Last week, I watched the 1996 game between our Vanderbilt Commodores and those who shall not be named, which was Rod Dowhower’s final game as Vanderbilt’s head coach. (It’s available on YouTube, if your morbid curiosity about that era gets the better of you.) Dowhower’s “offense” looked like what would happen if you gave Karl Dorrell a frontal lobotomy. Midway through the second quarter, ESPN flashed a graphic on the screen that read “Vanderbilt Offense: First Downs - 0; Total Yards - 1.” Yeah, it was pretty awful. Vanderbilt’s only touchdown came when a Vanderbilt receiver literally shoved the defensive back covering him to the ground and somehow the officials decided that this did not constitute offensive pass interference, marking perhaps the one instance in history where bad officiating worked in Vanderbilt’s favor.
(Actually, you should watch that game just to remind yourself what college football was like in the 1990s. Artificial turf that doesn’t even try to look like grass. Giant shoulder pads that make even the smallest players look monstrous. Archie Manning wearing orange for what has to be the only time in his life. The announcers reacting to a clear helmet-to-helmet shot with, basically, “walk it off, bro.” The end zones painted with “Vanderbilt” and “Commodores.” Simple black and gold uniforms with clearly visible numbers and no silly fonts. Now that I think about it, those last two are things we should consider doing again.)
Throughout the offseason, commentators across the interwebs have speculated that Derek Mason might be on the hot seat entering the 2016 season, and these commentators are missing a cold, hard, inconvenient fact: Rod Dowhower is literally the only Vanderbilt head coach since Vanderbilt started employing full-time head coaches who was forced out after less than four years. (That’s obviously not counting coaches who left on their own — looking at you, Ol’ Bald Poach.)
We’ll start with Jack Green, who took over for Art Guepe prior to the 1963 season. Green 6-20-4 in his first three seasons. He went 2-7-1 in his third year. Did he get a fourth year? Yes.
Bill Pace went 11-17-2 in his first three years, 4-6 in his third year. He got three more years.
Fred Pancoast took over Steve Sloan’s Peach Bowl team in 1975, had what has to be the strangest 7-4 season ever (Vanderbilt got outscored by 81 points on the season, and somehow went 7-4), went 2-9 the next two seasons, and Vanderbilt brought him back to go 2-9 a third time.
George MacIntyre won seven games in three years, but then he was taking over the tire fire that Pancoast left behind and did go 4-7 in his third year. That was rewarded with a bowl trip in 1982, so we’ll give Vanderbilt a pass for that.
Watson Brown went 8-25 in his first three years at Vanderbilt, fell from 4-7 to 3-8 in his third year, and Vanderbilt let him stick around for not one but two 1-10 seasons before mercifully canning him after what according to SRS was the worst season in Vanderbilt history. How the 1990 team managed to beat LSU remains a mystery to me.
We’ll leave aside Gerry DiNardo, whose 13-20 three-year record after two decades of futility was acceptable. DiNardo went 5-6 in his fourth year and got hired by LSU.
Woody Widenhofer went 10-23 in his first three years... then again, he came oh-so-close to breaking what was by then a 17-year bowl drought in his third year. But Vanderbilt probably shouldn’t have given him a fifth year after dropping to 3-8 the year after... only they did.
Bobby Johnson was retained after three straight two-win seasons. That ended up working out fine, of course, but are you getting the picture here yet?
The notion that Derek Mason is “on the hot seat,” or that Mason “needs to go at least 5-7 to keep his job” — both of which have become fairly common opinions entering the 2016 season -- is, sadly, ignorant of 50 years of Vanderbilt putting up with two- and three-win seasons. Now you might point out that the current administration had nothing to do with any of this nonsense, or that there are legitimate reasons to think Vanderbilt now has a reasonable expectation of doing better than three-win seasons (which it arguably didn’t when Watson Brown was roaming the sidelines), but the point is that Vanderbilt has a very long history of taking its sweet time firing football coaches.
This isn’t an argument that Derek Mason shouldn’t be on the hot seat this year or that Vanderbilt’s reaction to a 2-10 season should be a hearty “we’ll get ‘em next year, Coach.” Even Mason’s most ardent defenders among the fan base will admit defeat if the season goes that badly. But it is to say that if we’re expecting Mason to get canned if 2016 goes badly... we might be hoping for too much from a Vanderbilt administration that has shown itself to be almost too patient at times.