Vanderbilt introduced its new football coach Saturday, a week after starting a search to replace James Franklin, who left for Penn State.
“This job means everything to me,” Mason said before a packed room. “This is where I want to be, this is where I plan on spending the rest of my career. We will win. Make sure of that. Make no doubts about that. I understand what college football’s about. It’s about winning, and you hired a winner for sure.”
Mason, 44, spent the past four seasons at Stanford working first for Jim Harbaugh, then David Shaw the last two as defensive coordinator. This is Mason’s first head-coaching job in a career that started in 1994, and he said he wanted this job so much that he packed a black suit for his first interview in Atlanta — site of the SEC title game.
He made clear he understands Vanderbilt’s priority as a top academic university is graduating players, with winning just as important on the field.
“SEC East title, here we come,” Mason said. “Make no bones about it. If you can’t talk about it, you can’t be about it.”
The Commodores, who went 4-20 combined in 2009 and 2010, were 24-16 over the past three seasons under Franklin. They are 16-4 over the past 20 games — second in the Southeastern Conference only to Alabama and tied with South Carolina in that span. Vanderbilt has played in three straight bowls, winning two, for the first time in school history.
Vanderbilt also has finished in the final Associated Press poll each of the past two seasons, including No. 24 for 2013. The last time Vanderbilt was ranked in the final AP poll before was 1948 under Red Sanders.
Defensive end Kyle Woestmann said Franklin is the reason that a coach the caliber of Mason would want the Vanderbilt job so much.
“Franklin showed how to win and win big and that all we have to do is win two more games a year and you get close to competing for SEC championships and national championships,” said Woestmann, the former Walton High School star. “Derek Mason saw that as an opportunity. He’s here to take us to that next level.”
Mason is the second consecutive black football coach at Vanderbilt. Out of 125 colleges in the Football Bowl Subdivision, only 13 had black coaches in 2013. Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams, also black, said they heard from up to 70 people wanting this job, including coaches in the NFL, head coaches and assistants and even a computer analyst.
“Thank you for believing in us and trusting in us to get you a good head coach,” Williams said.
A former cornerback at Northern Arizona, Mason has been an assistant at various colleges the past 20 years, including stops at Ohio, New Mexico State, Saint Mary’s, Utah, Weber State, Idaho State, Bucknell and San Diego Mesa College. He coached in the NFL, including Minnesota between 2007 and 2009.
Mason helped Stanford slow down hurry-up offenses and read-option runs and beat Pac-12 division rival Oregon the past two years. That had about a half-dozen NFL teams sending coaches last summer for tutorials on Mason’s defensive schemes.
But Mason pointed out he has recruited throughout the South for years, making him very comfortable in SEC country.
Vanderbilt’s new coach met with his players Friday and has been busy studying tape. Mason said he expects to have most of his coaching staff filled out within 48 hours.
Salvaging a recruiting class that had been ranked in the top 25 by many services is his other priority with national signing day less than three weeks away on Feb. 5.
Mason said he’ll make his vision and mission very clear.
“I think you’ll like what you see on signing day,” Mason said.