In his first four years at Vanderbilt, Derek Mason has an 18-31 overall record and a 6-26 SEC record. Those aren’t good numbers, but Vanderbilt fans have recently taken to bringing up another Vanderbilt coach with a worse record through four years.
Bobby Johnson was hired at Vanderbilt after the 2001 season, on the heels of a successful run at Furman, where he went 60-36 over an eight-year tenure and led the Paladins all the way to the FCS (then I-AA) Championship Game in 2001. His first four years produced an 11-35 record, with a 5-27 record in SEC games.
Yet Johnson didn’t enter his fifth season, the 2006 season, on any sort of a hot seat. Part of that was because he’d very nearly taken the Commodores to a bowl game in 2005, with Jay Cutler leading the team to a 5-6 record that included a ... controversial loss to MTSU on a blocked game-winning field goal. Oh, sure, Johnson might have been in trouble if the football program had fallen back to its pre-2005 levels with Cutler gone, but Johnson went 4-8 in 2006 and Vanderbilt beat a Top 25 team on the road for the first time in half a century. Vanderbilt would go 5-7 in 2007 and then earn its first winning season in 26 years with a 7-6 mark in 2008.
And now, this history is being used by some Vanderbilt fans to justify their belief that Derek Mason, 12 years later, does not enter his fifth season on the hot seat. In fact, they’ll tell you that Vanderbilt never fires coaches. But the circumstances are entirely different.
When Johnson took over the program in 2001, it was coming off a 2-9 season, and it hadn’t had a winning season since 1982. What’s more, Woody Widenhofer’s recruiting was, um, subpar to put it nicely. Johnson told Vanderbilt that he wouldn’t take the job unless they guaranteed him five years. It took four years just for the on-field record to start showing progress.
Mason, on the other hand, followed James Franklin — who won 24 games in three years. We can debate how much talent Franklin actually left behind — Franklin recruited a few star players (namely, Zach Cunningham) but didn’t seem to be too interested in recruiting offensive linemen or any sort of depth, and don’t get me started on the quarterback play.
Fair or not, Franklin’s three-year run raised the bar. In 2006, a lot of people believed that Johnson’s four-year run from 2005-08 was about the best Vanderbilt could possibly do — and then Franklin cleared that bar. Had Mason been hired in 2001 and posted this four-year record, he would be pretty safe; had Johnson’s run followed Franklin’s, Johnson might not have made it to a third year. But how Vanderbilt handled Johnson in 2006 has no bearing on how it will handle Mason in 2018, and to suggest that it will requires ignoring all context.