The former Nevada linebacker and defensive coordinator believes he should be the next head coach of Wolf Pack.
“I really feel that I would be a great fit,” said Mason, who is now the defensive coordinator for the SMU Mustangs under head coach June Jones. “I always loved the Reno area. I loved living there and I love the people who live there. And I really believe that is one of the best jobs in the country.”
The 56-year-old Mason was a member of former Pack coach Chris Ault’s first Nevada teams in 1976 and 1977. He also was the Nevada defensive coordinator under head coach Jeff Tisdel -- his former teammate with the Pack -- in 1999.
“I would have loved to stay at Nevada but when Chris Tormey came on (in 2000) he wanted his own guys in there,” Mason said. “But I didn’t want to leave.”
Since leaving the Pack after the 1999 season, Mason coached for a year with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League, the Scottish Claymores of NFL Europe and the Las Vegas Outlaws of the XFL. He then spent seven very productive years as Fresno State’s linebackers coach (2001-07) and the past five years he has been at SMU as defensive coordinator and Associate Head coach.
A year ago he was among the finalists for the Fresno State head coaching position that eventually went to former Wolf Pack defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter.
“I just love cities like Reno and Fresno,” Mason said. “I’m in Dallas now and Dallas is kind of overwhelming. Reno is my kind of city.”
Mason was the SMU defensive coordinator in 2009 when the Mustangs beat the Wolf Pack 45-10 in the Dec. 24, 2009 Hawaii Bowl. The Mustangs defense held quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the Pack offense to just 314 total yards. That Pack team averaged 38 points and 506 total yards a game.
“We just blitzed the heck out of them,” Mason said. “We got a big lead (31-0 at halftime) and the dynamics of the game had a lot to do with it. We knew they wouldn‘t be as good in their run game that day because their best back (Vai Taua) was out (academic problems). And we also thought our defensive line had better athletes and players than their offensive line and we took advantage of that.”
Mason also played a big part in SMU’s impressive 43-10 Hawaii Bowl victory over Fresno State this past Christmas Eve. The Mustangs defense returned two interceptions for touchdowns, tackled Fresno quarterback Derek Carr in the end zone for a safety and held the Bulldogs, which had running back Robbie Rouse (13 carries, 22 yards), to minus 16 yards rushing in the game.
“Coach Mason knows how to put players in the right position to make plays according to their best attributes,” SMU senior linebacker Ja’Gared Davis said before the victory over Fresno State. “He definitely knows how to scheme the defense against an offense so that a player can have his best game against a certain look.”
In 2007, the year before Mason arrived at SMU, the Mustangs had one of the worst defenses in the nation. They were 116th in total defense (499 yards allowed each game), 117th in scoring defense (40 points allowed per game). This season they are 62nd in total defense (396 yards) and 54th in scoring defense (26 points allowed). In 2011, the Mustangs were 37th in total defense (351 yards) and 52nd in scoring defense (24.5).
“I had the opportunity to spend some time with Dick LeBeau (the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator) and he taught me a lot about zone blitzes and multiple fronts and in 2009 we switched to a 3-4 defense. I just felt we needed the speed to match up against all the spread offenses out there.”
The results were immediate. In 2008, the Mustangs allowed 480 yards a game and 38 points. In 2009, they allowed 397 yards and 28 points.
Mason has also coached at Portland State (1986-92), Boise State (1993-96), Northern Iowa (1997-98). His teams have gone 7-6 against the Wolf Pack through the years with the bulk of those meetings coming when he was at Fresno State (the Bulldogs were 5-2 against Nevada with Mason on the defensive staff).
“I am very familiar with what Nevada has done through the years, both offensively and defensively,” Mason said. “I was there the day Colin Kaepernick had his breakout game.”
Kaepernick saw his first extended playing time as Pack quarterback in relief of injured starter Nick Graziano at Mackay Stadium on Oct. 6, 2007. The freshman quarterback passed for 384 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 60 yards and another score in a 49-41 loss to the Bulldogs.
‘I remember walking off the field that day and talking with (former Wolf Pack offensive coordinator and offensive line coach) Chris Klenakis and telling him, “I think I just found you a starting quarterback.’
“We knew about Kaepernick at Fresno State. We saw him play in high school and we knew he could run. So we just tried to keep him in the pocket and make him throw and he darn near beat us.”
