Welcome to the SEC

Editor's note: We're counting down the days until the start of college football by taking a look at 25 of the most interesting people in the game. Today's subject? New Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason. Click here to find the rest of the series.

HOOVER, Ala. -- Tucked away in a hotel meeting room, Derek Mason slumps in his chair, wearing a breezy black Dri-Fit shirt, athletic shorts and sandals.

Twelve hours from facing the feeding frenzy that is SEC media days for the first time, Vanderbilt's rookie head coach is relaxed and smiling.

The former Stanford defensive coordinator, who commanded back-to-back top-20 defenses, entered the nation's longest, most scrutinized media days radiating confidence.

"I'm just trying to make sure that we are who we think we are," Mason told ESPN.com in July. "And that's a process. [Former Vanderbilt coach] James [Franklin] did a great job of pushing this program to relevancy, but if you dream small, you accomplish small things.

"It doesn't feel tough, man, because it feels like I'm telling the truth. When you're at a place like Vanderbilt and what you're selling is real ... I'm not selling pipe dreams."

After graduating from Northern Arizona in 1992, Mason felt a little lost. After four years of football with the Lumberjacks, the Phoenix native didn't know what he wanted to do next.

So when his former high school position coach, Gary Somo, called him about mentoring inner-city youth in Phoenix, Mason jumped at the opportunity. Soon after, he reconnected with his high school head coach, Moody Jackson, who helped Mason earn his emergency teaching certificate, enabling him to coach.

At Northern Arizona, Mason was coached by future NFL head men Andy Reid, Brad Childress and Marty Mornhinweg. He wasn't sure if he could imitate them, but after his first taste of coaching at Carl Hayden High School in 1993, he was hooked.

He loved matching skill sets with schemes. He reveled in helping players evolve and adapt on the field because of something he taught them.

"My first year coaching high school, man, I knew I wanted to be a coach," Mason said. "It wasn't even close. It was a different kind of high."

Mason then sent out hundreds of letters seeking a graduate assistant gig with no luck. So he took a job as the wide receivers coach at San Diego Mesa College in 1994, before heading to Weber State in Ogden, Utah, a year later.

"I took my first college job for nothing," Mason said.

Because of the NCAA's restricted-earnings coaches rule, Mason made a paltry $3,500 a year with no benefits. For two years it was a daily struggle for Mason and his wife, Leighanne.

After living off a combined six-figure income in Phoenix, Mason and his wife now relied on less than $300 a month from coaching, while Leighanne made $2.50 an hour cleaning weight rooms.

Mason coached receivers and special teams, lined fields and drove players home after practices.

To save money, the couple rented "a hole in the wall" from a booster for $200 a month and Mason ate all of his meals on campus. His wife used most of the leftover money to feed herself.

When a cavity bothered Mason -- who didn't have health or dental insurance -- for 18 months, he minimized the pain by chewing on the other side of his mouth.

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