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Live from SEC media days: Vandy's Mason admits mistakes

Live from SEC media days: Vandy's Mason admits mistakes


Updated, 5:30 p.m.

HOOVER, Ala. • After his first season as a college head coach, Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason did something that’s not easy for young coaches. He admitted a goof.

A few actually.

Closing up Monday’s portion of SEC media days, the second-year Vandy coach listed several mistakes he made during his rookie season.

First, he assigned the defensive play-calling duties to an assistant coach, Dave Kotulski. Defense was Mason’s specialty at Stanford, where he was coordinator from 2012-13. But with all the responsibilities required of a head coach, he decided to delegate the assignment he knew best.

“Things were just happening fast,” he said. “So I had more on my plate and more to deal with at that point in time. But in retrospect and having some experience behind me, I had a chance to look at who we are and what we are, and I thought (calling plays as a head coach) was maybe taboo because you don't see too many defensive coaches doing it. But I think what I just said is really a misnomer. If you're a defensive mind, if you're an offensive mind, you do what you know. I believe I know defensive football.”

After a 51-0 loss to Mississippi State in the penultimate game of Vandy’s 3-9 season, Mason said he started thinking about taking over the defensive coordinator duties. After the season, he fired Kotulski. He found the best replacement in the mirror.

“After talking to coaches and interviewing guys, I felt like I didn't want to speak through anybody to talk about what the structure of our defense was going to be,” he said. “It needed to be direct, and if I'm going to be responsible, then I'll be responsible. So at that point in time, I figured it was best that I go ahead and move into that role, and I've been able to structure my day and move some things around, along with my staff, to make sure that our program doesn't suffer because I'm moving into a defensive coordinator role. Actually, it's been great. So, I'm excited.”

Mason made another mistake last year, a big-picture blunder that he explained with stunning candor.

“I made some assumptions a year ago about this football team,” he said. “I assumed that, just because we were in the SEC, that we play like an SEC team. And we didn't.”

When’s the last time you heard a head coach in a major conference make that kind of statement?

Mason also fired offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell and replaced him with former Wisconsin OC and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig. The Commodores also have a new safeties coach in former Stanford quality control coach Marc Mattioli, new receivers coach in former Dartmouth assistant Cortez Hankton and new strength coach James Dobson, who spent the last seven years as Bo Pelini’s strength coach at Nebraska.

Mason inherited a program coming off unprecedented winning under former coach James Franklin, who went 9-4 in 2012 and 2013 before leaving for Penn State. After a dismal debut season, is Mason feeling pressure to produce immediate results this fall?

“My understanding is that every year I coach on a one-year mentality,” he said. “That's a mindset. That's what you do. You understand exactly what this game is and what you have to do, and it's about production. We're going to be a better football team. What that is, I can't predict wins. But I do know, in terms of being competitive, doing the right things, and creating men that will thrive here in the SEC, I can do that.”

That’s all for today’s live blog coverage of media days. We’ll crank up more coverage on Tuesday. Scheduled to meet the media are South Carolina, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Tennessee. 

A well-tanned Jim McElwain was fairly understated in his SEC media days debut on Monday. The first-year Florida coach is no stranger to the conference — he was Alabama’s offensive coordinator from 2008-11 — but he kept his zingers holstered in his session with print reporters.

Gator fans won’t like hearing this, but McElwain doesn’t expect UF to instantly revert to championship form.

“I think part of the experience of being in this conference is realizing it doesn't happen just overnight,” he said. “It's something that we know. And yet every time we go to work every day, every time we wake up, our responsibility is to try to go out there and win. … We've got a ways to go, and yet there are some good things in place. Coach (Will) Muschamp and his staff did some really good things, obviously setting the table, and we need to just pick up from that and move forward.”

Oddly, the most talked about person here through the first few hours is nowhere near The Wynfrey Hotel. That would be the aforementioned Muschamp, Florida’s former head coach and Auburn’s defensive coordinator, who was the most popular topic of conversation with the Auburn contingent earlier Monday.

