NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — On Saturday Sarah Fuller was the feel-good story of college football, suiting up as Vanderbilt’s kicker for its game at Missouri and becoming the first woman to play in a power five conference game. Following that game, a 41-0 loss that dropped the Commodores to 0-8 this season, athletic director Candice Storey Lee made the decision to fire head coach Derek Mason.
Fuller’s historic moment and Mason’s dismissal are in no way connected, but they do tell the story about where Vanderbilt football currently stands, how it got there and the difficult task Lee now faces in trying to hire someone to rejuvenate the program and give fans hope for the future.
First, the past. When Mason was hired seven years ago Vandy was coming off three consecutive bowl appearances, but the momentum didn’t carry over. Plenty of the blame falls on the coach who went just 27-55 during his tenure and only won 10 SEC games.
But the school only now is beginning to come through on promises it made to Mason when he was hired to upgrade facilities and increase its commitment to the program. As if it’s not challenging enough competing in the nation’s toughest football conference, Mason’s teams were forced to do it with facilities that rank among the worst in the power five.
Even with trips to bowl games in 2016 and 2018 Mason never finished with a winning record and failed to carry the momentum over into recruiting. The result has been 17 losses in 20 games since the beginning of last season, including eight straight this year capped by Saturday’s drubbing at Mizzou.
That’s where Fuller’s appearance speaks to the depths of which the program has fallen. Make no mistake, this is not a criticism of the SEC champion soccer goalie turned placekicker. She was presented with an opportunity to do something that’s never been done before and she took it, becoming an instant role model for countless numbers of young girls around the country that might now have bigger athletic aspirations, in football or elsewhere, all because of her breakthrough.
Her story has been the best publicity for Vanderbilt football in some time, but would it even be possible anywhere else? Yes, we’re in a pandemic and the quarantine of most of the team’s specialists left Vandy in a serious pinch, but it’s hard to see Alabama or LSU or Georgia trotting out any student, male or female, after just two days of practice.
Unfortunately, we never really got the chance to see just how ready for the moment Fuller was. The game was so lopsided Vanderbilt penetrated past the Mizzou 44-yard line just once and never gave her the chance to kick a field goal or extra point.
Fuller’s greatest contribution may have been an impromptu halftime pep talk she gave the team, urging them to be more positive and continue cheering each other on despite their 21-0 deficit. Props to her for having the guts to stand up and say it. She was right. Good teams, like her soccer squad, create their own energy and excitement. A buzz that has quite obviously been missing from this football team.
It should also be concerning that the locker room needed someone who had never played a single football play at that point to deliver the message. That lack of leadership speaks volumes about the current state of the program.
Which brings us to Lee, who is now charged with hiring a replacement that can dig the Commodores out of this hole. It is a difficult job, as Mason found out, but it’s still a SEC job that will attract top coordinators and several head coaches from smaller conferences.
Whoever Lee picks needs to have her reassurance that both she and the school are committed to football. The facility upgrades have to happen. The resources need to expand. Otherwise, Vanderbilt will continue to lose.
I really hope @VanderbiltU realizes that NO coach will be successful w/o their full and TOTAL support. Facilities need a COMPLETE overhaul, not just “sprucing up the locker room” as is the norm. Mizzou just thumped you by 41, after a HUGE investment in facilities & new coach 🤔 https://t.co/aPZR68nfeA— Jordan Rodgers (@JRodgers11) November 29, 2020
Former Vandy QB Jordan Rodgers, now an analyst for the SEC Network, knows the landscape of the conference and his alma mater’s place within it as well as anyone. He tweeted his thoughts after the coaching change was announced: “I really hope @VanderbiltU realizes that NO coach will be successful w/o their full and TOTAL support. Facilities need a COMPLETE overhaul, not just “sprucing up the locker room” as is the norm. Mizzou just thumped you by 41, after a HUGE investment in facilities & new coach. The city recruits itself, the academics recruits itself, the facilities anti-recruit. Coach Mason never had a shot to be successful. And the next coach won’t either without a somewhat even ground in recruiting.”
Rodgers has known for some time what became very apparent to everyone watching the events unfold this weekend.
Vanderbilt football needs a total reboot that goes beyond just the head coach.