by Sam Doughton
Rolling through the streets of Murfreesboro in the back of a pickup truck, new MTSU head football coach Derek Mason felt restless.
It wasn’t an unusual feeling for Mason. His high-energy personality has helped him immediately stand out at a plethora of programs during his career, from his time as defensive coordinator at Stanford, Auburn, and Oklahoma State, to being the head coach at Vanderbilt. It was that same charismatic, active presence that helped earn him the job leading the Blue Raider football program.
No, Derek Mason is not someone who stands still often. Like that recent December day, riding in the Murfreesboro Christmas Parade, waving to Blue Raiders along the route.
I wanted the people to realize that I’m not just somebody you’re going to see on a billboard,” Mason said. “I’m not just going to be somebody you’re going to see on TV. I’m you, you’re me. We’re all part of the same community. We’re all Blue Raider Nation.
The head coach ditched his heavy coat and hopped out of the truck, running side to side to shake hands with those out in the community. They are, after all, the people that Mason will need to bring the Blue Raiders success on the gridiron, even more than the student-athletes he’ll mentor or the coaches he’ll hire.
Just days before, MTSU had rolled out the blue carpet to introduce Mason as only the third head coach in the program’s Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) era and fourth in the past 44 years. After 29 years of coaching and a one-year sabbatical from the sidelines as a TV analyst, Mason brings a blue-collar work ethic to a program that he said has “good bones” and a fertile recruiting ground to build championships.
“I’m the same guy every day,” Mason said. “I care about people. I care about Murfreesboro. I care about Middle Tennessee. I care about the things that matter to this place. We’re going to be successful, but we’re going to be successful with people, not just the idea that, `Man, I’m the football coach here at Middle Tennessee State.’ ”
A Nurturing Environment
It’s that caring for others that has defined Mason since he was growing up in Phoenix, keeping his days busy between sports—football, of course, but also track and field—and music, playing the violin and piano many afternoons after school.
Raised by his working mother, with help from his grandparents and later his stepfather, Mason said he was born into “a lot of love.” His mother would coach his peewee football team to a championship, taking over at midseason when the coach got sick. His grandmother, a school district employee, helped instill the value of education in Mason. And his stepfather, whom Mason affectionately calls Pops, taught him discipline from his military background, particularly in how to clean a car for a Sunday drive to the A&W for a root beer.
“My grandmother always said be home before the light came on,” Mason said. “I think I was pretty obedient. But my grandmother said I was always very rambunctious.”
His family and friends helped keep him busy, which eventually led Mason to Northern Arizona University, where he competed in football and in track and field. It’s also where he met his wife, LeighAnne, who was an NAU cheerleader and, according to Mason, “the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
As a football player, Mason was coached by the likes of future NFL coaches Andy Reid and Brad Childress and college head coaches Karl Dorrell and Dino Babers. But more than the X’s and O’s he learned from those coaches, Mason learned the value of placing people at the forefront of a football program.
“They cared about the person. They cared about the athlete,” Mason said. “They helped me understand the importance of getting an education.”
Base for Building
Mason arrives at a time when MTSU is reinvesting in facilities and student-athletes with its $100 million Build Blue campaign, including a Student-Athlete Performance Center under construction.
His focus on people has taken center stage in every aspect of his career, whether he was lining fields as an assistant at Weber State or standing on the Southeastern Conference sidelines where he led Vanderbilt to two bowls and defeated in-state rival Tennessee three straight years.
When evaluating his assistants, Mason places just as high a priority on finding coaches who can develop personal relationships, mentor student-athletes as people, or build a positive culture with their position group as he does on whether the coaches are good recruiters or teachers of the game.
“People talk about being a player’s coach,” Mason said. “I think I’m a parent’s coach. What does that mean? For me, my job is to give a better product back to a parent than the one that they dropped off.”
As the father of two daughters, Mackenzie and Sydney, Mason knows that parents want certain expectations to be held of their sons while they’re under his guidance. Accountability, being present where their feet are, understanding that every day is a job interview, to mention just a few. But those expectations ring hollow, Mason said, if he and his staff don’t put in the work of the first step in building trust with each player.
“You’ve got to love them first,” Mason said. “If he trusts me, I can take him to places he’s never been. If he doesn’t trust me, there’s always that wall that we can’t break.”
Dreams of a Lifetime
Off the field, Mason keeps himself occupied with several hobbies he says are not that different from what interested him as a child. He loved playing music, loved taking drives in his Pops’ car, and wanted the newest pair of sneakers. As an adult, he’s turned those loves into DJing, working on his (now fully restored) 1964 International Scout, and collecting sneakers, which he often wears into his new office in Murphy Center.
“It goes back to the idea of the things I dreamed about as a kid,” Mason said. “I loved music as a kid. I dreamed of having some cool shoes as a kid, and I always wanted to be cleaning my stepdad’s vehicle so I could ride in it. As an adult, the kid never really leaves you.”
Kids in the Midstate dreaming of playing college football, meanwhile, will have an open door with Mason. He promises to recruit and develop athletes from Rutherford County, Nashville, and across middle Tennessee “so our fan base can come watch our own play at a high level.”
“I couldn’t pass up this MTSU opportunity,” Mason said. “I want you to know: You have a coach, a father, a teacher, an educator who’s all in the game. . . . The chips are all in at MTSU.”
DJ Mason Mixing It Up
Perhaps Derek Mason’s most interesting hobby is his love of spinning records as a DJ. Mason points to old-school favorites in a variety of genres—Charley Pride, Kool & the Gang, The Gap Band, Peabo Bryson, and Earth, Wind & Fire—as early inspirations.
The DJ part of the equation started when Mason was at Northern Arizona University and would DJ college house parties. He even hosted a show, The Late Night Run, on a local radio station. But after getting into coaching and looking to marry LeighAnne, Mason said, he felt DJing was a hobby he’d have to leave behind to be an adult, and he sold his equipment.
His wife knew how much Mason loved spinning records, however, and bought an iPod DJ table when Mason coached at Stanford. It wasn’t an in-depth mixer, and you were limited by what an iPod could store. But it scratched the itch perfectly for Mason, allowing him to DJ parties for the coaching staff during his time in Palo Alto, where he rose to associate head coach and defensive coordinator with back-to-back Rose Bowl seasons in 2012–13.
Shortly after Mason was hired as Vanderbilt head coach, however, LeighAnne had a surprise for him: a full DJ setup, including turntables, a stand, and a catalog of music Mason said he “could never pay back.”
When he’s not in the office, on the road recruiting, or on the field coaching, Mason can often be found in his house spinning records in his dedicated DJ room to relax and blow off steam. “It’s the best gift I’ve ever received,” Mason said.