The SEC has already seen one loser-is-fired game, with Les Miles getting the boot after losing to Gus Malzahn and Auburn. It might be seeing another one this weekend with Vanderbilt visiting Kentucky, so let’s use history as a guide to examine where each guy stands.
Mark Stoops and Derek Mason were both first-time head coaches when hired at their present gigs, and they both experienced growing pains. When Neal Brown left for a head coaching job, Stoops hired Shannon Dawson as offensive coordinator to replace him. Dawson neither jelled with the staff nor led a good attack, resulting in his dismissal after just one season. Mason made a pair of bad coordinator hires right off the bat, forcing him to have to fire both after his disastrous initial campaign.
On some level, patience for Stoops and Mason could be called for. Kentucky and Vandy aren’t easy places for wins anyway, and they didn’t hire experienced hands. Getting an itchy trigger finger after three years for Mason and four for Stoops doesn’t show much appreciation of those realities.
It’s worth looking at how Stoops and Mason line up against their recent predecessors. The only numerical rankings that go back to the beginnings of the Rich Brooks era at UK and the Bobby Johnson era at Vandy are from Jeff Sagarin’s system. Here is how the past three full-time head coaches at each school fared early in their tenures according to Sagarin’s Predictor rating:
Stoops and Mason had the worst initial years of the six coaches here, which doesn’t help their causes. Phillips took Brooks’ top-50 program and drove it into a ditch, making him the only one to get a pink slip after three years.
Brooks faced adversity early in his tenure due to NCAA sanctions from the Hal Mumme era and turmoil from Guy Morriss ditching the program after just two years. That, plus his 18 good years at Oregon, bought Brooks some time despite the sharp downward turn. He rewarded that patience with a huge leap in his fourth season.
Johnson arrived in Nashville fresh off a I-AA national championship game appearance at Furman, something that helped him survive three consecutive two-win campaigns. He, too, had a breakthrough in Year 4, improving from two wins to five and noticeably raising his Sagarin rating.
Stoops, meanwhile, appears to have flatlined. He had a big leap in his second year, helped in no small part by having a pair of future NFL pass rushers in Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith. He came back down a bit in his third, which is not unusual for head coaches of any kind that have second-year surges, but his Wildcats haven’t improved this year.
The Sagarin ratings, of course, are just one way of measuring things. Another is the F/+ ratings, which go back to 2005. They aren’t as kind to Stoops and Mason.
Here Stoops is presiding over his worst season yet, and Mason has regressed rather than progressing slightly as the Sagarin ratings would have you believe. Either way, Stoops is not showing a fourth-year breakthrough like Brooks and Johnson each had, and Mason has work to do in order to deliver one for himself.
Over the summer I looked at how SEC head coaches fared against peer opponents along with foes above and below their peer classes. Neither Stoops nor Mason has defeated a team above his peer class. In other words, they’ve yet to beat someone they shouldn’t have beaten. The two coaches would be in better shape had they won any such games.
Stoops’s saving grace has been his toughness at home. The good news is that, including 2016’s early results, he’s 6-0 against teams below his peer class and 4-0 against teams inside his peer class in Lexington. The bad news is that his unblemished record means this year’s Southern Miss is above Kentucky’s peer class, which is not a good sign for Stoops.
Mason also has excelled at home. Including the young season’s results, he’s 5-1 against his peer class in Nashville.
Vandy is in Kentucky’s peer class, but this year’s matchup is a home game for the Wildcats. Mason is 1-1 on the road against peers, boasting a win over Middle Tennessee but carrying a loss to South Carolina in such games last year. He’ll need to break Stoops’s home streak in order to help himself out this weekend, but he failed in his only other try to bring down an SEC peer in a road game.
It’s hard to say which coach needs the win more this weekend. Stoops probably does considering he’s a year further into his rebuild, and in-state rival Louisville has become terrific again. That said, it reportedly would take an ungodly $18 million to buyout the Kentucky staff.
Salary and buyout figures are unavailable for the private institution in Nashville, but it’s hard to imagine Mason and his assistants being nearly that expensive. That said, Mason was the one who presided over the plunge from the salad days at Vandy, whereas Stoops had to dig out of the wreckage of the Phillips era.
Even though UK and VU aren’t exactly football royalty, they’re still red-blooded SEC members. They’re not content simply to fight each other over who will be the doormat of the East. Their game on Saturday likely will be an unwatchable mess, but it will be full of meaning for both coaches.