The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Recapping the Derek Mason Era

After Vanderbilt parted ways with head football coach Derek Mason, The Hustler provides a season-by-season recap of the nearly seven-year Mason era.
Derek Mason takes the field prior to Vanderbilt’s contest with Florida on Nov. 22, 2020. (Hustler Multimedia/Truman McDaniel)

After nearly seven seasons, Vanderbilt and head football coach Derek Mason have officially parted ways.

Mason and athletics director Candice Storey Lee announced the firing just a day after a significant game against Missouri, with Sarah Fuller’s history-making kick, but which was also disappointingly characteristic of Vanderbilt this season–getting blown out 41-0 and never even reaching field goal range on offense. 

With many fans having called for Mason’s firing for years and Vanderbilt’s 0-8 record in the 2020 season, the announcement took few by surprise. However, Mason’s triumphs and gradual improvements at an institution notorious for its noncommittal stance toward investment in athletics are often overlooked.

Here’s a review of Derek Mason’s tenure at Vanderbilt:


Derek Mason joined Vanderbilt in January of 2014 after serving as Stanford’s Defensive Coordinator under David Shaw for two years. He assumed the role last held by James Franklin, who moved on to Penn State after accumulating one of the best win percentages of any Vanderbilt head coach.

 After being blown out in his first two home games, first by Temple 37-7 and then by then No. 15 Ole Miss 41-3, Mason secured his first win by narrowly defeating UMass 34-31. The 2014 squad went on to pick up two more wins against Charleston Southern and Old Dominion. However, the team went winless in SEC play, which included another devastating loss against the Dak Prescott-led, No. 4 Mississippi State Bulldogs, 51-0. Offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell and defensive coordinator Dave Kotulski were both fired after Vanderbilt finished the season with a 3-9 record.


After bringing in Andy Ludwig as offensive coordinator and taking on the duties of defensive coordinator himself, Mason demonstrated improvement, especially in the Commodores’ defense. He scored his first SEC win against Missouri, holding the Tigers to only 3 points. Mason also won his first road game in Murfreesboro at Middle Tennessee, 17-13. Toward the end of the season, Vanderbilt fans got their first look at quarterback Kyle Shurmur, as he played alongside Johnny McCrary. The 2015 Commodores finished 4-8 overall and picked up a win against Kentucky to move to a 2-6 record in the SEC.


Mason improved the Commodores’ record again in 2016, behind the rising Kyle Shurmur and the incredible season of inside linebacker Zach Cunningham, who became the first Vanderbilt player to receive consensus All-American honors in over 30 years. Cunningham was also a national finalist for the Butkus Award, recording 125 total tackles, 16.5 of which were for loss, and 4 fumble recoveries.

Outside of SEC play, Vanderbilt picked up wins against Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky and Tennessee State but fell to Georgia Tech 38-7. Within the conference, Vanderbilt defeated Georgia, Ole Miss and No. 17 Tennessee. All five of Vanderbilt’s SEC losses in 2015 were within 10 points.

Finishing with a 6-6 regular season, Derek Mason took the Commodores to his first-ever bowl game as a head coach: the Camping World Independence Bowl, in which they faced NC State. Vanderbilt fell 41-17 but moved into 2017 with hope and tangible signs of progress.


The 2017 Commodores appeared to build on their success in the previous year in their first three games of the season, beating Middle Tennessee 28-6, Alabama A&M 42-0, and the No. 18 Kansas State Wildcats 14-7 at home. With a 3-0 record and some momentum going their way, Vanderbilt was as prepared as it could be to at least make a stand against the No. 1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide at home.

They did not.

Vanderbilt suffered a crushing 59-0 loss at the hands of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy and running back Damien Harris, who rushed for 151 yards and three touchdowns. Alabama had 677 yards of total offense compared to just 78 from Vanderbilt.

After the thrashing Vanderbilt took from Saban’s Crimson Tide, the Commodores were never the same. Vanderbilt suffered a five-game losing streak in a brutal conference schedule that included top-ranked Alabama, No. 5 Georgia, No. 21 Florida, South Carolina and Ole Miss. Vanderbilt went into its last game of the season winless in the SEC, having picked up two more losses to Missouri and Kentucky. But Vanderbilt, in a surprising turnaround, topped Tennessee for the second year in a row. Vanderbilt’s 42-24 win was driven by Kyle Shurmur’s four passing touchdowns and 163 rushing yards and two touchdowns from Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher. Despite the stumble from 2016’s success, Mason and the Commodores demonstrated resilience. 


