- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Change might be in the air at Vanderbilt, from a new head coach to a new coaching staff to a new 3-4 defensive scheme to several new faces in key roles, but there’s one thing everyone associated with the program insists won’t change.
And that’s winning games.
Derek Mason is entering his first spring as Vanderbilt’s head coach. The Commodores, coming off their best two-year stretch in school history, start practice Tuesday afternoon, and if anything, they’re hungrier than ever.
“I’ve loved every interaction I’ve had with Coach Mason and the great staff that he’s brought in,” sophomore quarterback Patton Robinette said. “He’s a very confident guy, and that’s spreading to us.
“I know everybody else is worrying about the previous staff leaving and saying we’re going to have a drop-off. I feel like we’re going to be that much better next year. I really do, especially with the guys [Mason] has brought in and the changes he’s made so far.”
The translation: Vanderbilt’s players appreciate what James Franklin did in steering the program to nine-win seasons in back-to-back years, but they’re not wallowing in the fact he’s gone.
For that matter, they knew it was probably inevitable he would bolt at some point.
“We watch TV and read the Internet,” senior center Joe Townsend said. “It was talked about in the locker room, but we didn’t let it distract us from what needed to be done. He told us to control what we could control, going to class and playing football. We knew it was very possible that he would go somewhere else.
“So, when it happened, we weren’t surprised.”
Townsend said a standard of winning (and knowing how to win) has been set at Vanderbilt, and the players reminded each other of that even before Mason was announced as head coach.
“We have guys who know how to work hard and are selfless and know how to win,” Townsend said. “Coach Franklin taught us how to win, and that’s not going to change. We talked about it as a team when the whole coaching search was going on, that no matter who we get or who comes in here, one thing that will never change is us winning because we know how to win.
“The only people who can control that is us. No coach can control if we win or not. They supplement it and help us grow as players. But when it comes to winning, we’re the ones on the field who get it done.”
Mason is obviously no stranger to winning, either. Stanford won 11 or more games each of his three seasons as defensive coordinator in Palo Alto.
There was also a time when the idea of Stanford winning Pac-12 championships seemed far-fetched, sort of like Vanderbilt winning nine games in back-to-back seasons and sweeping Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
The expectations at Vanderbilt have reached a whole new stratosphere, and for those who insist the Commodores reached their ceiling under Franklin, Mason offers a confident shrug.
“The one thing I’ve learned over time is that you can’t get mired in people’s expectations,” Mason said. “You have to tear it down and build it up every year. So with that being said, 2013 has no effect on 2014. What we have to do is put our cornerstones in place.
“If you go back and look at what we’ve done defensively and offensively, it comes back to you being able to play a 60-minute ballgame, whether that’s 2013 or 2014. It’s about taking teams into the fourth quarter and winning ballgames. There’s no expiration date on that. That’s a day-to-day, week-to-week process.”
And it’s a process that started the day Mason was introduced in January.
“This program, whether anybody believes it, is going to win championships,” Mason said. “We’re already on the clock. This spring is important for laying that foundation, and then we’re going to go one fall practice at a time, one week at a time, and make our march toward the SEC East title.”