A few more Florida nuggets …

 McElwain isn’t tight with the most famous Gator of them all. He coaches in South Carolina, but Steve Spurrier still casts a shadow over the Florida program, quite literally outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. “I drive by work every day and pass his statue,” McElwain said of the HBC. “That's pretty cool. There's a Heisman Trophy winner right there. I look forward to someday being really able to sit down and pick his brain because he's one of the true guys offensively that knows how to get it done.”

 Not everyone in the SEC has the same scheduling philosophy. Count McElwain among those who like playing a high-profile nonconference game to begin the season. In 2017, the Gators open against Michigan at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. “For us, maybe playing some of those opening games they help your team prepare in the offseason knowing right off the bat, here we go,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing.”

The Gators can be forgiven for keeping the nonconference schedule relatively light considering they play ACC superpower Florida State every year in November.

• Florida has enjoyed a fairly quiet offseason when it comes to players getting in trouble, especially compared to their in-state rival Florida State. Defensive end Jonathan Bullard credited McElwain for setting a high standard with the players before the summer began. 

"Summertime is really usually the worst," McElwain said, "because there's a little more free time, and yet at the same time, what you hope is they understand that we do have freedom of choice but we don't have freedom of consequence. That's part of growing up and part of learning."

(We have freedom of choice but not freedom of consequence. Brilliant. Jot that one down, parents.)

• McElwain’s Florida honeymoon will be over as soon as the Gators lose their first game. The good times with the press corps officially ended with this buzz-killer question, referring to McElwain's offensive coordinator of choice, former Michigan play-caller Doug Nussmeier.

“Coach, I was looking over, you guys were top 20 in offense last year, No. 18 at Colorado State, Michigan was 115th. A lot of people criticized Doug Nussmeier last year. Devin Gardner's progress really got worse as the season went on. Their offense, they were calling plays with less than five seconds on the play clock. I know you have a longstanding relationship with Doug Nussmeier, but just kind of elaborate on why you picked him to be your offensive coordinator.”

Welcome to Hoover, Coach Mac, where the beers are cold and the questions downright icy!

“I can't speak for what happened (at Michigan),” McElwain said. “I wasn't up there. But I just know what kind of ball coach he is. Every now and then, sometimes you go through one of those (seasons), and it isn't — obviously, it comes back to the coach. I get it. That's the way it goes. Yet I know how excited he is to have this opportunity to get back with these guys and implement a system and move forward with it.”

The first coach to meet the throng of print reporters at SEC media days was Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, who after some brief comments opened the floor to one and only one reporter for the first question: the ever curious Bob Holt of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Holt, a Missouri native and Mizzou graduate, has become a cult figure of sorts at the annual Hoover carnival for his endless questions for the league’s coaches, particularly for Malzahn, the Arkansas native. (To his credit, Holt asks real questions and eschews the lazy “talk about” blatherings of so many peers, which is what you’d expect from a Mizzou journalism school grad. After all, we are here to ask questions, right?)

With the ceremonial first question, Holt asked about Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who takes over for Nick Marshall.

“I'm very excited about Jeremy,” Malzahn said. “Even in high school—I started recruiting him in ninth grade — and he ran a very similar offense. The fact this will be his third year in our system, even though he's (been) the backup, he got a lot of reps with the ones in practice. He has two starts, of course last year starting out against an SEC opponent in the first half at home. I feel very good about where he's at. His coaches and his teammates have a lot of confidence in him, and he's earned that. I really appreciate the way that he responded to not being the starter the last couple of years, when he could have started for the majority of the teams, and the way he's really responded is really something special.”

More Auburn nuggets ... 

 The Tigers struggled defensively last year and a weak pass rush was to blame. Two factors should improve that area this year: the return of defensive end Carl Lawson, who missed all of last season with an injury, and the arrival of defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Malzahn called Muschamp, the former Florida head coach, “the best defensive mind in all of football — not just college football.” Take that, Bill Belichick!