Mason has spent the bulk of his coaching career as a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. His only head coaching experience came under very difficult circumstances at Boise State in 1996. Boise head coach Pokey Allen, who coached with Mason at Portland State from 1986-92, was diagnosed with cancer before the season and Mason was named the interim head coach while Allen was receiving treatment.
“It was a very bad situation for everyone,” Mason said. “Nobody knew what was going on. We had a team that was filled with freshmen and red-shirt freshmen. When we came there (in 1993) we built that thing with junior college kids and we got to the championship game (the I-AA national title game in 1994). But that season (1996) all those players were all gone and we were now in our first season in Division I-A football. We were just trying to keep the program together that year.”
Mason went 1-9 as head coach but four of the losses were by a touchdown or less. Mason returned for the final two games and went 1-01 but he died a month after his final game.
“That year was a tremendous learning experience for me,” Mason said. “That year, going through all of those things, made me a much better coach. It was the hardest four months of my life. We had no stability. Nobody knew what was going to happen to Pokey. It was very difficult.”
Mason gives a lot of the credit for his coaching career to Allen.
“I probably learned the most from Pokey Allen,” he said. “He was kind of a go-between between June Jones and Chris Ault or Pat Hill, guys I also have a tremendous amount of respect for. But Pokey taught me a lot.”
Ault’s influence, Mason said, will always have an everlasting affect on him.
“I remember his very first year as head coach,” Mason said. “He was very hard on us as players but that’s the way he had to do it. He was trying to set the tempo for the entire program. He had to get the foundation for his program in place. I had a lot of respect for him. A lot of guys didn’t like him because he was so hard but he never bothered me. I loved him as a coach because he never asked us to do anything totally crazy. Everything he asked us to do had a purpose.
“I guess I always saw that purpose so I never had a problem with it. Some of the other guys couldn’t see it so they left or were phased out. But I could see that there was always a method to his madness. I just think he had to weed out some guys and that was his way of doing it. And it certainly worked because look at what he did with that program.”
Mason said he loved coaching with the Pack in 1999 when Ault was the athletic director.
“I loved talking football with him or watching film with him,” Mason said.
Mason said he would definitely retain Ault’s pistol offense if he was to take over the program.
“No question,” He said. “I love that offense. Last year when I was interviewing with Fresno State for that job, I talked to Tim DeRuyter, who is a great friend of mine. He’s a defensive guy, too, and we talked about what offenses we would run. I told him straight out, ‘I’m going with the pistol,’ and he just said, “So am I..’ As defensive coordinators, we study offenses as much as anyone and that offense is the best offense in the nation.”
SMU is famous for it’s run-and-shoot offense under Jones, who learned the wide-open passing attack as a quarterback at Portland state under coach Mouse Davis.
“I much prefer the pistol to the run and shoot,” Mason said. “You have so many more options with the pistol, with the downhill running game. There’s been some talk that when June leaves SMU, I’d be the guy to take over and I’ve told everyone that I would run the pistol.
“The pistol gives you the dive option, the speed option, everything. You can also run some of the same passing concepts in the pistol that you have in the run and shoot. But you have so many more things you can go to in the pistol as compared to the run and shoot.”
A switch to a defensive-minded head coach, Mason said, wouldn’t mean that the Wolf Pack’s offense would suffer.
“I study offenses all the time,” Mason said. “I probably know more about how each of those offenses work than most of the offensive guys. I have to know because I have to stop them all.”
Mason is confident he could build upon the winning tradition at Nevada that Ault built.
“I know the area,” he said. “I know so much about the program, about the budget restraints, how to recruit kids to come to Reno. I did it. I recruited for the Wolf Pack and I used to recruit northern Nevada heavily when I was at Fresno State. I know what it takes to recruit there.
“I really believe I’m a great fit for that job. I love Wolf Pack football. I truly believe you can build something special there.”
Mason said his experience at Boise in the 1990s, before that program emerged as a national power, also serves him well.
“Reno and Boise are similar type cities,” he said. “The key to their success, I believe is due to that community getting behind that football program. Those fans came out to all our games, whether we were winning or losing. They might leave early if we were losing but they’d always show up again the next game. Getting the community behind your football program is a huge key to building a successful program. And I know it can happen in Reno.”