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Missouri probably saved Derek Mason’s job in 2015 and ended it in 2020

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Longer form thoughts on the end of an era.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Derek Mason era at Vanderbilt wasn’t doomed from the start, even if it might have seemed that way after a 37-7 loss to Temple in a downpour at Vanderbilt Stadium back in the 2014 season opener. Mason’s first season muddled to a 3-9 record with the wins coming against Charleston Southern (by a point), UMass (after the Minutemen missed a field goal that would have sent the game to overtime), and Old Dominion (at that point in its first season as a full-fledged FBS member.)

Everybody knows that I’m patient with head coaches — hell, I thought Bryce Drew should have been retained after the dumpster fire of 2019 and didn’t even change my opinion until he showed his ass to Pete Thamel a few weeks after the fact — but even I have a breaking point, and I reached it roughly around the time of the Ole Miss game last year. And that was a week before the team completely crapped the bed in a 34-10 loss to a UNLV team that would finish the season 4-8 and fire its coach. Mason might have saved his job for another year when he beat Missouri a week later, just as Missouri might have saved his job in 2015 when he finally picked up his first SEC win after starting his coaching career with 11 straight conference losses. That game also just happened to be the first game started by Kyle Shurmur, who’d go on to be the starter for basically the remainder of his Vanderbilt career (save for a brief reappearance by Johnny McCrary after Shurmur got hurt.)

Shurmur very nearly made Mason’s career; in SEC play, Vanderbilt was 9-20 with Shurmur as the starter and 1-26 otherwise, with the one win being the aforementioned Missouri game in 2019. The irony is that Mason might have found his replacement for Shurmur a year too late; Ken Seals very much looks like he’ll be a four-year starter at Vanderbilt, but unlike Shurmur, Mason didn’t have the luxury of easing him in with the backstop of a strong defense. The 2015 and 2016 defenses, led by future pros Zach Cunningham and Adam Butler, were legitimately good units that could carry an offense that was still finding itself; Vanderbilt’s defenses since 2016 frankly haven’t been anywhere close to that level and there wasn’t even a sign that it was back on the upswing.

In fact, the defense, even with the return of ten starters from 2019 to 2020 and a seeming upgrade at coordinator from Jason Tarver to Ted Roof, seemed to be even worse. The path to success at Vanderbilt for Derek Mason was always going to be narrow, but it mostly involved pairing his excellent early defenses with a competent offense. Instead, as Vanderbilt found its footing on offense, the defense said bye-bye. Vanderbilt went from allowing 21.0 ppg in 2015 to 24.0 in 2016, then a ghastly 31.3 in 2017, a slight uptick to 26.6 in 2018, 31.8 in 2019, and 42.0 (against an SEC-only schedule) in 2020.

If 2019 didn’t end Mason’s tenure, it likely set the program on a trajectory to where the end was inevitable. I said two weeks ago — after an unexpectedly competitive game at Kentucky — that the fact that it was Mason in Year 7 instead of a new coach in Year 1 meant that whatever positives we were beginning to see as the calendar turned to November, and the fact that we had a good quarterback, presumably for the next four years, just weren’t going to change any minds: we’d seen enough, and most of us had seen enough in 2019.

And all of that ended on Saturday. It had been pretty clear for a while that Vanderbilt needed to make a move at the end of 2020, and the 41-0 thud in Columbia, Missouri, simply bumped up that timetable by a week or two. That this came a week after some media members just couldn’t shut up about how hard Vanderbilt was playing for Derek Mason was a bit ironic, because “playing hard” was about the last thing I would have accused the team of on Saturday. Everything just felt completely off about the team on Saturday, and I wrote yesterday that given the level of competition, this was comparable to the 71-13 loss to Florida in 2001 that ended Woody Widenhofer’s tenure three days later.

Mason didn’t even make it to the end of the weekend. A single game almost never determines the fate of a coach, but Saturday was the breaking point. We had all seen enough, and finally, Vanderbilt did as well.