There comes a time in every head coach’s tenure when the conversation shifts from “have we given him enough time?” to “okay, we’ve given him enough time, is this good enough?” For Derek Mason, that conversation shifted at some point in the 2017 season, somewhere during the five-game losing streak that started with the 59-0 debacle in front of a national television audience and a great mass of crimson-clad fans at Vanderbilt Stadium, and ended in the program’s ninth consecutive loss to South Carolina — a streak that has since reached ten, and one of the more random losing streaks that the Commodores have had against another program.
The end of the 2017 season was the first time under Mason that I ended the season saying that I would be okay if Vanderbilt made a coaching change. Mason was obviously getting a second year regardless of how 2014 went (hint: it went poorly), he showed enough improvement in 2015 to get a third season, and clearly Vanderbilt wasn’t about to fire a coach after a bowl game in 2016. 2018 ended much the same way that 2016 had, with back-to-back wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee to get to a bowl game, only to have a deflating loss in the bowl game itself — though of a much different tenor than the 2016 Independence Bowl loss; the 2018 Texas Bowl was widely regarded as one of the most entertaining games of the entire bowl season, even if it ended in a loss for the good guys.
And now that the 2019 season has opened with two losses in a row, one a highly expected loss to Georgia at home, and the second a deflating road loss to Purdue, the wolves are out in force again. I’m not yet one of them, because I wasn’t one of them at the end of 2018, and I don’t think one or two games are enough to change anything. A full season of performances like the one a week ago? Yeah, that would do it. Of course, we’ve certainly seen September stinkbombs like that one before: Georgia Tech in 2016, certainly, or South Carolina last year. Both of those seasons, of course, ended in a bowl game.
For now, though, I’m torn between two conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, yeah, 2018 may well have been Peak Derek Mason. On the other hand, bowl games and wins over Tennessee are not things that we can take for granted.
It is very much the eternal Kevin Stallings debate, all over again.
For the record, I did eventually join the Fire Stallings train, well after a lot of others had, because the 2015-16 season showed that Peak Stallings wasn’t coming back. Kevin Stallings made a Sweet 16 in 2004 with a roster that played a grand total of 588 minutes in the NBA, and made another in 2007 with a roster that played 37 minutes in the NBA. And then, from 2010-12, he had three guys who would play in the NBA (albeit in supporting roles, in all three cases) and won one game in the NCAA Tournament; then again, in 2016, he had two first-rounders on the roster and backed into the play-in game, which it promptly lost by 20 points. Kevin Stallings made his way to Pittsburgh, and then, after years of saying “we could definitely do worse here,” Vanderbilt did, in fact, do worse. Much worse. So much worse that after an 0-18 season and getting rid of the guy who replaced Kevin Stallings, we’re looking at two years that are going to be much like Derek Mason’s first two years, where we look for any signs of progress at all.
In short, it takes a lot to make me demand a change at the top, far more than it takes some others around here. But you already knew this. The next coach is much more likely to be Woody Widenhofer than James Franklin, simply because Woody Widenhofers are far more common than James Franklins. (If you dare, compare Woody’s resume prior to his first head coaching job to Franklin’s and tell me which you would have thought would make a better head coach. Hint: it’s not Franklin.) Oh yeah, and we’ll be paying our new Widenhofer on top of what we’re paying to buy out Mason’s contract. This is how you become Tennessee, where you just hired a guy who lost to Georgia State and you can’t get rid of him because you’re still paying Nick Saban’s intern to not coach the team. The only reason Vanderbilt’s basketball program is not currently in this position is because, somehow, Pitt paid us to take Kevin Stallings off our hands.
Of course, when the coach is already going 2-10, the idea that a different coach might also go 2-10 is unpersuasive. But when the choices are bowl games and 2-10? I’m taking the path that involves playing football in December, even if we lose the bowl game and thus the coach, counting the bowl game, has a losing season. Unless you’re the kind of program where you can just take your pick of the available candidates whenever you have an opening, any coaching change is a risk — and the better your current coach is, relative to where your program normally is, the less that risk is worth it.
I guess what I’m saying here is if we’re still committing dumb penalties and losing to Northern Illinois in a couple of weeks, well, talk to me then. For now, it’s one bad performance. Of course, that I’m even writing this column should say a lot about our collective mindset at the moment.