NASHVILLE—The sun peeks through the vast windows of Vanderbilt’s new $30 million indoor practice facility. It’s around 7:30 a.m. on Monday morning, which means most college students are still in bed. The Commodores, meanwhile, have been on the football field for roughly 45 minutes.
Second-year coach Derek Mason is decked out in head-to-toe black attire, save for neon green Nike sneakers, and barks out orders to his defense. He wasted no time getting his team back in action. With the exception of Duke, Vandy kicked off spring practice earlier than any Power Five school. The team’s first on-field workout came on Feb. 16, two weeks before that of any other SEC program.
Vanderbilt’s players say the early start, both on the clock and on the calendar, is no accident. “We wanted to get the bad taste out of our mouths as quickly as possible,” senior tight end Steven Scheu said.
That bad taste lingers from a 2014 season that was depressing even by Vanderbilt’s historically lowly standards. Mason led the Commodores to a dismal 3-9 mark in his first year at the helm, including a 0-8 record in the SEC. The team lost seven league contests by double digits and failed to pick up a conference win for the first time since ’09.
Mason started three different quarterbacks over the first three games, and four total on the year. The final product was one of the worst in college football: The program ranked 119th nationally in scoring offense and 106th in scoring defense.
Fans worried that Mason’s debut marked a return to Vandy’s role as a perennial SEC bottom-feeder. After the program recorded just one winning season from 1982 to 2010, Mason’s predecessor, James Franklin, did a remarkable job of revitalizing the Commodores: He won 24 games in his three years in Nashville and posted consecutive nine-win campaigns for the first time ever. Mason inherited a roster accustomed to winning, but says the learning curve was steeper than he expected.
“Last year, I felt like, to be honest, everything was a blur,” Mason said. “It just happened so fast. You were just having to react, move and swerve and duck and bob and weave. Everything was coming at you.”
Mason’s first campaign started off poorly. Vandy coughed up seven turnovers in an embarrassing 37-7 home loss to Temple on Aug. 28. Two weeks later the team survived an upset bid from UMass 34-31 only because the Minutemen missed a 22-yard field goal in the waning seconds.
But Mason said the Commodores’ low point came on Nov. 22 at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs, then ranked No. 4 in the AP Poll, ran Vanderbilt out of Starkville in a 51-0 rout. Mississippi State was one of the best teams in the nation, but that did not excuse the lack of effort Mason witnessed from his squad. “It almost looked like this team had the wind blown out of its sails,” he said.
Some coaches would choose weather the storm. Not Mason, who knew drastic changes had to be made. Within two weeks of a season-ending 24-17 loss to Tennessee on Nov. 29, he had fired his offensive coordinator, Karl Dorrell, and his defensive coordinator, David Kotulski. The bloodletting also included receivers coach Mark Lubick and director of sports performance Bill Hughan.
Mason knew the staff reshuffling could be seen as a panic move. That’s why he spent plenty of time weighing his options. He made a list of pros and cons, and consulted with his mentors, most notably Stanford coach David Shaw, Mason’s former boss from 2011-13, and Shaw’s father, Willie, a retired longtime NFL assistant. Mason now describes himself last year as feeling like an “out-of-touch CEO” who needed to regain control of his company.
“That’s a difficult position for a head coach to be in,” said Jason Grooms, Vanderbilt’s director of football operations. “You’ve got to step back and look at the program as a whole. You’ve got to see what the benefit is for everybody. He didn’t take the decision lightly. I know it was hard on him, but it was a decision that he felt was the best for our program.”
Said Mason: “I had to make tough decisions. There was going to be no back and forth, no bargaining. At the end of the day, we needed change. That change was going to be now.”
The elder Shaw visited Mason midway through last season with a simple message: Don’t let this thing get too far away from you. This thing was Mason’s defense. The coach made a name for himself as Stanford’s defensive coordinator, as his Cardinal units were regularly among the nation’s best. But his first defense at Vanderbilt ranked 11th or lower in the SEC in every major statistical category.
So Mason cut out the middleman. He elected to take on defensive play-calling duties in lieu of hiring a new coordinator. Meanwhile, he brought in ex-Wisconsin assistant Andy Ludwig to handle the offense. The Badgers averaged at least 34.6 points per game in each of Ludwig’s two seasons as the offensive coordinator in Madison, and he coached Heisman Trophy runner-up Melvin Gordon in 2014. Ludwig also served as Utah’s offensive coordinator when the Utes beat Alabama in the ’09 Sugar Bowl and finished the year 13-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country.
Mason’s return to play-calling has brought an edge to spring practice. “You think you know a lot of football until you get around coach Mason,” said Chris Marve, a Vanderbilt grad assistant who was an All-SEC linebacker for the program from 2008-11. “I’ve really been taken back because I thought I knew a lot of football.”
The Commodores hope a revamped staff can meld with a roster loaded with experience. Vandy returns 18 starters, tied with Tennessee for most in the SEC. That includes quarterbacks Patton Robinette, Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck. Redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage joins the fray as well, but Ludwig said he hopes to narrow the competition under center to two by the end of spring. Key players like tailback Ralph Webb, defensive end Caleb Azubike and linebacker Nigel Bowden also return after starting at least nine games in 2014.
Despite last season’s struggles, Vanderbilt’s players continue to buy into Mason’s philosophy. Sophomore safety Emmanuel Smith convinced his brother, four-star linebacker prospect Josh Smith, to stick by his commitment to the Commodores. The younger Smith, who hails from Oakland High in nearby Murfreesboro, Tenn., fielded offers from Oklahoma, Georgia and Georgia Tech, among others. But Emmanuel sold his brother on Mason and the program’s direction.
“He had a lot of options to choose from,” Emmanuel said. “He took visits to see what he liked about other schools. He weighed his options, and this one weighed more strongly.”
Mason has studied a number of programs that have made dramatic one-year turnarounds. Arkansas finished 0-8 in the SEC in Bret Bielema’s first season in 2013 before winning seven games in ’14, including shutting out ranked LSU and Ole Miss teams. TCU boasted one of the nation’s worst offenses in ’13 before winning 12 games last fall thanks largely to a potent, up-tempo attack. Vanderbilt might not have the SEC’s most talented roster, but Mason knows one bad season isn’t always a sign of things to come.
On the lobby wall outside Vanderbilt’s football offices, a quote from Aristotle is displayed for all to see: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Mason is trying to make winning a habit at Vanderbilt again. Last season is history, and the Commodores’ future has yet to be written.
“I do know this,” Mason said. “If you know anything about me, at any place I’ve been, you give me a year and I’ll figure it out.”