VOL. 41 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 17, 2017
Mason gets a pass while Jones gets sacked
By John Glennon
When Vanderbilt visits Tennessee to close out the regular season later this month, the only incentive left for both teams may well be staying out of the SEC East’s basement.
The Commodores have lost six consecutive conference games, five by sizable margins.
Tennessee’s fallen in five consecutive SEC contests, including a brutally ugly 50-17 loss to Missouri over the weekend that pushed the administration to fire Butch Jones with two games remaining.
But while Jones departs after posting a 34-27 overall record (14-24 in the SEC), the status of Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason (17-30 overall, 5-25 SEC) seems much more secure, even after last weekend’s one-sided loss to Kentucky.
There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of public disappointment for Mason, who’s yet to record a winning season since taking over in 2014.
Previous head coach James Franklin had guided the Commodores to three consecutive bowl appearances during his tenure.
Jones, meanwhile, had been on the hot seat for most of this season. Tennessee fans had even considered a “sit-out” of the Vols’ home game against Southern Miss to show their displeasure with the coach, who took over a program in disarray in 2013. Jones led the Vols to a combined 18-8 record in 2015 and 2016 before stumbling this year.
Why the disparity in disappointment between the two fan bases?
A couple of reasons are obvious:
-- Tennessee fans believe they should be conference and national contenders on a fairly regular basis after decades of success. Tennessee entered the season with the 13th-best all-time winning percentage among NCAA football programs, with only one SEC program – Alabama, No. 4 – ranking higher. It has had one consensus national championship – 1998 – since bowl games were added to the equation in 1965.
-- Tennessee is the state school, with a far larger fan and alumni base, and that leads to a more intense focus on the football team.
But there is a more patient, realistic approach taken by Vanderbilt school officials, boosters and alums when it comes to football success.
It’s an understanding of the school’s academic realities, a recognition that progress doesn’t always come overnight and a willingness to factor more off-the-field success into the overall picture.
“We do understand that these things sometimes take time,” acknowledges David Williams, Vanderbilt athletic director and also the school’s vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs.
“In football, we know it’s a little harder and it takes a little longer, but the question is, ‘How do you build something to last?’
“I don’t think I would operate real good in a situation where you’re changing because you didn’t win enough that one year or you didn’t win that (one) game that year. I think it’s very confusing to everybody. It sends an expectation to the fan base that enough is never enough … We feel like we’re in this for the long haul.”
“They believe in him”
The SEC is notorious for the pressure it puts on its football coaches.
In 2016, LSU fired Les Miles four games into the season, despite a national championship on his resume and an overall record of 114-34.
Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason has a 17-30 record at Vanderbilt , 5-25 in the SEC, and seems a safe bet to return for the 2018 season. Tennessee coach Butch Jones, on the other hand, was fired this week after posting a 34-27 record, 14-24 in the SEC. Fair? Depends on your perspective. -- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey, File
This year, Florida fired Jim McElwain seven games into the season, despite the fact he’d won the SEC East in his first two seasons and posted an overall record of 44-28.
So, in that respect, it was no surprise to see Jones fired.
He appeared to be gaining some momentum with back-to-back 9-4 seasons the last two years, but even those campaigns – which featured a combined 9-7 SEC record – didn’t cut it for a fan base looking for a quicker return to the program’s glory years of the 1990s.
“At Tennessee, the expectation I think is to compete at the top of the league and to win the East,” explains Dan Wolken, USA Today’s national college football writer and a Vanderbilt grad.
“The last two years before this one, [Jones] had a team that could have, and probably should have, won the SEC East. He didn’t get it done. That put him in a position where this year he needed to keep it stable. I don’t think he needed to win big, but he needed to be better than he (was).”
Vanderbilt, of course, has nowhere near the football tradition of Tennessee, as the Commodores went a full quarter century without reaching a bowl game before ending that drought in 2008.
Franklin was a miracle worker at the school, guiding the Commodores to bowl games in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and raising expectations along the way.
Does that mean there should now be higher expectations for Mason, who took Vanderbilt to the Independence Bowl last season? Possibly, but it’s also worth pointing out that Mason’s situation wasn’t actually all that great when he started.
While it’s true the Commodores found unprecedented success under Franklin, it also has to be remembered that Franklin took much of his final recruiting class with him to Penn State.
