March 19, 2014
By Jerome Boettcher | Subscribe to Commodore Nation
Rain pounds on the roof of the McGugin Center. Inside, Derek Mason hardly notices.
The 44-year-old leans back in his chair and reflects on more than 20 years of coaching. Other than rubbing his eyes, Mason shows no signs of exhaustion or symptoms of consecutive 18-hour days. The excitement and energy oozes out of him as sits in his spacious office.
In 12 hours, the first fax will roll in and Mason and his staff will see the rewards of recruiting efforts thrown together in less than three weeks. He flashes an infectious smile as he thinks about what led him to this moment as Vanderbilt’s head football coach.
“Coaching was something that really came about by chance,” he says.
When he graduated from Northern Arizona with a degree in criminal justice in 1992, Mason planned on returning to his native city of Phoenix to work as a corrections officer.
One of his assistant high school coaches, Gary Somo, had other ideas. He implored Mason to help him mentor inner-city youth. Back in Phoenix Mason reconnected with head high school football coach Moody Jackson, who had once recruited him and coached him at Northern Arizona. Jackson had since become assistant superintendent of athletics for the Phoenix Union High School district and he urged Mason to earn an emergency teaching certificate.
After a year, Mason moved across town with Somo to Carl Hayden High School, where he worked in a self-contained classroom, teaching history and government part-time. There he also took his first coaching job on Somo’s staff.
Mason estimated that nearly 85 percent of the student body was Hispanic.
“Not a real dominant football culture,” Mason says.
Carl Hayden went 0-10 in his first year as a football coach. But Mason was far from discouraged.
“Those kids worked hard for us. They fought,” he says. “They weren’t skilled at all but the one thing they did was always compete.”
He still keeps in touch with many of them, who defied odds and earned college degrees or joined the military and started families. Helping set them on that path spoke to Mason.
“In my own mind, I won, even though it didn’t read on the scoreboard,” Mason says. “The winning was in the process.” Mason joined another former coach at Mesa Community College in 1994 as a wide receivers coach. It was the first of nine college assistant coaching jobs for Mason, who also coached defensive backs for the Minnesota Vikings for three years.
“Coaching football and having that opportunity at Carl Hayden High School really opened my eyes as to what my passion was and eventually what I would actually grow to love and follow,” he says.
Every stop proved valuable.
At Mesa Community College, he coached receivers and mentored two All-Americans. He was there only one year but working at a junior college showed him how important academics were in getting his players to the next level of college football.
“That’s when I really started to understand that academics and athletics could really coexist in terms of helping those guys reach their goals of trying to get to Division I schools,” he says.
At Bucknell, he moved over to the defensive side of the ball for the first time as a college coach (he played cornerback for four years at Northern Arizona). Here he learned the 3-4 defense under David Kotulski. The duo reunited at Stanford two years ago and Kotulski now has joined Mason at Vanderbilt as his defensive coordinator.
“Leaders are not necessarily born,” says Kotulski, who tried to hire Mason when he was Utah State’s defensive coordinator. “They are people work who hard at it, take in the information and learn from it. I think that is the thing Derek has done more so than anything else. He has learned from every experience he has been in—good or bad—and continued to develop.”
He showed resilience when faced with attrition. He was at three schools in three years: At Utah and New Mexico State, the head coaches were fired and St. Mary’s disbanded its football program after the 2003 season.
Most of the staff at New Mexico State had Nebraska ties, which helped when former Cornhusker coach Frank Solich took over at Ohio in 2005. Mason did not but when Solich asked for staff suggestions former Nebraska player and New Mexico State coach Tony Samuel brought up Mason’s name first.
In three years at Ohio, Mason helped turn around a dormant program into a perennial power in the Mid-American Conference.
“Coach Solich was about all the things that make football great,” Mason says. “The hard work, the grit, the blue-collar mentality—all those things were incorporated in his philosophy. I’ve been around some good coaches and tried to take bits and pieces of ... their strengths ... to tie those into my own philosophy and what I believe are my strengths.”
And Mason had believers. His first glimpse of the NFL came in 1995 when Willie Shaw, the father of current Stanford coach David Shaw, offered him a NFL minority internship with the St. Louis Rams.
“Willie Shaw has always been my mentor,” Mason says. “He showed a lot of belief in me. He gave me the confidence to some day aspire to be a coordinator or head coach.”
