Derek Mason's final straw at Vanderbilt was Saturday's big-stage blowout | Estes
Did Saturday’s Vanderbilt game get Derek Mason fired?
I suspect it had plenty to do with it.
Not because Mason played Sarah Fuller, mind you. That part was wonderful.
It’s because the sports world perked up to watch her kick off for history, and when they did, they couldn’t ignore that Missouri was beating the brakes off her Vanderbilt team.
This was uniquely embarrassing for the Commodores’ program. A prominent, undeniable aspect of Fuller’s special story was that Vanderbilt’s offense couldn’t get her near a field-goal try, much less an extra point. She did play, of course, but it had to come via the one kickoff that Vanderbilt didn’t have to earn.
More:Derek Mason fired as Vanderbilt football coach
And this wasn’t Alabama or Florida or Georgia on the other sideline. It was Missouri, which entered Saturday with a 3-3 record and lost at Vanderbilt last season. Beforehand, one could have given the winless Commodores – who’d shown more signs of life in recent weeks – a reasonable chance to (gasp) win this SEC game.
Instead, it was a laugher. The 41-0 final score could have been worse, considering Missouri had 603 total yards to Vanderbilt’s 196.
It's bad enough to be dominated like this when no one is watching.
Far worse to have it happen when everyone is watching.
To those who’ve accused Mason of using Fuller’s appearance as a publicity stunt to help his own job security, this is why I never believed that. Turns out that the overwhelming attention being paid to such a terrible performance might have gone a long way toward ensuring Mason wouldn't be on Vanderbilt's sideline again.
Fuller, of course, faced the most pressure of anyone, and all credit to her for being bravely eager to face it. But Vanderbilt’s program hadn’t played in a game in a long time – if ever – with this much attention, and it’s Mason’s fault that the Commodores weren’t ready to play it.
Missouri raised its game to match the moment, and Vanderbilt just didn’t.
Mason’s team was flat, so much that Fuller herself felt the need to try to rally her new teammates at halftime. That speaks to her own spirit as a winner and the fact she comes from a soccer program that just won an SEC championship.
But it also perhaps said something about where Vanderbilt’s football program is right now. If this team couldn’t get up for a game like this, when can it?
With Mason's firing, the timing is unfortunate, obviously. Leave it to Vanderbilt to stain the feel-good story of the entire sports weekend by firing the coach less than 24 hours later. Fuller appeared on a Zoom call with reporters at 11:30 a.m. Sunday. Around 1 p.m., an email went out from Vanderbilt announcing that Mason had been fired.
The decision made sense, though, and it has for a while. You hate to instinctively and callously respond to anyone losing his job by uttering “finally,” yet there are surely many Commodores fans who felt that way.
More:Twitter reacts to firing of Vanderbilt football coach Derek Mason
Mason was lucky to have been retained during an awful 2019 season. All the signs were there then, from poor performance in all phases on the field to poor attendance off it. Then-AD Malcolm Turner stuck with his coach, though, without knowing what was ahead in 2020.
Despite Vanderbilt’s winless record to this point, it hasn’t been clear that Mason’s job was in immediate danger this season under a new AD in Candice Lee and a new chancellor in Daniel Diermeier.
Not with the university withstanding the financial blow of the pandemic. Not with COVID-19 having toyed with his roster for most of the season. Not the team showing modest improvement and having a promising freshman at quarterback in Ken Seals. Not with the schedule featuring only SEC opponents.
Turns out, none of that mattered.
More:Possible coaching candidates Vanderbilt could choose to replace Derek Mason
If you had asked me before Saturday's game if I thought Mason would be fired this season, I wouldn't have been able to say I did. After watching Saturday's game, though, I felt differently. There was just no hiding this performance.
Vanderbilt isn’t like other SEC schools in that you can count on administrative decision-makers to be paying attention to every football snap. Have to imagine they were all paying attention Saturday, though, along with so many others who weren’t otherwise going to care one bit about Vanderbilt-Missouri.
Fuller made it such an undeniably special and memorable day.
But it would have been better if she had gotten to kick an extra point.
Reach Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.