Year one in Nashville did not go well for Derek Mason. The problem wasn't just the 3-9 record that derailed three seasons of progress at Vanderbilt. It was that this team was downright unwatchable in stretches. For example, the state of Mississippi outscored the Commodores 92-3. Nothing about that was acceptable.
That put the onus on Mason and Athletic Director David Williams to make some big changes as 2014 came to a close. It started when coordinator Karl Dorrell, architect of Vandy's three-and-out offense, was shown the door on December 3rd. Five days later, another Mason consigliere, defensive coordinator David Kotulski, was not invited back for 2015. And then, for nearly three weeks, there was little progress.
Still, it was clear that the Commodores were taking steps to keep the #BrandNewVandy that James Franklin brought to life from falling comatose. Their first step was to reach out to rising assistant Mike Sanford Jr., who ultimately turned down a trip to Nashville to remain with his alma mater Boise State. Then, the gears turned silently as the reports and rumors dried up as Christmas approached. AD Williams flew under the radar until Sunday, December 28th. News broke that Vanderbilt was on the precipice of hiring two new coordinators to bring Mason's vision to life.
These two men weren't FCS assistants or single-A prospects. They were established coaches with a track record of high-level performance. And while they may have been off-the-radar hires, both look like the right men for the job.
The offense will turn to Wisconsin coordinator Andy Ludwig for leadership. The 50-year old Ludwig has gone 137-78 in his 17 years running I-A offenses. His teams have only had two losing seasons in that span. He coached future NFL quarterbacks like Billy Volek, David Carr, Kellen Clemens, Dennis Dixon, Brett Ratliff, and Ryan Lindley. He won a BCS bowl with Utah (over Alabama, no less). That's one hell of a record of success, despite some concerns over his scheme management in recent years.
His counterpart on the other side of the ball will be Wesley McGriff. McGriff doesn't have Ludwig's track record of high level coordinator experience, but he has a trump card thanks to his familiarity with rebuilding the Vanderbilt football program. He served as a defensive assistant and recruiting coordinator in James Franklin's first season in Nashville. Not only did he help bring a 2-10 team to a bowl game, but he helped convince prospects like Caleb Azubike, Adam Butler, Stephen Weatherly, and Darreon Herring to play at Vandy. You may better know those guys as the heart and soul of the Commodore defense.
Now, they'll get a chance to play for the guy who brought them to the SEC. McGriff has previous experience as the co-defensive coordinator at Ole Miss, and he spent the past two seasons coaching defensive backs with the New Orleans Saints. McGriff knows two things in this world - southern football and upper body workouts:
While most of us were watching the final week of regular season NFL football, Mason and Williams were out changing the complexion of the Vanderbilt Commodores. They replaced an inflexible offensive guru and an overmatched defensive assistant with a coordinator who has had success across the FBS landscape and the guy who coached nearly every Vandy defensive back that's currently in the NFL. For a December hire, that's a major trade up for Mason's team.
Still, there's reason to be cautious. Dorrell brought Pac-10 head coaching experience to the Vanderbilt sideline and produced an offense that was less efficient than just pressing the "Ask Corso" button for 60 minutes in a video game. Kotulski was a cog in Mason's dominant defensive machine at Stanford, but he failed to extract the maximum potential from a Vanderbilt 11 that was loaded with young high octane talent. Neither one lasted a full calendar year on Natchez Trace.
Fortunately, success on the recruiting trail will help us understand what the early returns on Ludwig and McGriff will be. The 'Dores will have to work to keep four-star talent like Josh Smith in the fold while luring prospects like Frank Buncom IV or Marvell Tell to a team that went 3-9 last fall. A few big names in Vandy's small 2015 recruiting class would bring a lot of value to this team - and to the reputations of the newest hires on the city's western border.
For now, Vandy fans will have to settle with being happy with some stability among the coaching ranks after three weeks without coordinators. At a distance, Ludwig and McGriff look like big hires - maybe not a home run, but extra bases for sure. That's what Mason needed to raise morale after an otherwise crushing 2014 campaign. Now he has to prove that he can build on that.