football Edit

Vanderbilt, Derek Mason and history

As of early December, Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is poised to return for his seventh season at the school. It's a move that's overwhelmingly displeased the fan base, even though Mason has gone to two bowls, including one a year ago.

Like most situations with Vanderbilt sports, this one is complicated. What follows is an attempt to put Mason's career (and his upcoming seventh season) in historical perspective, not just as it relates to Vanderbilt, but to other Power Five schools.

NOTE: I've put an appendix at the bottom with information related to the study, just in case you're interested in that as a college football fan.

Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has taken VU to bowls in two of his six seasons.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has taken VU to bowls in two of his six seasons. (Brent Carden, VandySports)

An rare seventh season ahead, given the circumstances

The modern narrative is that schools are too impatient to let coaches work through patches of a few tough seasons. While there's probably some truth to that, it's easily explained: Coaching salaries and football revenues have skyrocketed over the last decade.

But the truth is, schools have generally not tolerated more consecutive losing seasons from a coach than one can count on one hand. The longest losing streak, per school under a single coach at Power Five schools since World War, averages 4.0 years. Only 11 coaches have been retained long enough to rack up six consecutive losing seasons.

They are, sorted by consecutive losing seasons, then, a coach's overall winning percentage at each school, from worst to best. Coaches who had a winning season at that school, at some point, are marked with an "*."

Power Five coaches since WWII with six straight losing seasons
Coach School LS years Record at school

Doug Weaver

Kansas State

7 (60-66)

8-60-1 (.123)

Jerry Pettibone

Oregon State

6 (91-96)

13-52-1 (.205)

Dave Kragthorpe

Oregon State

9 (85-90)

17-48-2 (.269)

Francis Peay


6 (86-91)

13-51-2 (.212)

Jim Caldwell

Wake Forest

6 (93-98)

26-63 (.292)

* Bobby Johnson


6 (02-07)

29-66 (.305)

Kevin Wilson


6 (11-16)

26-47 (.356)

Alex Agase


6 (64-69)

32-58-1 (.357)

Derek Mason


6 (14-19)

27-47 (.365)

* Paul Rhoads

Iowa State

6 (10-15)

32-55 (.368)

* Jim Wacker


6 (77-82)

40-58-2 (.410)

* Pat Jones

Oklahoma St.

6 (89-92)

62-60-3 (.508)

First of all, thanks to reader Tom Stephenson for pointing out something out: There was an unintentional (but important) omission from original publication. It's Northwestern's Alex Agase, who also started with six consecutive seasons, but, had winning seasons in Year 7 and Year 8 at Northwestern. Agase went 2-9 in Year 9 before leaving for Purdue, where he had four losing seasons of four (18-25-1) before being fired. Agase succeeded Ara Parseghian, who, like James Franklin before Mason at VU, brought back some life to a struggling program before leaving for greener pastures (Parseghian, for Notre Dame, and Franklin, for Penn State.0

Agase is the best-case scenario in this situation, from which I take away three things:

1. Coaches in these spots almost never win big. (A rare exception would be Frank Beamer, who just barely got over .500 twice in his first six years before turning Virginia Tech into a powerhouse, starting with Year 7.)

2. Water usually returns to its own level, at which point, it's quickly over. Or, to paraphrase Gary Parrish, once the fans turn against you, it's hard to ever win them back.

3. If you're a coach in this spot and you're offered a life raft to another job, take it.


Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Oregon State are the only three schools with repeat offenders. Not coincidentally, those schools have the longest three streaks of consecutive losing seasons as a program (OSU had 28, VU, 27 and Northwestern, 24) in this study.

Doug Weaver coached at Kansas State squarely in the middle of the school's longest overall losing streak, which spanned 1955-68. Weaver is the only coach to have seven consecutive losing seasons at a Power Five school since World War II. Weaver coached at Southern Illinois from 1974-75 (going 2-9 and 1-9-1) and then never coached again, later becoming an athletic director at Georgia Tech and Michigan State

Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson and Wake Forest's Jim Caldwell are the only other coaches to start with six consecutive losing seasons and then get a seventh. Johnson went 7-6 in Year 7, followed by 2-10 the next, before stepping down late in the summer following that season. Caldwell did exactly the same, with one fewer loss each time as that came in the 11-game era.

That would make Mason just the fourth coach to get a seventh year after starting a tenure at a school with six-straight losing campaigns.

Oklahoma State's Pat Jones is the outlier. Jones went 10-2, 8-4, 6-5, 10-2 and 10-2 in his first five seasons before six-straight losing seasons, starting in 1989, that resulted in his firing. What changed is that the NCAA dropped a wrecking ball on OSU after 1988 for violations that had nothing to do with Jones, and at that point, gravity took its toll.

