By Sam Fisher
Stanford’s Willie Shaw Director of Defense Derek Mason has left the Cardinal to become the next head coach at Vanderbilt.
Leading up to the Rose Bowl Game, Mason said he was contacted about head coach openings at Army and Connecticut but turned their inquiries down, stating that he wanted to stay at Stanford until the right job opened up for him.
“It’s got to be the right job,” Mason said at a press conference in late December. “David [Shaw] had his one right job, and it was Stanford. And I have mine. That’s between me and my wife, and it’s a ways away.”
Mason found that right job at Vanderbilt.
“I am so excited to be at Vanderbilt,” Mason said. “This university combines the best of what’s good about college athletics and academics. We expect to be competitive and look forward to competing for an SEC East crown.”
Vanderbilt is the second high-profile job that Mason interviewed for last week. When former Louisville head coach Charlie Strong left to become the head coach at Texas, Mason interviewed to replace him. Then, when former Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin left for Penn State, Mason immediately became a top candidate to lead the Commodores.
Mason’s success with leading the Cardinal defense over the past three seasons, in addition to his personality that fits recruiting perfectly, was enough to overcome his relative lack of experience.
Mason, a graduate of Northern Arizona, spent the first 13 seasons of his coaching career at non-AQ schools. Then, after a three-year stint in the NFL with the Minnesota, Mason came to Stanford, where he was the secondary coach in 2010 and then the defensive coordinator from 2011 to 2013.
Under Mason, the Stanford defense improved dramatically. In 2011, his defense finished in the top 15 in defensive efficiency. In 2012, opponent scoring dropped from 21.9 points per game to 17.2 points per game, and the Cardinal led the nation in sacks. That defensive improvement was enough to lead the Cardinal to a Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl win, even with Stanford’s offensive output dropping from 43.2 to 27.9 points per game over that same stretch.
In 2013, propelled by fifth-year seniors Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner, the defense was stout yet again, allowing only 19 points per game, good for 10th in the FBS. The Cardinal was even better against the run, allowing 89.4 yards per game, the third-best total in the nation, on an average of 2.9 yards per carry.
Mason’s departure adds to serious concerns about the future of the Cardinal defense. Five of Stanford’s most decorated starters — Gardner, Murphy, Skov, fifth-year senior defensive end Josh Mauro and senior free safety Ed Reynolds — are headed to the NFL Draft, leaving many holes for younger players to fill. Stanford, in part thanks to Mason’s recruiting, has the talent to replace those seniors, but without Mason’s guidance, those ascents just became more difficult.
There is no word yet on how Stanford head coach David Shaw plans to replace Mason on his staff. Shaw has an abundance of experienced coaches on the defensive side of the ball should he decide to replace Mason internally. One of his current defensive assistants, legendary defensive line coach Randy Hart, was defensive coordinator at Washington from 1995 to 1998. Outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson, who also serves as admissions liaison, is rumored to be the top candidate with his experience on defense and reputation as being one of the nation’s top recruiters.
Inside linebackers coach David Kotulski, who was a defensive coordinator at five different stops in his career over the 21-year period directly preceding his arrival at Stanford in 2012, might have been a candidate, but coachingsearch.com has reported that Kotulski will join Mason at Vanderbilt as defensive coordinator there.
Even if Shaw does not hire internally, keeping Anderson and Hart will be a critical task for Shaw and whomever he picks as Mason’s replacement over the coming weeks. With National Signing Day less than three weeks away, look for the Cardinal to act quickly.
Contact Sam Fisher at [email protected]