"It's amazing what you'll do when you know that you have no other options," he said.
Despite the tribulations, Mason said advancing in coaching was too important for him to quit. He'd seen too many coaches leave and have the coaching door permanently shut.
So he trudged through pain and empty bank accounts before becoming Idaho State's running backs coach in 1997 and eventually shooting up the coaching ranks with a three-year stint with the NFL's Minnesota Vikings before his three prosperous years at Stanford.
"When people say things can't get done, I know what's possible," Mason said. "You can't tell me what I can't do.
"I wouldn't change anything that I've done at any of the places I've been because it humbles you when you don't have much and you have someone else to support. It makes you realize that what you have, you need to be thankful for."
It took 22 years for Mason to reach the top.
Back in Hoover, Mason readies for his media days debut, sporting an immaculate black-and-gold speckled suit. Nerves briefly set in and he needs a reporter to tie his bold black-and-gold bow tie to complete the ensemble.
Dressed, Mason stands tall, chest out. His broad shoulders and muscular build pop, as confidence radiates when he struts toward the main ballroom to face nearly 1,000 media members ready to judge the man picked to replace the incredibly successful Franklin.
Mason isn't Franklin, whose Vanderbilt teams won nine games in each of the past two seasons and earned a bowl bid in each of his three years at the helm, after going to only one in the previous 28 years.
Quieter and a little more straightforward, Mason talks championships. He talks postseason.
Franklin's improbable run came with an almost aggravating no-looking-ahead theme. Mason proudly pushes a championship mindset.
"What he often preaches is the SEC championship," defensive lineman Adam Butler said. "I see it, I love it. I feel like that's the next step that we have to take as a program. We don't want to be complacent. Back-to-back 9-4 seasons sounds great and everything, but it's time to take the next step, and that's what I love about Coach Mason and what he brings to the table."
One of the core values Stanford coach David Shaw, whom Mason calls "a brother," instilled in him was being true to himself and the brand of his school. Mason wants a contender and rings. He wants a championship brand at Vandy.
"We're not going to build buildings ... we don't have to feel like we have to keep up with the Joneses," Mason said. "Buildings don't win championships, players do. If you recruit and build and you grow players within your program, you can find success. That's what Dave did."
"It's a great motivator," safety Andrew Williamson said. "I understand Coach Franklin's mindset -- one day at a time -- but you gotta see it to believe. I like Mason's mindset. It puts that goal out there and it's there for us to strive to get. Pretty soon, I feel as if it'll be a reality."
The reality for Mason is he believes he's coaching more athleticism than he did at Stanford. He's excited about a four-man quarterback battle but hasn't found a starter. He loves his running backs and offensive line, but his defensive front is transitioning to a 3-4 scheme. His secondary is unheralded, but Mason believes he has the "best safeties you've never heard of" in Williamson, Jahmel McIntosh and Oren Burks.
Keeping Vanderbilt relevant is tough, but Mason embraces the challenge. He already overcame a mass recruiting exodus by signing 22 freshmen, including two ESPN 300 members, in two weeks this spring. He has earned profound trust and respect from his current players, and fans seem excited again.
The job won't be easy, but after everything he has been through, Mason doesn't fear failure.
"I've seen guys sprint faster than me and get to this place much faster than me, and I've seen guys burn much faster than me," he said. "I'm happy with my journey, and that's why I'm not scared, I'm not nervous."