By Tom Wood
“I spent the last 24 months driving past this orange mailbox, and I wanted to hit it every day. Every day. Sometimes I’d swerve and I’d pull back and just keep going. Now I don’t have to hit it. I just wave at it.”
— Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason on his team’s win against rival Tennessee
In these heady times – rich and intoxicating for Vanderbilt players, coaches and fans – Commodore head football coach Derek Mason is somewhere between the calm in the storm and the storm itself.
Vandy has earned its first postseason appearance in three years – its eighth all-time and the first under Mason.
The Commodores also ended a roller coaster of a season by winning four of the last six regular-season games. They were at their most impressive in the last two at home, thumping Ole Miss 38-17 and then rallying from a three-point halftime deficit to overwhelm Tennessee 45-34 in the finale.
Vandy will now face the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 26 in Shreveport, Louisiana. It is a battle of 6-6 teams, a lesser bowl in the grand scheme of college football’s postseason, but one with so much meaning for the 46-year-old Mason and win-starved Commodores fans.
‘One more game’
“We knew we were going bowling,” Mason says. “We didn’t care where, we just wanted the opportunity to play one more game.
“And we earned it. We didn’t back in, we earned that.’’
Mason points out that his team’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) was good enough to have gotten them one of the 80 available bowl bids, even if it had finished 5-7.
“Now it’s just about doing the work that leads us to go out and win,” he says. “You play the game to win. You don’t play to feel good about it. You don’t play the game to go to a bowl trip.
“This is a business trip for us, and that’s exactly the way we’re going to approach it. But you can have some fun in that process.”
That approach is pure Mason, who can be focused and fun-loving at the same time.
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