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The Anatomy of the Rebuild; or, Why It May Be Premature to Call for Derek Mason's Head in September

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TL;DR: Rebuilding a college football program takes time. Derek Mason deserves more than two years to accomplish it at Vandy.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

When your favorite team hires a new coach, usually there is a lot of optimism about the new guy.  This is going to be the guy who turns us into a winner!  Yee-haw!  And that optimism is usually not followed by immediate results.  After all, there is usually a reason why the last coach got fired (or, if you're James Franklin, why the last coach skipped town before the dirty work started.)  Unlike basketball, where a single recruit can be a game-changer for a program and the learning curve between high school and college isn't as steep, it takes time to build a football program, as evidenced by successful rebuilds of the past.

Hint: they don't happen overnight. SRS, next to each coach's win/loss record, stands for Simple Rating System.

Jim Harbaugh, Stanford

Year W L SRS
2006 1 11 -8.73
2007 4 8 -1.10
2008 5 7 -0.04
2009 8 5 10.88
2010 12 1 21.80

Art Briles, Baylor

Year W L SRS
2007 3 9 -11.15
2008 4 8 2.59
2009 4 8 -2.30
2010 7 6 1.62
2011 10 3 13.83

Ideally, this is how you would like the rebuild to go: improvement from the get-go in year one (granted, in both Harbaugh's and Briles' cases, the team had been terrible the year before they took over; improving from terrible to merely mediocre is less daunting than improving from medicrity to a good program), but in both cases there were only minor improvements from year one to year two -- or actually a slight dropoff in Baylor's case, but that was mostly explained by Robert Griffin III getting hurt.  That was followed by a jump in year three and another leap in year four.

Why did it take three years?  In most cases, the new coach's first recruiting class is cobbled together at the last minute, holding on to players the previous regime had recruited whom the new coach likes and maybe adding a few -- or, in Briles' case, bringing Griffin (whom he had recruited while he was still at Houston) into the fold.  The first full recruiting class comes after the first season -- but since relatively few true freshmen are going to be major contributors (or even play at all), the effects of that class probably won't be felt until the third year.  That's why the third year of the rebuild is the turning point -- by that time, the coach should be showing improvement if he knows what he's doing.

Walt Harris, Stanford

Year W L SRS
2004 4 7 6.27
2005 5 6 1.19
2006 1 11 -8.73

...but while I generally think a new coach should have three years before you decide if the new coach is a keeper, I'm willing to admit that there are exceptions where you only need two years to know that he isn't.  Stanford was quickly cratering under Walt Harris, and in this case getting rid of him was justified before the hole got even deeper.  His 2006 team not only went 1-11 but got outscored by an average of 21 ppg.  There were really almost no positive signs there.

Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech

Year W L T SRS
1986 9 2 1 4.44
1987 2 9 0 -2.12
1988 3 8 0 -1.34
1989 6 4 1 6.36
1990 6 5 0 7.20

There is actually something of an eerie similarity between Frank Beamer's first couple of years and Derek Mason's.  Both took over a historically moribund program (Virginia Tech had been to six bowl games in its history prior to 1987), but also one coming off arguably its best season in decades, and immediately lost nine games the next year -- though in Beamer's case, the Hokies, an independent at the time, seriously upgraded their schedule in his first year which made the dropoff more dramatic than it actually was.  But the pattern follows -- modest improvement in year two, followed by a bigger jump in year three, although VaTech didn't build on it quite as much in the fourth year.  Not shown here: the Hokies fell off to 5-6 in 1991 and then 2-8-1 in 1992 before beginning a streak of 22 straight bowl games in 1993.  Fortunately for Beamer and Virginia Tech, back in 1992 the internet was still in its infancy and there was no online petition demanding his firing.

Now, obviously, this is not to say that Mason is Beamer but at one point, Beamer was Mason.  Of course unlike Mason, Beamer had been a successful head coach before (at Murray State) and was also an alum, which probably gave him a bit more of a leash.

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

Year W L SRS
2005 7 5 9.27
2006 4 8 -7.39
2007 6 6 -3.70
2008 9 4 4.82
2009 8 5 -0.39

While a lot of Vanderbilt fans like to hope and dream that we can be like Stanford, Northwestern is really a better comparison for what Vanderbilt can be -- aside from the fact that Northwestern and Vanderbilt are located in states that typically don't produce a ton of football talent, Stanford has a history in football that Vandy and Northwestern just don't.

But saying we can be like Northwestern in football is hardly an insult.  Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern has become a program that's usually good for six or seven wins a year with the occasional 9- or 10-win campaign.  I think we would take that.  In any case, the same pattern holds, with marginal improvement from year one to year two followed by a jump in year three.

Ed Orgeron, Mississippi

Year W L SRS
2004 4 7 -2.17
2005 3 8 -7.48
2006 4 8 -1.74
2007 3 9 -1.31

Hal Mumme, Kentucky

Year W L SRS
1996 4 7 -3.31
1997 5 6 3.58
1998 7 5 6.60
1999 6 6 3.30
2000 2 9 -4.97

And then there's the unsuccessful rebuild.  Note the difference; Orgeron got canned after three years when it became clear that his alleged recruiting prowess was not going to translate into results on the field.  But that was after his second year at Ole Miss showed some promise.

Mumme, meanwhile, actually really did look like he was going to turn Kentucky around through his first couple of years; but this was mostly fueled by Tim Couch putting up video game passing numbers.  The program slid quickly in 1999, when Mumme's own recruits should have been making their way up the depth chart, before cratering in his fourth year.  That and NCAA sanctions got him fired.

But the general point is that really, in a coach's first two years at a school, you have no idea how the rest of his career is going to go.  Some coaches -- like Mumme or Joe Tiller at Purdue (not included here; Tiller reeled off a few nine-win seasons with Drew Brees at QB but never approached those heights again) -- show a lot of promise early on but don't pan out once the program has their own stamp on it.  Others struggle at first but really improve things once their own recruits start filling the depth chart.  Year Three is the turning point; if the rebuild isn't starting to show progress by then, you're just as well off cutting him loose because it's probably not going to happen.

Which is why, assuming the team doesn't crater in 2015 (and early indications are that it won't), Derek Mason will and should get a third year at Vanderbilt.  As we've seen above, the building process doesn't always show results before then.  Jumping the gun and firing a coach after two years -- barring a total collapse or pending NCAA sanctions -- means you're firing a coach with whom you may not know what you have yet.