The 2018 season was another highlight of Mason’s time at Vanderbilt. The Commodores crushed Middle Tennessee and Nevada to open the season, and then narrowly lost to eighth-ranked Notre Dame, 22-17. Although the 2018 season also included a brutal SEC schedule, with losses to No. 2 Georgia, No. 14 Florida and No. 14 Kentucky, Vanderbilt scored wins against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Tennessee. By beating Tennessee, Mason became the first Vanderbilt coach since Dan McGugin in 1924-1926 to win three in a row against the Volunteers.

Winning three of their last four games, the 2018 Commodores finished 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the SEC. Vanderbilt was invited to the Academy Sports & Outdoors Texas Bowl, in which they lost a shootout to Baylor, 45-38. Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn exploded for 243 yards rushing and two touchdowns, and Kyle Shurmur threw for 286 yards in his final game as a Commodore.

With two bowl berths and a three-peat against in-state rival Tennessee, Mason’s position looked a little more secure heading into 2019.


With new running backs coach Tim Horton and former Detroit Lions special teams and tight ends coach Devin Fitzsimmons on staff, Mason looked to improve upon the Commodores’ weaknesses in previous years going into 2019. However, with quarterback Riley Neal taking over for Kyle Shurmur under center and two top-five matchups in their first three games, improvement was not easy to come by. After losing their first three games to No. 3 Georgia, Purdue, and the Joe Burrow-led, No.4 LSU Tigers, Vanderbilt won its first game of the season against Northern Illinois, 24-18.

 The 2019 season was especially bleak compared to years past, with a 38-10 upset loss against Mountain West opponent UNLV and a 56-0 trouncing by Florida. In one of the few bright spots of the season – a surprise victory over No.22 Missouri – quarterback Mo Hasan suffered a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit and did not play the rest of the season, after providing the offense with the spark it needed in his season debut. After a final loss against Tennessee, the Commodores finished 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the conference.


With reliable playmakers in running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, tight end Jared Pinkney and wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb gone, many were wondering what Mason would do heading into 2020 with so much uncertainty on offense.

What no one predicted, however, was the chaos and hardship that would be created by the COVID-19 pandemic. With several players opting out of the season entirely, Mason would be pressed for depth at every position, and some players like Drew Birchmeier, who shifted from defensive to offensive line, changed positions entirely to fit the needs of the team. Additionally, uncertainty at the quarterback position plagued the team, but true freshman Ken Seals eventually emerged as the starter over fellow freshman Mike Wright and upperclassmen Jeremy Moussa and Danny Clark. Seals has shown flashes of greatness, especially in his connection with receivers Cam Johnson and Amir Abdur-Rahman, but Mike Wright has continued to get playing time.

The decision to play conference-only schedules put Mason in an even tougher situation; he had to face more difficult opponents week-in and week-out than ever before.

Vanderbilt’s 2020 record reflects the numerous internal issues of the team. They currently sit at a 0-8 record, having lost four games by over 30 points. Even though Vanderbilt made history against Missouri by playing the first female athlete in any Power Five football game, the team still lost 41-0 with the entire nation watching. Beset by coronavirus outbreaks, suspensions and injuries, Mason’s squad has been through the wringer. But these extenuating circumstances weren’t enough to stop Mason’s dismissal.

Mason never had a winning season in his seven years at Vanderbilt. However, he took Vanderbilt to two bowl games, oversaw the development of numerous successful NFL players, and finally turned the yearly matchup against Tennessee into a real rivalry. It is uncertain whether Vanderbilt’s recent misfortunes stem mainly from Mason, the Vanderbilt administration or COVID-19. Either way, the Commodores will have a new head coach next season, and he will face an uphill battle, just as Mason did.

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About the Contributor
Jack Hollier
Jack Hollier, Former Staff Writer
Jack Hollier (’22) was a Staff Writer for the Sports section of The Vanderbilt Hustler. He has been with The Hustler since the first semester of his sophomore year as a staff writer. He is majoring in economics with a minor in business. Jack is also a staff writer for The Slant. Jack has been a fan of Vanderbilt sports since he was born. When he’s not watching the Commodores, you can find him on the tennis court, in the E.B.I. dining hall or being perpetually disappointed by his hometown Atlanta Falcons. He can be reached at [email protected].
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