Mason inspired by Vandy baseball team

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
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At the College World Series in June, Derek Mason watched Vanderbilt's baseball players fly through the air and land on top of each other in a celebratory dogpile as they clinched an improbable national title.

The scene transported Mason, Vandy's first-year football coach, to a future he hopes to one day occupy.

"That they won it helps me see what others can't," he said. "It helps me believe what others don't."

After two seasons as the defensive coordinator at Stanford, Mason was hired by Vanderbilt in February. Almost immediately, he set upon impossible goal: to win an SEC East title at a school best known as the conference's doormat.

"We will be champions," Mason said.

It was easy to laugh off his ambition.

[+] EnlargeVanderbilt Commodores
AP Photo/Ted KirkWhen the Vanderbilt baseball team won the NCAA title in June -- the first men's national title in school history -- new football coach Derek Mason took notice.
Until 2012, the Commodores hadn't won nine football games in season since 1915. Before the baseball team won it all this summer, the university's only national title had come in 2007 -- in women's bowling.

But everything changed on the field in Omaha. Now, writing Mason off requires ignoring what Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt's baseball coach, was just able to accomplish.

Corbin was hired in 2002. The year before he was brought on, the Commodores went 9-21 in SEC play. They shared a locker room with the visiting football team, and had access to just one batting cage.

"You could just tell we weren't taken seriously," Corbin said.

Since then, Corbin turned a perennial loser into a champion by refusing to view the school's structural limitations as a deathblow.

Exhibit A: Vandy's rigorous academics, which some believe preclude it from chasing recruits either unwilling or unable to handle the school's curriculum.

"How can having good academics be a disadvantage?" he asked. "Then right away, you're taking away from the thing that's most important.

"I think that's a huge advantage that Vanderbilt has over the rest of the conference."

Corbin sold his new version of the school to recruits: Vanderbilt was the only school that could provide an education on par with the level of play on the field.

The approach worked.

In 2004, just two years into Corbin's tenure, the Commodores reached their first NCAA super regionals and finished over .500 in SEC play for the first time since 1980. An investment from the athletic department followed, along with a new locker room, pitching laboratory, classroom and weight room.

"That elevation of our program led us to getting David Price," Corbin said. "There was one key in recruiting for us, and that was Price."

The star left-handed pitcher wound up being the first of a string of six Vanderbilt players selected in the first round of the MLB draft.

Vanderbilt football, on the other hand, has had only one first-round pick since 2006 -- OL Chris Williams in 2008 -- when the Denver Broncos selected Jay Cutler despite his 11-35 record as Commodores' QB.

But by following Corbin's blueprint, they've been set on a similar trajectory.

Five years ago, Vandy football was 1-7, and the team's facilities paled in comparison to that of the rest of the SEC.

But then, in 2011, James Franklin led the Commodores to a bowl game in his first season as coach. The athletic department began pouring money into football. A state-of-the-art weight room, renovated football stadium, and a brand-new practice facility came next.

Thanks to the new digs and a few more winning campaigns, the Commodores were able to sign running back Brian Kimbrow -- the first four-star recruit in program history -- in 2012 and landed the nation's No. 22 class -- its best ever -- in 2013. And a cadre of Vandy alumni -- Green Bay's Casey Hayward, St. Louis' Zac Stacy, Philadelphia's Jordan Matthews -- is now making noise in the NFL.

"We were graced with more resources than what our predecessors had," Corbin said. "It's the same thing with football. James Franklin created more resources than what any prior coach had. And Coach Mason will build off the resources he was given by James."

If the ball was on Vandy's own 20-yard line before Franklin was hired, it now rests at midfield. Approaching his first season as Commodores head coach, Mason will be burdened with fewer challenges than any of his predecessors faced.

Of course, with SEC East opponents like South Carolina, Florida and Georgia, the Commodores are still a long way from divisional -- let alone national -- supremacy.

They may never reach those heights. But Mason believes they will. How could he not, having so recently seen the mountaintop with his own eyes?

"I dream big," Mason said. "To see the baseball team do it -- it's really strengthened my resolve."

"Every night, before I go to bed, I say a prayer or two," he added. "Then, I wake up."

Each morning from now on, Mason will rise and go to work, his focus pointed toward achieving an improbable future. A colleague's unlikely success will guide each stride forward.

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