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.

"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."

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...