One of the most challenging jobs in the FBS is open after Vanderbilt announced the dismissal of head coach Derek Mason on Sunday.
“We are parting ways with head coach Derek Mason,” athletics director Candice Storey Lee tweeted. “On behalf of the entire Vanderbilt community, I want to extend my deepest gratitude to Coach Mason for his many years of dedication and service leading our football program.”
The move comes one day after a 41-0 loss to Missouri dropped Vandy to 0-8 this season and 27-55 since Mason replaced James Franklin in 2014. Mason won six games in both 2016 and 2018, two of only seven six-win seasons for the program since 1983, but fell to 3-9 last year and was one week away from the Commodores’ first-ever winless season.
With Mason Out, Who’s Next?
It’ll be the first football hire for Storey Lee, a former Vandy basketball player who was promoted to AD in May after spending the previous 16 years in various roles at the school. Without a hiring history and other stops on her résumé, there aren’t obvious candidates with whom she’s worked alongside at any point over the last 16 years. But keep an eye on Ricky Rahne, Vandy’s quarterbacks coach under James Franklin from 2011-13, who followed Franklin to Penn State before taking the Old Dominion job last year.
Several other Group of Five coaches could make a shortlist, including Charlotte’s Will Healy, Tulane’s Willie Fritz, Eastern Michigan’s Chris Creighton, Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell, Army’s Jeff Monken, and Georgia Southern’s Chad Lunsford.
Healy is the strongest geographical fit. A Chattanooga native, he spent the first seven years of his career on the Mocs’ staff before leading one of the most remarkable one-year turnarounds in college football history at Austin Peay. Now in his second season at Charlotte, Healy has recruited every corner of the state of Tennesse. Carrying a six-figure salary, he could be a reasonably priced replacement if he wants a brutally hard job that would provide a delicate stepping stone to a high-level Power Five job. The same applies to fast-riser Jamey Chadwell, who’s reportedly on South Carolina’s candidate list.
If Vanderbilt is willing to be honest with their football program’s standing in the SEC, they may opt for a triple-option coach like Monken or Lunsford. After Paul Johnson’s departure from Georgia Tech last year, there are currently zero Power Five programs running a triple-option system. It would turn off deep-pocketed benefactors and anger some current players but might be the unconventional approach Vandy needs as they struggle to win in the SEC. If they’re willing to compromise, Willie Fritz’s hybrid triple-option scheme could be a nice fit.
They might shoot for one of the top potentially available coordinators (e.g. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, etc.), but are more likely in the second-tier coordinator ballpark of Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, or Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom. Odom has recruited the region over his career at Missouri, Memphis, and Arkansas, has done remarkable on-field work in his year with the Razorbacks, and was reportedly widely beloved by players at Missouri.
And if Vandy has an FCS list, Princeton’s Bob Surace, James Madison’s Curt Cignetti, and Florida A&M’s Willie Simmons could be atop it. Surace knows how to win with limited resources and strict academic requirements, and Cignetti will field FBS offers, if he isn’t already.
Meanwhile, Simmons has FBS experience in the state of Tennessee (Middle Tennessee) and led the Rattlers to nine wins in 2019, though current NCAA probation and a postseason ban might turn off Vandy.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88