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VOL. 40 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 16, 2016

Mason promises tattoo if Commodores win bowl

By Tom Wood

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Vanderbilt football fan Mike Harris could hardly wait to show off his “Anchor Down” tattoo to Commodore coach Derek Mason, who might have something similar in his future.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Ardent Vanderbilt football fan Mike Harris patiently waited in line for nearly a half hour to spend a few minutes talking with Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason.

It was Dec. 4, and the Commodore faithful had gathered at the Student Life Center on campus to hear players and coaches discuss the team’s upcoming Independence Bowl trip to Shreveport, Louisiana, to play North Carolina State on the day after Christmas.

Mason stayed long after the official program, addressing the crowd and the media and to shake hands and take pictures with a bunch of excited, bowl-starved fans.

For Harris, a 37-year-old season-ticket holder from Nashville, this was no normal meet-and-greet.

He wanted to show Mason how he had literally taken the “Anchor Down” battle cry to heart – actually, his leg.

When Harris finally reached the front of the line, he chatted with Mason like a long-lost friend, then hiked his right pants leg and showed off his pride and joy tattoo – an impressive black-and-gold anchor on the outside of his right leg with “Anchor Down” etched below.

Mason was fascinated, wondering if something similar might be in his future.

The third-year coach revealed to Harris – and a nearby reporter – that if the Commodores beat N.C. State, he’ll be getting some body art of his own to memorialize the achievement.

“I told my guys if we win, I’ll get a tattoo. I love that one right there,” Mason told Harris. “(The players have) already picked it out. See you in Shreveport.”

It was a brief encounter, but one that revealed much about both fan loyalty to the program and Mason’s loyalty to his players – and a willingness to put it in writing, or ink.

Harris says he would “absolutely enjoy it” if Mason’s team gets a win and the coach gets a tattoo. “According to him, his team told him he has to get one if they win, and he said he would. And he said they already had it picked out for him.”

A few players were quizzed about what Vandy-themed pattern might be in store for the coach, and where the tattoo might wind up, but they were mum.

“Coach Mason, he does whatever he can to motivate us. He’s a great motivator, a great teacher. We’re willing to run through a brick wall for the guy,” redshirt junior wide receiver C.J. Duncan says.

“He does whatever it takes and we really do appreciate that. I’m not sure exactly what it’s going to be [the tattoo], but we’re definitely going to hold him to that, yeah.”

Of course, the Commodores have to win to make the tattoo happen. The latest betting line has Vandy listed as a four-point underdog – but never say never to this bunch of Commodores.

Master motivator

A tattoo would be just the latest – not gimmick, not ‘shameless self-promotion’ or even publicity stunt – demonstration of Mason’s exuberant personality that draws fans to the third-year coach. A Vanderbilt bowling ball made its way to the press conference after the Commodores beat Tennessee 45-34 in the season-finale to secure a 6-6 record and nail down the school’s first bowl bid since 2013.

And his season has been marked by several stylish coaching fashion statements – from the Vandy-themed custom suit Mason wore to SEC Media Days in July to the game-day vest he wore during the season to launch an “inVESTed” movement to the black-and-gold, star-emblazoned bowling shoes he wore to the Vandy bowl celebration.

Mason credited Jason Grooms, the assistant AD for football operations, and graphics company Forty Nine Degrees for the shoes.

“Jason thought he was pulling a prank on me,’’ Mason explains. “Jason got together with Forty Nine Degrees, and they sort of made these shoes thinking I wouldn’t wear them.

“They’ve got the wrong guy,” Mason adds. “I pulled them out of the box, put them on and, you know what, they feel good. We’re going bowling. … I don’t know about being a fashionista, but you’ve got to admit the shoes are pretty cool.”

And so is Mason, who is not only a darn good sport, but a darn good coach.

‘Proven me wrong’

Mason’s coaching abilities weren’t always evident to the public – especially considering a 3-9 finish his first year, followed by a 4-8 campaign in his sophomore season when he also took over as his own defensive coordinator – the position he held at Stanford when Vandy lured him away in 2014.

Things got really brutal for the coach this year after a 38-7 crushing at Georgia Tech, with many tweeting their outrage and calling for an immediate coaching change.

