HOOVER, Ala. — It didn’t take long for Vanderbilt football players to figure the difference between new coach Derek Mason and the previous coach, James Franklin.
"I have heard a lot of times that Coach Franklin was considered a walking headline. He loves the cameras. He loves the media. He loves to be in the center of attention," Commodores sophomore defensive lineman Adam Butler said at SEC Media Days. "That’s not the case with Coach Mason."
What Franklin did in breathing life into a moribund football program was nothing short of miraculous. The program’s unprecedented success in his three seasons included consecutive nine-win campaigns and three straight bowl berths for the first time.
It also earned Franklin the Penn State job, opening the door for Mason, the former Stanford defensive coordinator. Like Franklin before coming to Vanderbilt, Mason was also a coveted assistant coach with no head coaching experience, but destined to be one on the strength of several decades of coaching on both the college and NFL levels.
"The idea of coming here now (to Vanderbilt), James did the legwork, there’s no question," Mason said. "And (previous Vanderbilt coach) Bobby Johnson did the legwork before him, when you talk about the recruits playing at Vanderbilt the last three years."
Indeed, Mason inherits a program that is having the best of times. Over the last 20 games, only Alabama at 17-3 has a better record in the SEC than Vanderbilt’s 16-4 stance. The Commodores have beaten rival Tennessee in consecutive seasons for the first time since the mid-1920s, and the nine wins in 2012 were the most in program history in 97 years.
"You can’t take anything away from Coach Franklin because he did turn the program around," Butler said. "You can say that much, but I love coach Mason’s style. He knows how to win as well. … The characteristic I love most about him is that he is straightforward and to the point. He doesn’t play games at all. He’s serious. When he talks, the whole room is quiet and all eyes are on him."
The question now for the Commodores heading into the Mason era is whether they can maintain the pace despite graduating some marquee players, including the SEC’s most prolific pass catcher in wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who was a NFL second-round draft pick of the Eagles. Also gone is the entire secondary that has three players now on NFL rosters — cornerbacks Andre Hal (Texans) and Steven Clarke (Dolphins) and strong safety Kenny Ladler (Bills).
There is also a battle for the quarterback spot vacated by graduated Austyn Carta-Samuels. A trio of hopefuls — sophomore Patton Robinette, redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary and senior Stephen Rivers — are vying for the starting nod that Mason said on Monday won’t be announced until the season opener against Temple on Aug. 28.
Additionally, the Commodores are undergoing sweeping changes on both sides of the ball. The new offense of coordinator Karl Dorrell, the former UCLA head coach, is more of a traditional style than the previous read option, while defensive coordinator David Kotulski is moving from a 4-3 alignment to a more aggressive 3-4 set.
"For us at Vanderbilt, we’re actually changing over in the scheme right now, both offensively and defensively," Mason said. "That brings about a need for immediate buy-in. For us the buy-in has been really, really good. Our guys understand what we do. We’re about 70 percent there in terms of what it looks like. This summer was used to try to get us the rest of the way. We’ll do it again when we come back to fall camp."
With seven starters returning on offense and five on defense, the Commodores face a favorable non-conference schedule: other than the opener against Temple, Vanderbilt hosts UMass, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion. The SEC opener is Sept. 6 against visiting Ole Miss, but the game is being moved from on-campus Vanderbilt Stadium to nearby LP Field, home of the NFL’s Titans in downtown Nashville, Tenn.
"Taking the game to LP (Field) is a way for us to open up our arms to the city of Nashville, actually put it in a venue that allows the city of Nashville to come out in droves," Mason said. "Ole Miss is going to be well-represented, but so will we. I’ve had a chance to talk to our fan base on many occasions. That game is going to be a great game.
"We want to make it a day to the ‘Dores. We’ll start it in the morning and end it that night. It’s going to be a fun venue."
Mason also talked about not only maintaining the status quo of Vanderbilt’s recent run of success, but improving on it.
"When I look at where we’re at, what’s going on, Vanderbilt is a great opportunity, a great job," Mason said. "But my expectation is to push the envelope a little bit. We have to move past the idea of playing for nine wins. Nine wins, it’s really exceptional. At the end of the day, why have nine when you can have 10? Why settle for 10 when you can have 11?
That’s the way I think. That’s the way I wake up. That’s the way I want my team to be. Dream big, you can accomplish big things. Dream small, you fall short."