Iowa State's Paul Rhoads went 7-6 in his first season, then had six losing campaigns in a row before he was fired.

TCU's Jim Wacker went 8-4 in Year 2, had six losing seasons in a row, then, went 7-4 in Year 9 before bolting for Minnesota, where he had five consecutive losing seasons (16-39) before resigning after the last in 1995.

Declining attendance

Declining attendance is also a common contributing factor to a coach's dismissal. Here are VU's attendance numbers, by season, courtesy of friend of the site John Fisher:

Vanderbilt announced attendance, by season
Year Average attendance Coach





































Some context (and remember, this is paid attendance and not bodies in seats):

- 2008 was Vanderbilt's first bowl season (and winning season) since 1982. That featured a Thursday-night ESPN game with No. 24 South Carolina--the Commodores won--and on Oct. 4, also upset Auburn while hosting ESPN Game Day. That vaulted VU to a 5-0 start and a place in the national rankings.

- That season had a carry-over effect for a year or two. It declined after an abysmal 2010, and, combined with uncertainty over new coach James Franklin, led to a slightly depressed figure for 2011.

- Franklin's out-of-the-blue 6-7 debut in 2011 included a near-upset of top-5 Arkansas and led to an increased figure for 2012. It also came at a time when attendance was declining nationally, as well as across the Southeastern Conference.

- A weak home slate for 2013 probably contributed to attendance decline that year.

- Excitement was still high entering Mason's debut in 2014. Attendance began to lag mid-season after favored VU was blown out by underdog Temple in his first game, and got a boost due to a sell-out with Tennessee in the finale.

- Attendance has been on a steady decline since. VU's high this year was the opening-night sell-out against Georgia, followed by 32,048 for LSU. It's highest crowd in the next five games was 24,519 for Northern Illinois.

Again, that's paid attendance. VU announced 19,863 for the ETSU game; the most full part of the stadium, shot well into the game, looked like this:

The press-box side at Senior Day.
The press-box side at Senior Day. (Brent Carden, VandySports)

There's also an obvious problem with attendance distribution. Dating back to 2016 or so, Commodore fans have been out-numbered in Vanderbilt Stadium by visiting fans far more often than not. (For example, Georgia fans occupied about 80-85 percent of the Opening-Night crowd.)

Vanderbilt politely declined a request for data on season ticket sales and average ticket prices. But an 8,000-ticket hole at the cost of the lowest season ticket price ($170) is $1.36 million a year, minimum.

Here are last year's ticket prices if you'd like to craft your own estimate, not to mention the fact that single-game tickets price more expensively outside a season-ticket package. Nor does that include parking, concessions or other game-day purchases.

First impressions and optics

Mason's career win-loss record at Vanderbilt is better than several VU coaches. It's no secret that institutional lack of commitment has hampered all of them since 1960. I can't think of a financially significant thing Vanderbilt has done for him in the way of facilities since his arrival.

And, Mason has done some good things on the field, including going to two bowls and beating Tennessee three times in a row, a streak that the Vols snapped on Saturday. His kids continue to graduate, and for the most part, stay out of trouble.

So in one sense, it's surprising that VU hasn't drawn better. But in another, it's not.

Some fans lost faith in Mason's first weeks on the job. The Temple debacle--VU, at one point, a 17-point favorite--got thrashed, 37-7, by the Owls in Mason's debut. That game featured a penalty for non-regulation jerseys, and a three-quarterback carousel.The season was a disaster. VU ended up 3-7 and No. 120 in Jeff Sagarin's rankings.Mason's comments at press conferences--where explanations were often incoherent or contractors--only added fuel to the fire.

History repeated this year.

The Commodores finished 108th in the Sagains this year. It lost conference games by 16.1 points on average, the worst since 2001. VU gave up 381 points on defense, its most since '01, excepting the 399 by the 2014 team. Its minus-138 yardage differential was its worst since 1998. And, as documented here after the Kentucky game, Mason's media presentation was no better.

Some people can't forgive one disaster. A lot more can't forgive two, and I think that explains a lot of VU's attendance issues.

Institutional disconnect

Things have been so bad at Vanderbilt for 60 years--VU has had six winning seasons in that time--that it's difficult to distinguish between degrees of bad. Those have been illustrated above. I doubt you'd ever get an honest answer, but I'd bet the house it's new information to most of the board at VU.

It's also hard for key people to realize the scope of the problem the way fans are when 26 of your 27 members of the board of trust live out of state.

And that's not lost on the fans, either.

