NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Karl Dorrell recalls from nearly a quarter century ago the first time he met the student-athlete who’s now Vanderbilt’s head coach — and his new boss.
It was 1990 and Dorrell was a young and up-and-coming coach who had just been named offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at Northern Arizona, which had a scrappy cornerback and return specialist named Derek Mason.
"You’re in a new program and getting to know your players," says Dorrell, now offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach on Mason’s first Vanderbilt staff, "and he struck me as a wise young gentleman that understood his craft and took a lot of pride in playing the game and was a great example for a lot of his teammates at that time."
Already with thoughts of getting into coaching after his playing days were finished, Mason paid particular attention to Dorrell. The former UCLA standout wide receiver was embarking on an upward coaching course that would eventually land multiple college and NFL jobs, including the head job at his alma mater from 2003-07 and, most recently, quarterbacks coach of the Houston Texans.
"The first time I met Karl, I thought (he was a) sharp young guy who had a calming presence about himself and an air of confidence about him," Mason said. "I took that and really, like most players, you watch and see what a coach is and what he does and how he carries himself."
With Dorrell being 26 years old at the time and Mason in his early 20s, an initial mentorship eventually turned into a professional and personal friendship that traversed similar paths. Before moving from Stanford’s defensive coordinator position to coach the Commodores, Mason had also made college and NFL coaching stops. Along the way, Mason and Dorrell stayed close, even while coaching far apart.
Making that an even more natural proposition was that they married Northern Arizona college roommates — Mason to Leighanne, Karl to Kim. Both couples have two children.
"We always kept in touch," Mason said. "The relationship just stayed over the years. His children were born. My children were born. We were always in different places, but we just really became close friends through the process."
Before Dorrell became head coach at UCLA, he had been an assistant 14 years at Central Florida, Northern Arizona, Colorado State, Arizona State, Colorado, Washington and the NFL’s Denver Broncos. Before Mason became head coach at Vanderbilt, he had been an assistant for 19 years at San Diego Mesa College, Weber State, Idaho State, Bucknell, Utah, New Mexico State, Ohio and Minnesota Vikings.
"I just felt that this guy had a chance, if he wanted to be a coach someday," Dorrell said of Mason, whose Commodores open the season Aug. 28 against visiting Temple. "He had that type of football IQ that you saw in a player, that you knew he could share information to help players play and understand the game.
"He decided shortly after that to get into coaching, and he worked his way up through the ranks. And just like any of us young coaches, we started at some of those smaller schools, and we kind of get our chance to a bigger school."
Dorrell tried to hire Mason to his first staff at UCLA in 2002, but Mason was already wide receivers coach at Utah. However, when the chance opened this year for Mason to hire Dorrell, well, that wasn’t difficult to figure. The stars had finally aligned for them to coach together.
Mason offered, Dorrell accepted.
"In this game, the only thing you can do is ask," Mason said of hiring Dorrell, who fielded several coaching offers after coming on the market when the Texans fired Gary Kubiak. "If they have other plans, great. But I think it was the right thing at the right time. He turned down some NFL opportunities to come back to college. That says a lot about our relationship, and it says a lot about the man. Everyone wants to be at the pinnacle, and Karl thought this could be a pinnacle moment for him."
Indeed, Mason and Dorrell and a staff that includes defensive coordinator David Kotulski — once Mason’s boss as Bucknell’s head coach — inherit a program enjoying the best of times. In three seasons, new Penn State coach James Franklin guided the Commodores to 24 wins and three bowl berths, including consecutive nine-win seasons and bowl victories.
Dorrell has confidence Mason is the right man at the right time to continue that upward ascent, although Vanderbilt was picked to finish sixth among seven SEC East teams at SEC Media Days last month.
"He has done everything the right way," Dorrell said. "The biggest thing is protecting our best assets, which are our players. He has directed his energy to developing and making those guys have everything that is needed for them to be successful. That’s rule No. 1. That’s given us our best chance right now."
Mason, meanwhile, feels it reassuring to have hired Dorrell, whose five-year stint at UCLA produced 34 wins and five bowl berths. The high-water mark was the Bruins going 10-2 in 2005 and beating Northwestern in the Sun Bowl.
"He’s been a shoulder for me to lean on," Mason said. "He’s been a head coach. Any time you have people around you that you trust, it makes it easier to do your job. When you hire competent people, all you’re worried about is the things that you can control, and then you have to let those guys do their jobs."
In their short time together in Nashville, Mason has already seen in Dorrell what he first saw way back when at Northern Arizona. That’s especially so when it comes to dealing with a trio of quarterbacks — sophomore Patton Robinette, redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary and graduated senior Stephen Rivers — vying for a starting job that could be announced this week.
"Karl has been a master at being able to build relationships with these guys, mainly the quarterbacks," Mason said. "They like him as a coach, and they love him as a person. I think that is important. In order to reach young people today, you have to move past the football and get to the root of what makes them tick. They have to trust in your ability to get them better and that you care. And when you do that, you can find success.
"Karl is at the top of the game when it comes to doing those things."