Former Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress was the offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona during Mason’s freshman year. Nearly 20 years later, Childress hired Mason as his defensive backs coach for the Vikings. In three years, the Vikings won two NFC North titles and reached the NFC Championship Game.
Then Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t take no for answer—even though Mason tried to say no.
Mason turned down Harbaugh when he called in 2010 offering him a job as Stanford’s secondary coach. But Harbaugh called back, this time with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio on the phone to sell the job.
“Jim is persistent,” Mason says laughing.
Mason only worked with Harbaugh one year before Harbaugh left to become the San Francisco 49ers head coach. But, like he had done throughout his career, Mason left an impression.
“The body of work stands as a testament to the kind of football coach Derek Mason is—away from the numbers and recognizable statistics he was responsible for as defensive coordinator,” Harbaugh wrote in an email. “I truly respect Derek for the qualities he showed as a husband and father, as well as the relationships and presence he had with coaches, student athletes and staff.”
Vanderbilt athletics director David Williams hadn’t met Mason until he walked into an interview in Atlanta on Jan. 16.
Williams didn’t have prior connections to Mason. He was just an admirer of his work.
“I knew he was in charge of the defense at Stanford,” Williams says. “If you watch the high-powered offenses that come out of the University of Oregon in the last few years, Oregon has had trouble when they play an SEC team and when they play Stanford. So I watched Stanford’s defense and been very impressed with it. I always wanted to know who was in charge of it.”
Mason spent the past four years at Stanford, where he coached future Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, among others. Under Mason’s direction as defensive coordinator, the Cardinal finished in the top 15 in the country in defensive efficiency three straight years.
Williams had picked the brains of Mason’s coaching peers, Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir — even ESPN announcers and analysts. They reassured Williams of Mason’s character.
Then Williams saw for himself.
Mason was confident, yet humble. He was well prepared while laying out his recruiting plan to debunk any concerns of inexperience recruiting in the Southeast. And, he really wanted the job.
This struck Williams, who doesn’t want to make a habit of hiring a new football coach every three years. And he strongly believes he won’t with Mason.
Other opportunities had emerged in the weeks leading up to Stanford’s second straight appearance in the Rose Bowl. But Mason wasn’t interested. He relished his position at Stanford and what the university stood for. He wasn’t going to leave for just any job; he was selective. Vanderbilt was on his list.
“Within 30 seconds in the room, you kind of new this was a special guy,” Williams says. “A number of people have told me if you like him as a coach you’ll be more impressed with him as a person. … Just infectious.”
The day Mason flew from Palo Alto, Calif., to Atlanta to meet with Williams and Vanderbilt officials, he celebrated his 21st wedding anniversary with his wife, LeighAnne.
The two have been together since meeting at Northern Arizona. LeighAnne, a cheerleader, told herself she wasn’t going to date football players.
“When we first started dating, I did not like football players. He was very persistent,” LeighAnne says, laughing. “He was different. There was something a little bit deeper to him that might not have always come out.”
Over the next two decades, LeighAnne witnessed a transformation in Derek as he moved around the country.
“It has been remarkable to see him grow,” says LeighAnne, who will move from California at the end of the school year with the couple’s two teenage daughters, Makenzie and Sydney. “He has always been one with a lot of ambition and always worked hard. He hasn’t had all the tools and all the things in place to be successful right away like some people. But he never gave up. Every place he went he worked hard. So it was a learning process for him in order to reach where he has today.”
With his first head coaching job—at any level—Mason aims to keep Vanderbilt on an upward trajectory. He has already set a goal of winning the SEC East title. He plans to incorporate a “Good to Great” mentality, gleaned from a 35-page booklet written by Stanford professor Jim Collins. Mason wants to implement the same successful ideologies used by Fortune 500 companies as he tries to build on the recent success of the Commodores.
That’s fitting, because in molding Vanderbilt’s future, Mason will pull from the experiences that led him to this moment.
“I think what I learned through it all, was you are only as good as the players and the guys around you,” he says. “I have been fortunate enough to coach with great mentors, great coaches. I have tried to rely on the experience of where I’ve been and the forethought of knowing exactly who I am and what needs to be done in order to get the job done. I can’t be anybody I’m not but what I can be is good about what we do.”