationally.

Without a doubt, it will be the most daunting step yet and one a lot of people would tell you isn't realistic.

Then again, did anybody think the Commodores winning nine games and finishing in the top 25 in back-to-back seasons was realistic?

What Mason has going for him is that he knows what kind of students are going to make it at Vanderbilt. He understands the importance of identifying those players and developing them. He has seen first-hand that even if you don't have a bunch of five-star prospects on your roster, you can still play five-star football.

Mason obviously has a defensive background, but he also has coached offense during his career. That's always a plus for a coach moving into a head coaching role for the first time.

Having spent time in the NFL should also help him, as will the time he spent around two of the top coaches in the game today -- Harbaugh and Shaw.

Give Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams some credit, too. He has been spot-on when it comes to identifying hot coaching candidates. He tried to hire Gus Malzahn initially back in 2011, and when Malzahn decided to stay at Auburn, Williams scored big with Franklin.

Williams was Franklin's biggest ally on campus and pushed to get things done from a football perspective that we hadn't really seen at Vanderbilt in the past. In other words, there was a real commitment to football for the first time, and Williams is determined to see that commitment through with Mason.

The Commodores are at a point that a lot of us who cover this league never thought we'd see, especially in an era when the SEC has been so dominant.

Moving it forward will be a monumental task for Mason, who's obviously not afraid of the challenge. He had turned down other head coaching opportunities.

But I'm always reminded of something Johnson told me after guiding the Commodores to their first bowl victory in 53 years during their 7-6 2008 season.

"The first thing you need to make sure of is that you don't take a step backward," Johnson said.

So, yes, that will be Mason's first order of business. But something says that won't be good enough with the precedent that has been set on West End.