A year ago, Derek Mason walked into his first SEC Media Days all bow ties and smiles. Such is life when you're an undefeated first-time head coach, especially one taking over a Vanderbilt program at the peak of its powers, fresh off back-to-back nine-win, top 25 seasons. And then the season started.
Mason's head-coaching debut came in a 30-point home loss to Temple, and it didn't get much better from there. The Commodores won three games, against soon-to-be MAC cast-off Massachusetts (by three points), FCS Charleston Southern (by one), and FBS newcomer Old Dominion (by 14). Vandy was held to 17 points or fewer in eight of its nine losses, and to 10 or fewer five times, including a 51-0 blanking at Mississippi State on Nov. 22. It was then Mason decided changes were necessary.
Mason ultimately fired both of his coordinators - longtime friend Karl Dorrell on offense, former Stanford comrade Dave Kotulski on defense - and replaced them with Wisconsin quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig and... himself.
“After talking to coaches and interviewing guys, I felt like I didn't want to speak through anybody to talk about what the structure of our defense was going to be,” Mason said Monday. “It needed to be direct, and if I'm going to be responsible, then I'll be responsible. So at that point in time, I figured it was best that I go ahead and move into that role, and I've been able to structure my day and move some things around, along with my staff, to make sure that our program doesn't suffer because I'm moving into a defensive coordinator role.”
Many first-time head coaches falter because of their refusal to delegate. Calling plays is what got them in the big chair in the first place so, doggone it, why wouldn't they call plays now that they're running their own team? The 2014 season taught Mason that the reverse was actually true. He over-delegated.
"I thought (calling plays as a head coach) was maybe taboo because you don't see too many defensive coaches doing it. But I think what I just said is really a misnomer," he said. "If you're a defensive mind, if you're an offensive mind, you do what you know. I believe I know defensive football.”
In fact, add one more thing Mason learned during his long debut season: not to make assumptions. "I assumed just because we were in the SEC we’d play like an SEC team," he said of his team's performance. "We didn’t."
Don't expect him to make that mistake twice.