Such a move was never going to happen; administrators fully supported Mason. The roller coaster ride continued over the next several weeks, and the Commodores reached the halfway point of the season with a 2-4 record. Then they caught fire with a 17-16 win at Georgia to spark a 4-2 run and finish at 6-6. That late-season effort returned fans to Mason’s corner.

Vandy fan Dale Haberman of Gallatin says he plans to be at the bowl game, but concedes that he didn’t think Mason would be the coach to get the Commodores back to relevance.

“I’ve not been on board, but he’s proven me wrong,” Haberman says.

“I’ll admit that I was one of those fans who thought they ought to let him go. But the job he’s done this year, he ought to be rewarded with a two-year contract extension.”

Others like Brenda and Bill Ball of Franklin explain their support of Mason never wavered.

“We always have been (Mason supporters). We always felt like he was a good person and a good defensive coach, and it seems like he’s turning into a good head coach. He seems like the right fit for here,” Bill Ball says.

“I always felt like James Franklin wouldn’t be here long anyway, but I feel like Derek Mason started his head coaching career here and that he could be here a long time. He seems more dedicated to the program.”

Pam Clark of Brentwood adds, “It’s not always easy being a Vandy fan,” and her husband Steve agrees

“Like many people, I confess that I didn’t know if he was going to make it. It was like they were really bad sometimes and were not coming together,” he says.

“But the last half of the season, it seemed like something really clicked. The team never quit on him even in the roughest of times – that was impressive – when I think most of the fan base had. I’ve been anchored down through all the rough years. There were a lot of years that were even rougher than this one.”

Disappointment, then….

Mason raised the expectation level himself in his 2014 introductory press conference, stating, “SEC East title, here we come.”

Now that could happen someday, if all the dominos fall Vandy’s way, but for now let’s just say a bowl berth is a step in that direction.

Veteran broadcaster Joe Fisher, the Voice of the Commodores, tries to put the fans’ reactions in perspective.

“There was certainly disappointment in a lot of fans who had high expectations and were disappointed in some of the losses early on –even this year,” Fisher explains.

“But then you win at Georgia. To go to Athens and get a win on their field was a big deal. It sent a message that this team might be on the right track.

“And then to finish with wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee just really drove the point home. So it’s been a great run. Derek Mason will be taking the Commodores to a bowl for his first time, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Mason rolls with it

To his credit, Mason understands the up-and-down relationship between fans and coaches. They love you when you’re winning, but the trick, Mason points out, is to keep the players insulated from negativity as much as possible in the internet age. He’s with the team every day and could see the progress even if fans couldn’t.

“Sometimes you really have to block out the noise and you’ve just got to focus on the day, the week, the game that you’re in,” Mason says. “But what I’ve seen in the guys the past couple of weeks is nothing new.

“Even when we’ve struggled, we knew the fan base cared. They cared about this football team, they just wanted some results. As we all did.”

And when that victory over UT was assured, Mason’s emotions bubbled over, and he delighted players and fans by breaking into an impromptu dance on the sidelines. It went viral, was on all the sports telecasts and won him a bunch of new fans in the process.

“You guys have been tremendous. I definitely expect to see you down in Shreveport. It’s important. This is your team. We play for you,” Mason said at the bowl celebration.

“We are Vanderbilt. You, I, all, this unit. It was fantastic to see you drown out Tennessee (fans) in the third and fourth quarter of that ballgame. We needed it. Our energy came from you. It was so loud I felt it.”

Mason’s players also thanked fans for sticking with the Commodores through the rough waters.

“Thank y’all for showing up,’’ said Ralph Webb, record-setting junior running back. We want to see you there. We need all the support we can get. It’s been far too long since we’ve been back to a bowl game … so we’d like to see a lot of fans come support us.’’

“These fans are great. Their support means the world to us and it’s awesome to have them here,” sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur says.

For fans like Harris and others, who say they always believed Mason was the right choice for Vandy, there was some vindication and a sense of confirmation.

“When he first got here, I was … a big fan of him. I had no doubts,” Harris says.

“I mean, there have been some ups and downs, but you have to give the man a chance.”

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