A visit with a friend at Auburn changed Derek Mason’s NFL plans

Derek Mason thought for sure he was headed back to the NFL after Vanderbilt fired him in November.

He was arguably the hottest defensive coordinator candidate on the market and received interest from quite a few schools. But after seven seasons leading the Commodores and four before that on Stanford’s staff, he said, “I felt like, for me, I needed a break from the college game for just a little bit.”

Then Bryan Harsin called.

Mason never had worked on the same staff as the new Auburn coach, who was hired to replace Gus Malzahn in December, but the two knew each other well. They had run into each other a few times at Nike events and coaching conventions over the years, and their families hit it off. Mason’s wife, LeighAnne, and Harsin’s wife, Kes, have become friends. Their children are similar ages. They’ve vacationed together.

“So, when we had an opportunity to talk, the conversation was very much to the point about his vision for Auburn,” Mason said Monday in his first interview since being hired on Jan. 7. “And that vision was set in stone. It was very strategic. It had all the making of what I thought a good leader should talk about coming into a situation like this. Which I thought was unique.”

Harsin convinced Mason to make a stop in Auburn on his way home from Nashville. They spent hours talking about football, how Harsin wanted to run his program and what he would expect from Mason as defensive coordinator.

That visit quickly changed Mason’s mind about what he wanted to do next in his career.

“I found myself really loving this place from the time I touched down,” Mason said. “From the city to the university experience to what Coach Harsin is bringing, all that seemed to fit for me. So it was an easy decision. I feel good about where we are right now. Believe me, I would’ve made this decision 10 out of 10 times.”

It’s too early, Harsin said, to know how that friendship off the field will transition into a working partnership on the same staff. But, so far, the reviews on all sides have been positive. Harsin raved about how Mason has worked with the defensive staff, which features two other former defensive coordinators in inside linebackers coach Jeff Schmedding (Boise State) and outside linebackers coach Bert Watts (Fresno State).

Players have expressed excitement, too. Junior linebacker Owen Pappoe said players “love the system he’s bringing in for us” — which is expected to be very multiple in the alignments it uses — and “love him as a person,” too.

“He’s accepted us all as his sons. It feels like we’re a real big family out there,” Pappoe said. “Change is always good for us, man.”

The change seems to have been good for Mason, too. Even if it wasn’t the one he expected to make four months ago.

“It’s fun for me. I’m a soldier. I can lead, man, but I can also follow,” he said. “Coach Harsin is the tip of the spear, so for me, it’s been great just to focus on the ball, focus on the recruiting, focus on the development of players.”