Derek Mason: 'I tried to do it with class, integrity' as Vanderbilt football coach | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

There was Derek Mason, wearing blue and orange, sitting before a backdrop of Auburn University logos, signing off his media Zoom call with a forceful “War Eagle” rather than “Anchor Down.”

All this would have been strange if it wasn’t so common in the hired-gun carousel of SEC football coaches.

As Auburn’s new defensive coordinator, Mason is replacing Kevin Steele, who has already been on and off Tennessee’s staff since last season. Mason works alongside new Tigers offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who was at rival Georgia forever and then spent last season at South Carolina under Will Muschamp, who himself has coached in the league for LSU, Auburn (twice), Florida (also as head coach) and is now an analyst at Georgia.

And so it goes. Here today, there tomorrow, the list of southern-fried coaching retreads is long, and it keeps growing each year.

Never seemed like Mason would be one of them, though. He’s not from the South. He played at Northern Arizona and rose to prominence as an assistant coach at Stanford. Until Vanderbilt hired him in 2014, Mason hadn’t spent significant time in this part of the country.

In fact, after being fired on West End last season, “I thought I was going back to the NFL,” Mason said.

“I didn't think I was going to take a college job,” he said. “I felt like for me maybe I needed a break from the college game just a little bit."

Auburn first-year coach Bryan Harsin, also with plenty of ties out West, was able to recruit Mason to his staff. They had a relationship as coaches, and when Mason visited Auburn’s campus, “I found myself really loving this place.”

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So again, there he was, on that Zoom call Monday with reporters who cover Auburn's football program.

Mason hasn’t said much publicly about his firing at Vanderbilt after seven seasons – some of them pretty good, the final two very bad. For Commodores athletics director Candice Storey Lee, this coaching change was the toughest task of her tenure to date, mostly because she and Mason were such close friends who had worked together a long time.

A quality person was headed out the door. She knew that, just like so many of Mason’s former players and colleagues. But it was time. Couldn't argue that. It was obvious the Commodores had stalled under Mason, winning only one SEC game the past two years. Lee’s mind was made up before the end of last season.

"Growth is optional; change is inevitable,” Mason said when I asked him how he looks back on his experience at Vanderbilt and its disappointing end. ”That's part of the process. I knew that. I've known that for 28 years.”

If there are hard feelings, they didn’t show. Even as he sat in Auburn, Mason beamed with pride about his time in Nashville. He expressed support for his successor, Clark Lea. He even offered a subtle dig at rival Tennessee, which he beat three consecutive times from 2016-18, the Commodores’ longest series win streak since the 1920s.

"I tried to do it with class, integrity (at Vanderbilt),” Mason said. “We had academic excellence at that place. With that being said, that would be part of the legacy. We had wins. We had big games against our rivals. We were able to do some things in my time there. Now there's a new captain at the helm. I wish him all the best.

“Here at Auburn, I look forward to what the future holds for this coaching staff and these players because I think we've got a good football team."

Auburn reporters on Monday’s call, understandably, asked Mason to look forward. Mason seemed to prefer that, too. He described a defensive front seven with “speed” and “size” and “athleticism.” He didn’t say he didn’t have that at Vanderbilt, but he didn’t have to: “I’m like a kid in a candy shop.”

And there’s probably some good for Mason in no longer having a head coach’s weight on his shoulders. “Coach Mason and I talk about it a lot,” said Bobo, formerly a head coach at Colorado State. “You know (Harsin) has got a lot on his plate.”

"For me,” Mason said, “it's been great just to focus on ball, focus on the recruiting, focus on the development of players and what does that look like. … I think I'm a relationship coach. I mean, everybody likes to say that they are, but I spend a lot of time with these guys getting to know their stories."

Auburn, in case you’re wondering, is not on Vanderbilt’s 2021 schedule.

The Tigers are set to be in 2023.

Reach Gentry Estes at and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.