Halfway through the 2018 season, Derek Mason’s fifth at the helm of the Vanderbilt Commodores football program, the team sits at 3-3 overall and 0-2 in the SEC. In four and a half years, Mason has an overall record of 21-34 and an SEC record of 6-28.
Vanderbilt has traditionally given its head football coach a long leash, which means there are some questions about how much heat Mason is under right now. But eventually, even Vanderbilt gets tired of losing and makes a change. The question is — when? Today, we’re diving into historical records to figure out what factors have typically come into play when Vanderbilt finally decides to make a coaching change.
Almost everyone gets four years here.
Historically, if you’re hired as Vanderbilt’s head football coach, you’ll get four years to do your job — minimum. And usually five.
There have been two exceptions to the rule. We’ll get to Rod Dowhower — fired after back-to-back 2-9 seasons in 1996 — in a minute. Robbie Caldwell was, for all intents and purposes, an interim coach, even if Vanderbilt technically named him the permanent head coach during the 2010 season. The circumstances that led to Caldwell getting the job — Bobby Johnson’s sudden resignation a month or so before the season — meant that 2010 was effectively a one-year audition for Caldwell, which he failed badly.
The Bobby Johnson line
So, here’s a fun stat. Going back to the 1960s, Vanderbilt has finished nineteen seasons — 1969, 1975, 1982-84, 1991-93, 2005-09, and 2012-17 — with either a rolling two-year SEC win total of four or a rolling three-year SEC win total of six, and Vanderbilt did not voluntarily make a coaching change after any of those seasons. (Bobby Johnson retired after the 2009 season and James Franklin took the Penn State job after the 2013 season, but obviously both would have been allowed to return if they had wanted to.)
Historical precedent suggests that all that Vanderbilt really asks of the head football coach is to average two SEC wins per year. Hit that bar consistently, and you’ll keep your job. Fall below that bar after your fourth year, and you get fired. We’ll call this the Bobby Johnson line; after Johnson’s 2005 season — when Vanderbilt beat Tennessee for the first time in 23 years and nearly went to a bowl game — Johnson never dropped below this average over the preceding two or three years. (That out of conference losses to MTSU in 2005 and Wake Forest in 2007 denied the Commodores bowl trips in those years doesn’t appear to have come into play.)
On the other hand, George MacIntyre was forced out in 1985 as soon as both averages dropped below two: MacIntyre’s 4-2 SEC record in 1982 effectively kept him employed through an 0-6 1983 and a 2-4 1984, but a 1-4-1 1985 did him in. (The quick hook given to MacIntyre always baffled me, but Vanderbilt got outscored by an average of 19 ppg in SEC games in 1985 and would be outscored by nearly 20 ppg in SEC games in 1986, so it appears that Roy Kramer realized the program was hitting rock bottom.) Watson Brown and Woody Widenhofer, neither of whom ever hit the Johnson line, were both relieved after their respective fifth year.
If the Johnson rule holds, Derek Mason will keep his job if Vanderbilt wins at least two SEC games in 2018, which would put his three-year SEC win total at 6; three SEC wins would also put his two-year win total at 4. But winning one game (or zero games) the rest of the way would put him below the Johnson line. That Mason could keep his job with a 5-7 overall record might confuse some, but then you could also argue accurately that scheduling a road game against a top 10 team out of conference was a bad idea.
But there’s a complicating factor here...
A new Athletic Director has usually been bad news
Vanderbilt has changed athletic directors four times since 1978, not counting this year, and three of the four new athletic directors have replaced the football coach within their first year on the job — and those account for both of the occasions when Vanderbilt has violated the unwritten “every coach gets five years” rule.
Roy Kramer took over as athletic director in 1978, and one of his first moves later that year was to relieve Fred Pancoast. Pancoast may well have been fired under any circumstance — he hadn’t won an SEC game in three years, after all, and the team’s average losing margins were actually getting worse, not better — but Kramer showed him the door after just four years in Nashville.
Paul Hoolahan took over in 1990 after Kramer became SEC commissioner, though Kramer probably wouldn’t have let Watson Brown survive a second straight 1-10 season, either.
The real exception, though, came when Todd Turner replaced Hoolahan, who resigned in late 1995. Hoolahan’s disastrous tenure as AD saw both a football coach (Gerry DiNardo, whom he hired) and a men’s basketball coach (Eddie Fogler, who was hired by Roy Kramer) leave for other jobs; in the latter case, Fogler left for arguably a lateral move to South Carolina shortly after being named the National Coach of the Year. To replace them, Hoolahan brought in Rod Dowhower and Jan van Breda Kolff. Those two sentences should be a pretty good summation of Hoolahan’s tenure as AD.
Anyway, Turner took over as AD in 1996 and while Dowhower was only in his second year, it was pretty obvious that hiring him had been a mistake and Turner pulled the plug pretty quickly. The point is, having a new AD has usually coincided with a coaching change.
And we’re left to wonder, too, if James Franklin raised the bar enough that even hitting the Johnson line is enough any more. We will see.