(4) Derek Mason Gets a Contract Extension, 2018
Derek Mason enters his seventh season as Vanderbilt’s head football coach this fall and the subject of his continued employment has been one of unending controversy for Vanderbilt fans.
How did it get here? Well, Mason went 3-9 in his first season, 4-8 in his second, and then 6-7 with a trip to the Independence Bowl in beautiful Shreveport, Louisiana, in his third. That got him a contract extension, which we’re going to blow past for now because you could at least argue that the team had shown consistent improvement in his second and third years and there was a need to show good faith if you weren’t going to get rid of him (which you weren’t.)
There was a bit of buyer’s remorse after the team fell back to 5-7 in 2017, but that brought a slight bounceback to 6-7 and a Texas Bowl appearance in 2018. The 2018 team, though, was frustrating for a few reasons. There were a handful of close losses in which coaching decisions seemed to play a role, particularly the staff’s usage of star running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. And in Year 5, it might have been reasonable to expect a bit more upside than what Mason had shown — never doing better than six wins (and in both instances needing a late-season rally to even get there.)
And then, Mason got another contract extension.
If there was buyer’s remorse in 2017, there was really buyer’s remorse in 2019, when the team went 3-9 complete with an ugly loss to UNLV, the sort of loss that hadn’t really been seen since the days of Woody Widenhofer. And yet, the contract extension presumably meant that Vanderbilt could not move on.
(5) Gerry DiNardo Goes to LSU, Vanderbilt Hires Rod Dowhower, 1994
We’ve discussed elsewhere the 65-0 blowout that brought a rude halt to any thought that Gerry Dinardo was turning a corner at Vanderbilt. Sure, he was averaging 4.5 wins a season, but his worst year was as good as any season of Vandy football since the improbable 5 wins in 1984 (including Bama, what the hell). Watson Brown had gone 1-10 three times in his tenure. Put another way: with 5-6 in 1990, Gerry Dinardo matched Vanderbilt’s win total from the previous three seasons combined. It was clear that he was a much better coach than Vanderbilt had possessed since George McIntyre, but the specter of Same Old Vandy was pervasive, and there was a thought that in the new-look modern SEC, with eight conference games and only three non-conference opponents and a permanent slate of Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama providing half the conference foes, five wins was a hard ceiling. And if you could win five at Vanderbilt, with those academic requirements and recruiting obstacles and that bull-headed admissions office, what might you be able to accomplish at some place more football-oriented? And LSU really hadn’t been anything to write home about in a while, and Dinardo was less than five years removed from OC’ing Colorado to a national title (well, half of one, zip it Bee Nerds)...what I’m saying is, as much as people might mock it now, this was not an unreasonable hire - LSU hadn’t had a winning season in football since 1988. If 5 wins at Vandy equalled 8 at LSU, that was a pretty fair deal for a fanbase scarred by the “Curly’s About Crazy” era.
But Vanderbilt, already reeling from the Eddie Fogler nightmare, had yet another patently WTF coaching decision up their sleeve. It was “Rocket Rod” Dowhower, lately the QB coach of the Browns after four years as the offensive coordinator for the last Washington Redskins teams of the Joe Gibbs 1.0 era. As a fan of a team that had not yet earned the “Deadskins” sobriquet they’ve richly deserved these last twenty years, I was foolishly enthused about this hire. I shouldn’t have been. For one thing, Dowhower had exactly one season as a head football coach in college. In 1979, he compiled a 5-5-1 record for Crazy Uncle Leland’s Open Air Kindergarten for Aspiring Tech Bros over there in Shallow Alto. He also somehow got the reins of the Indianapolis Colts in 1985-85, won five games his first season and then got terminated after an 0-13 start in 1986. He’d been an offensive assistant elsewhere - the Broncos in the pre-Elway era, the St Louis Cardinals (football, kids, ask your parents), the Atlanta Falcons, but seemed to have made his bones with the Skins running the last iteration of the Gibbs offense and only being displaced with the hiring of Norv Turner from a different branch of the Air Coryell tree.
Which is important. See, that Skins offense was a one-back, two tight end, multiple-receiver-friendly set that relied on a huge beefy offensive line to plow the road for a burly back like Earnest Byner or John Riggins or Timmy Smith (Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks and three different feature running backs. The man was a genius). It was a high-powered offense that could do smash mouth and aerial assault in equal measure. And what Vanderbilt had was...a wishbone. Okay, an I-bone, but a triple option attack with personnel to match for four years of recruiting. And a new head coach who hadn’t cashed a college football paycheck since the Carter administration who now had to recruit for a system that he simply didn’t have the players for. I’m trying to think of the last program that hired an NFL coordinator to be their head coach and I’m sure it’s happened, but there’s no getting around the fact that this was a recipe for disaster.
All you need to know is that the one thing anyone remembers about Dowhower’s tenure was that he ran a fake punt with the hulking Bill Marinangel against Bama in 1996 that was the Dores’ longest run from scrimmage until the Zac Stacy era. Sure, a fake punt from your own 19 yard line is ballsy and impressive. When it’s nearly the only highlight from two seasons of football, you probably weren’t very good. (Yes, yes, I know, 3rd and 37 against Notre Dame, and ironically Todd Yoder spent a lot of pro years in Washington afterward.)
Dowhower went 2-9 twice, managed one conference win in both seasons combined, and was replaced with his own defensive coordinator to save time and money. And thus was born the Woodyball era. Ironically, as Tom has detailed elsewhere, the decision to dismiss Dowhower was probably as much a product of Todd Turner replacing Paul Hoolahan as anything else. Come to think of it, maybe “Paul Hoolahan’s entire AD career” should be in this tournament somewhere. To hire Dowhower, let Fogler get away and replace him with VBK? That’s not an athletic director, that’s Loki.
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