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Early Vanderbilt candidates include sitting HCs, top assistants

Derek Mason became the second SEC coach fired in two weeks on Sunday, when Vanderbilt University parted ways with its seventh-year head coach on the heels of his team's 41-0 loss Saturday at Missouri.

The winless Commodores, nonetheless, present some attractive elements to potential candidates. Yes, the academic rigors and recruiting constraints at Vanderbilt can be a deterrent.

But that SEC draw is real, as is Vanderbilt's location in one of America's “It” cities in Nashville, which has been among the fastest-growing metropolitan areas across the past 20 years.

And James Franklin showed Vanderbilt could win at levels the program had not seen in decades in his run atop the Commodores' ship before Mason.

Plus, don't forget the bottom line: Vanderbilt has shown it will pay top dollar. According to the USA Today college football coaches' salary database, Mason was earning more than $3.5 million this season – a top-40 salary in all of college football, ahead of the likes of Florida State, North Carolina, Arkansas, N.C. State, Duke and myriad other Power-5 residents.

So, it's not surprise that an attractive group of sitting head coaches and up-and-coming assistants are emerging as potential candidates for the SEC post.

We take a look at early names that sources have directly told either have interest or will explore the Vanderbilt job opportunity:

Army head coach Jeff Monken. A sitting head coach who's generated strong success atop the Black Knights program, Monken has emerged as a viable SEC candidate in each of the past two coaching cycles. He's already been considered for the South Carolina job, where Billy Napier and Shane Beamer are among the other early candidates with interviews concluded.

Monken's disciplined approach and unique offense could be tailor-made for Vanderbilt. However, it's also important to note: Monken strongly believes in tailoring his system to best fit his personnel; not force his personnel into a single system. So sources have indicated Monken is beyond willing to modify his triple-option offense in a Power-5 league.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea. Hard to see Lea as anything other than a potential home run for Vanderbilt. Speaking of home runs, Lea began his collegiate playing career on the baseball diamond before he transferred to Vanderbilt, where he played fullback and graduated in 2004.

He's quickly ascended the ranks as arguably the single-best defensive coordinator in all of college football. It was on display in early November when Notre Dame knocked off then-No. 1 Clemson and limited the Tigers to less than 40 rushing yards. It was again on display Friday at North Carolina, where the Irish shut out the Tar Heels for the game's final 30-plus minutes, held a sixth-straight opponent to less than 100 rushing yards and the fewest points UNC has scored in the second edition of the Mack Brown Era.

Lea was a finalist last year at Boston College, and he's destined to be a head coach sooner than later.

Alabama associate head coach/running backs coach Charles Huff. A veteran of both the NFL and SEC coaching ranks, Huff's star has continued to ascend in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Nick Saban's loaded staff. Huff was on Franklin's staff at Vanderbilt in 2011, has worked with Franklin at Penn State and then was on staff with Joe Moorhead a year at Mississippi State before he switched to the Crimson Tide. His work with running backs has been evident, as Najee Harris has continued to blossom for Alabama. He's also an exceptional recruiter and has drawn consistently high praise from his peers in conversations with

Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Like Huff, Gattis has ties to the Franklin Era at Vanderbilt when he was the Commodores' wide receivers coach. He also spent time on Saban's Alabama staff before he accepted the offensive coordinator position at Michigan prior to the 2019 season. Though the Wolverines have struggled mightily this season on offense, they had some electric performances in Gattis' first year when Shea Patterson manned the offense. A Wake Forest graduate and North Carolina native, Gattis also understands well the academic rigors – from both his own college career and his previous work at Vanderbilt.

Charlotte head coach Will Healy. Few coaches have ascended more quickly than Healy, who just a few years ago was an assistant at FCS resident Chattanooga before he completely turned around the Austin Peay program and turned the Governors into Ohio Valley Conference champions and NCAA FCS Playoffs participants. Then a year ago in his first season atop the Charlotte program, Healy guided the program to unprecedented success including a bowl game. Healy has deep ties in Tennessee, has long recruited the state and has been very well-received by high school coaches throughout the Volunteer State.

Tulane coach Willie Fritz. After he did strong work at Georgia Southern for two seasons, Fritz took over at Tulane and has quickly revitalized a once-moribund program. The Green Wave have posted back-to-back bowl berths following the 2018-19 seasons, and have a chance for a third-straight seven-win season sitting 5-5 with two games to play in the regular season plus a potential bowl bid.

Tulane has won 28 games in less than five full seasons under Fritz; it won 25 total games in the eight years prior to his arrival.

Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell. He has the Chanticleers undefeated and ranked in the top-15 nationally, with a showdown looming this Saturday at Liberty. The winner could potentially squeeze into a Group of Six bowl berth, something unprecedented. Chadwell is an East Tennessee native who runs an innovative offense and, per one coach who spoke to, “impresses me because of how much he gets out of his players. And he's developed his quarterback really well. That guy's a player.”

Memphis defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre. A theme here: MacIntyre also has deep-rooted ties to Vanderbilt. He began his collegiate career as a member of the Commodores' football team before he finished out his education and playing days at Georgia Tech. Clearly, both those institutions help MacIntyre understand the challenges and demands of the Vanderbilt job. He's coached at Georgia and Ole Miss previously in the SEC, as well as a strong run as defensive coordinator in the Volunteer State at UT-Martin. MacIntyre also won Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors during his stint atop the Colorado Buffaloes program.

Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. Sure, Lane Kiffin gets a lot of the attention for the offensive renaissance Ole Miss is experiencing in Kiffin's first year atop the program, but Kiffin likewise is quick to praise Lebby's impact on the offense. He also was highly regarded by Central Florida coach Josh Heupel when Lebby was the point-man running the Knights' offense. He's smart, innovative and taxes defenses with his schemes, plus plays an exciting brand of football. He interviewed for the Tennessee offensive coordinator position two years ago when Jeremy Pruitt ultimately hired Jim Chaney, and Lebby has only continued to climb the coaching ladder since that time.

Houston Texans assistant, Chris Rumph. With tons of SEC experience as both player and coach, Rumph has a decorated resume with coaching stops in the league at South Carolina, where he played, as well as Alabama, Florida and Tennessee. Rumph also logged time on the staffs at Clemson and Texas before he left the Volunteers after last season to pursue the opportunity with the Texans.

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun. What Calhoun has done at Air Force has been nothing short of remarkable. The Falcons have been consistent winners, and Calhoun has led the program to 10 bowl berths since he took over at his alma mater in 2007.

Don't discount Calhoun's offense or his willingness to play to his personnel. He was the offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans prior to taking over at his alma mater, and Calhoun previously has been a finalist for multiple Power-5 jobs, including two different times at Tennessee and most recently at Virginia and Missouri.

Stay tuned for the latest on The Scoop as this one plays out before the early National Signing Day.