At a time where there have been whispers that Vanderbilt, institutionally, is making something of an effort to be more approachable, the fans don't see it--and especially those who didn't go to VU.

"I have five grandsons who, at one time, wore VU gear and were solid for Vandy. Now, they could(n't) care less," John Bornstein, a fan who says he's supported VU athletics for over 50 years. "My eight season tickets are no longer desired.

"What hurts the most is the lost opportunity to build a successful football program within a city, a conference, and a university that should be second to no one!"

The football disconnect seems to be symptom of an institutional problem. Perception is that Vanderbilt cares greatly for a circle of 20-30 "mega-donors," and little outside that. (Most estimates I can find place VU's alumni giving rate around 20-25 percent; this one from Forbes in 2016 placed VU's rate at 19 percent, quite low for a institution of VU's stature.)

"I am an alum and I was asked once, directly, for a donation to Vanderbilt," said an alum who asked not to be identified. "I have been donating for 23 years. I was asked for the first time two years ago and gave $25k," clarifying that the representative who solicited the donation is no longer at Vanderbilt.

"No one else had ever operated like that and no one has even followed up since she left. It’s not a lot, but you would think a bunch more like me would make a difference."

So, what now?

Taking athletic director Malcolm Turner's comments at face value, VU perceives Mason to be a victim of the problem more than a large part of it.

"Look, this has been a disappointing year, without question," Turner told The Tennessean recently. "But we are going to focus on root causes. We have had 50 years of routine kick-the-can coaching changes without accompanying the fundamental underlying change.

"And out of respect for those who truly support Vanderbilt football and with the focus on building a successful and sustainable football program, this is a cycle that we really need to break."

Whether that's Turner's private view, the fact remains that jettisoning Mason would be expensive, with estimates potentially running into the low eight-figures. (Vanderbilt's a private institution, and we may never know the number.)

The other private justification is that it'll be easier to attract a better coach late rather than now.

VU's facilities problems are well-documented. Indications from numerous sources I've trusted for years indicate that a massive overhaul--no one yet knows the extent, which will ultimately be up to the board, but everyone believes it's significant--which will be easier to sell to a coach in future years. (Turner's strategic plan should be presented to the board in January or February.)

So, what about 2020?

Mason likely needs to make multiple staff changes. He's never been shy about this in the past; Mason's gone through three offensive coordinators, three defensive coordinators (including himself) and four special teams coordinators, not to mention a number of other assistants who've been jettisoned.

Change also costs money, and begs questions about the quality of coach VU could get given the uncertainty around Mason's future. And privately, will paying competitive money for SEC-level assistants--if VU can even attract those--be seen as throwing more good money after bad?

Or maybe it's not an issue at all, since Mason recently blamed staff instability as a problem, too.

"If you want to be successful in this conference, you've got to have continuity," Mason said two weeks ago. "We are making a commitment toward consistency."

As has been the case for almost all of the last 60 years, that leaves VU between a rock and a hard place as interest continues to compound on institutional neglect.

That goes for fan support, too. While I genuinely believe that massive financial commitment is coming from the university, and that other institutional hurdles that hurt VU in recruitment (and in making life easier for its players) are coming. But the fans, who've had their trust shattered by too many false promises and years of neglect, don't. And Turner's announcement of Mason's retention set off a level of anger I don't think I've sensed since Vanderbilt's well-publicized decision not to admit star basketball recruit Ron Mercer in 1995.

Vanderbilt says it wants to break the cycle. The coming year will be the ultimate litmus test of how much it truly means that.


Longest losing streaks since World War II, by school:

Oregon State (28: 1971-98), Vanderbilt (27: 1983-2008), Northwestern (24: 1972-95), Duke (18: 1995-2012), Kansas State (14: 1955-68), Baylor (14: 1996-2009), Missouri (13: 1984-96), TCU (12: 1972-83), Rutgers (12: 2004-12), Iowa (11: 1970-80), Indiana (11: 2008-2018), Colorado (10: 2006-15), Virginia (10: 1969-78), Iowa State (10, 1990-99), Wisconsin (10, 1964-73).

Ohio State hasn't had consecutive losing seasons since World War II. Arizona State, USC, Michigan, Florida and Penn State haven't had more than two consecutive.

Notes on former VU coaches:

Woody Widenhofer failed to have a winning season at Missouri, going 12-31-1 between 1985-88.

Steve Sloan had the longest single-coach string of losing seasons in Ole Miss history since the War. Sloan didn't manage a winning season among five, going 20-34-1 in Oxford. Sloan was also 0-for-4 at Duke, with a record of 13-34-1.