"We love Coach Muschamp and what he brings to the table each and every day," linebacker Kris Frost said. "One thing he's great at is maximizing our potential, knowing what we're good at ... as well as doing things that are completely different, things that as a player you didn't know you had in you. Then when you start to do those things, drop back in coverage or cover a slot receiver in man, you realize you can do those things."

 Malzahn didn’t mention Alabama’s Nick Saban or Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh by name but he threw shade in both head coaches’ direction. First, asked about the usually contentious issue of pace of play, Malzahn, the league’s pre-eminent no-huddle maestro, noted all SEC teams have some kind of up-tempo package. “Even the teams that used to gripe about it are actually doing it now,” he said. He’s talking about you, Mr. Saban.

Later, Malzahn was asked about Harbaugh’s summer satellite camp circuit, which for a few weeks this summer became the offseason’s top talking point.

“I think that whole thing kind of got blown out of proportion, to be honest with you,” he said. “The chances of a team up north coming into our state and a player that us or Alabama wants are slim to none. So it was just a matter of that was the big story.”

By up north team, he clearly meant Harbaugh’s Wolverines, who hosted a one-day camp in Alabama last month. 

Greg Sankey kicked off SEC media days on Monday with the annual state-of-the-conference speech, his first as SEC commissioner. Sankey’s 32-page speech and brief Q&A session with print reporters lasted nearly 45 minutes. A few highlights …  

 Sankey quoted Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” to note the milestone transitions that have swept through the league the last five years, including the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri (2012), the new ESPN contract (2013), the SEC Network launch (2014) and the commissioner transition of 2015. Former commissioner Mike Slive stepped down earlier this year and continues to undergo treatment for cancer. Slive is not expected to attend this week’s event in Hoover and will instead watch on SEC Network from his Birmingham home. 

“Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen and keep your eyes wide open, the chance won't come again,” said Sankey, quoting Dylan’s 1964 song. “I am entirely confident that I will be here again with a chance to visit with you, but it is absolutely true that the times are changing rapidly and all around us.”

 Sankey praised the campus leaders, coaches and athletic administrators at South Carolina, Ole Miss and Mississippi State for taking a stand against the Confederate flag in wake of the Charleston murders a few weeks ago. Asked if he’d apply pressure to the state of Mississippi on the flag issue, Sankey said he has not.

“ We have said previously that, when we look, for example, at championship events, we evaluate a full range of issues, and the cultural context is a piece of that evaluation, and that will continue,” he said. “Last week I remarked, in response to a question, that the change in South Carolina certainly opens an opportunity, removes in that list of evaluative issues one particular point.”

 Sankey discussed his vision for the league, defined by three words he came up with during a flight last fall: Scholars, Champions, Leaders. Sankey actually scratched out the three words on a Southwest Airlines napkin then wrote in depth about each word in his “idea book.” One of the many goals Sankey mentioned for the league is that every student athlete graduate. To illustrate that ambition, he listed a former athlete from all 14 SEC schools who returned to campus to earn their degrees, including Florida baseball player and Cardinals World Series MVP David Eckstein and Mizzou Olympic shot putter Christian Cantwell. Also, Sankey will create a new conference-level position, director of student athlete engagement, who will be “focused on fostering collaboration among our existing conference programs on our campuses and developing new strategies to meet the unique demands faced by our student-athletes,” Sankey said.

 Another goal for the SEC, Sankey said, “is to never return a championship, never pull down a championship banner, never vacate any wins, and never have a team banned from postseason competition due to NCAA infractions or the lack of academic success under the NCAA's academic performance program.”

• Lots of back-patting for the power and success of the SEC Network, which has 70 million subscribers and is carried by nine of 10 major providers, Sankey said.

 Lots of talk about athlete conduct. Sankey will appoint a working group “working group on conduct expectations that will engage in reviewing our student-athlete conduct issues and policies, particularly they will invest time to consider existing campus policies, national requirements and best practices in order to identify appropriate campus and conference expectations.” The league will appoint another working group to examine compliance and enforcement, he said.

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