In addition, Vanderbilt was embroiled in the midst of an on-campus rape scandal that clouded the football program and eventually resulted in the conviction of three football players.
So, Mason gets the benefit of the doubt from plenty of Vanderbilt backers because of his squeaky-clean track record and the belief he’s building the Commodores the right way.
“I don’t think Derek Mason is under any pressure right now, and I think part of that is because of the way he goes about his business,” says Nashville’s Jim Baker, a Vanderbilt season ticket-holder. “I don’t think there’s any issues or fears at all of anything unethical, and that’s important. I think especially in the SEC, you can’t say that about all the programs.
“I think that’s more important at Vanderbilt than at other places, doing things the right way.
“(Mason) is somebody I think a lot of people would want their son to play for, to have as a mentor, coach and father figure.”
Willy Daunic, a radio host on 102.5-FM and a Predators broadcaster, concurs.
“By the end of last year, I think Derek Mason really solidified himself,’’ he says. “He’s a likable guy. Because he’s a personality that people have really been drawn to, they believe in him.”
Education vs. athletics
There’s also an understanding among Commodores backers that it’s harder to contend in football – a sport that requires so many players – because of Vanderbilt’s academic requirements.
Ranked No. 14 in the nation in U.S. News & World Report’s most recent survey of national universities, Vanderbilt is the only private school in the SEC.
It also is the smallest – by far – with 6,800 undergraduates and 5,000 graduate students. It’s closest SEC competitor in that category is Mississippi State with 20,000 combined students.
There are certain players the Commodores can’t even begin to recruit because they won’t measure up to the school’s academic requirements.
“I think that does play a part in the athletes you can get there,” says former Vanderbilt basketball star Shan Foster, now the director of the YWCA’s MEND, a Nashville-based initiative dedicated to ending violence against women and girls in the community.
“For the athletes they do get there, education is the most important thing – so you’re spending a few hours a night in your books, studying, reading and going to study groups. I was an All-American there, but people I went to school with will tell you that I spent some nights after games and practices sleeping on floors in their rooms because I had to study so much.
“So, it takes a certain level of athlete to compete on the football field as well as at the highest level in the classroom.”
There also is the fact that Vanderbilt’s fan base is small and that its alumni are scattered across the country. Only 38 percent of Vanderbilt’s current student body is from the South, so most students have little reason to stay in Middle Tennessee.
They also weren’t raised with an interest in SEC football.
Only 27,346 fans were on hand for Vanderbilt’s loss to Kentucky on Saturday, and even when the Commodores draw sellout crowds, many of those are there to support the vising team.
It’s news, on the other hand, when paid attendance at Neyland Stadium slips below 100,000 for home games.
“Vanderbilt is a national school and its alums aren’t going to be nearly as plugged in with the football program because they’re not going to be around, by and large, and they’re not going to games,” Wolken points out.
“Tennessee has been a top-level program for decades, and people grew up with that. It’s something that’s ingrained in peoples’ lives.”
“A place we can live with”
All that said, it’s likely that Mason does face more pressure as a Vanderbilt football coach than any other in recent times.
Franklin’s rapid turnaround of an awful program, his three straight trips to bowls and his winning record made Vanderbilt fans realize that it is possible to achieve regular success at the school – something that many had thought wasn’t possible.
“I think a lot of Vanderbilt fans would say there’s no reason why Vanderbilt can’t be like Stanford,” Baker says. “They’ve had a lot of success. Does that mean you compete and beat Alabama? Probably not. But, certainly you can go to a bowl game and be very competitive and compete for championships.
“I think that’s what people would desire, and I would say Derek Mason is saying.”
Williams agrees there are expectations to be met for the football program, but he feels confident his expectations are the same as Mason’s and as the school’s chancellor.
He says he still believes the Commodores are moving in the right direction and is willing to give it time to happen.
“I can understand unexpecteds and I can understand setbacks along the way, but are we still moving forward?” Williams asks.
“Are we still moving forward as it relates to the kids we’re recruiting? Are we still moving forward as it relates to their progress?
“So, it’s a constant discussion about where it is we’re trying to go, and, ‘OK, this is a place we can live with because we still see progress.’
“We see where we’re going and we’re going to get there. We’re going to get there.”
Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.