Through four seasons at Vanderbilt, Derek Mason is 18-31 overall and 6-26 in the SEC. Among SEC football coaches since World War II who coached at least four seasons at one school, his .367 winning percentage is the fourteenth-worst. (It comes as a surprise to exactly no one that six of the thirteen worse than him were Vanderbilt coaches.)
What happened to those thirteen below him?
- Six — Curley Hallman (LSU, 1991-94), Raymond Wolf (Florida, 1946-49), Fred Pancoast (Vanderbilt, 1975-78), John Ray (Kentucky, 1969-72), Jack Green (Vanderbilt, 1963-66), and Tommy O’Boyle (Tulane, 1962-65) were not retained for a fifth year.
- Three — Sylvester Croom, Woody Widenhofer, and Watson Brown -- were fired after a losing record in their fifth season.
- Just four lasted longer than five seasons. Two of those — George MacIntyre and Andy Pilney (who coached at Tulane from 1954-61) actually had better records than Mason through four years, and both also had posted a winning season. Bobby Johnson went 6-29 in his first three years at Vanderbilt and 21-27 from 2005-08, and may well have been the only coach in this group who was allowed to leave on his own terms. And Charles Shira was 10-29-2 through four years at Mississippi State, but went 6-5 in his fourth year and got two more years.
With the lone exception of Bobby Johnson, there’s no precedent for an SEC coach having five losing seasons in a row and keeping his job, and we’ll just go ahead and point out that there were exceptional circumstances that led to Johnson getting eight years in spite of not posting a winning record until his seventh season in Nashville.
Now, I don’t want to say that we know how this will end. Vanderbilt’s defense gave up an average of 43.3 ppg in SEC play in 2017, and now has to replace seven starters (by my count) off that unit; you can argue that, well, replacing starters off a unit that bad shouldn’t be that difficult, but then why were the backups not starting if they were any better than the guys they’re replacing? Mason is showing improvement on the recruiting trail, with a class ranked 34th nationally in the 247 Sports composite after C.J. Bolar’s commitment on Sunday, and that likely bought him a fifth year.
But it’s an open question whether Mason will be around to coach those players he’s brought in. Mason probably has enough equity right now that getting to 6-6 in 2018 will get him a sixth year. Any less than that, though, and it’s hard to see how he survives. The Commodores have a near-certain loss on next year’s nonconference schedule -- a trip to Notre Dame in Week 3 — but the other three nonconference games (Middle Tennessee, Nevada, and Tennessee State, all at home) are very winnable. On the other hand, the SEC schedule is more than manageable. Four home games against South Carolina, Florida, Ole Miss, and Tennessee shouldn’t be too daunting — Ole Miss’s roster may well be gutted by NCAA sanctions; Tennessee was godawful in 2017 and may not be much better in 2018. Vanderbilt does get the West’s worst team in 2017 (Arkansas) as well, though that’s on the road, and we’ll see how good Kentucky and Missouri (also on the road) are. No, we won’t be beating Georgia between the hedges, but that’s one of just two games on the schedule that I would consider unwinnable if Vanderbilt is even decent in 2018.
So, yeah. I can come up with exactly zero reasons why Mason should keep his job if Vanderbilt goes any worse than 6-6 next year. Mason signed an extension after the 2016 season, but as we’ve seen in the past year, extensions don’t matter. SEC programs will figure out a way to get rid of you if you’re not getting the job done. So the question is: is the team capable of going 6-6 next year?