On game day, the sidelines of a football field are full of players, coaches, referees and TV crews, just like in 1996, when Tom Mason last walked them.
At the time, he was Boise State University’s interim head coach, trying to keep a team afloat while its head coach fought for his life. Afterward, he made several stops as an assistant before landing SMU’s defensive coordinator job in late 2007.
Eighteen years later, Mason mans the sidelines again, this time as SMU’s interim head coach. But no matter if he is on the sidelines or in the coaches’ booth, he has always had the same focus: to care for his players. That is why he became SMU’s interim head coach after June Jones’ sudden resignation on Sept. 8. But he was uncertain at first.
“My wife and I said we’d never do this again because it is one of the absolute hardest positions you can put yourself in as a coach,” Mason says. “But I thought about it. I recruited a lot of these kids, and they need someone they can hang their hat on. I figured it’s three months, and no matter what happens, good or bad, I can give three months to these kids and this school.”
Football was not always Mason’s first love. He grew up in Montana and was a three-sport star at Walla Walla High School in Walla Walla, Wash., and had dreams of playing basketball in college.
“I thought I was a pretty good basketball player. But I went to a basketball camp before my senior year and figured out I wasn’t very good,” Mason says with a laugh. “So I figured football was probably where I was going to go.”
Mason bounced around as a college football player, playing at the University of Idaho and Walla Walla Community College before finishing at the University of Nevada in 1977.
Shortly after his playing days ended, a Walla Walla coach called Mason, in need of a defensive line coach. Mason readily accepted, eager to work his way up the ranks. He’d dreamed of being a head coach since his senior year of high school. His career took off soon after. In 1993, Mason’s close friend, Pokey Allen, was hired as Boise State’s head coach. Allen hired Mason to be the Broncos’ defensive coordinator.
But early in the 1996 season, Boise State’s first in Division I-A (now called the Football Bowl Subdivision), Mason was named interim head coach when Allen took a leave of absence. He had been diagnosed with cancer.
“We were best friends,” Mason says. “We played golf together, our families vacationed together, had a lot of success. He’s dying, and I took it over with the attitude that I would keep this together until he can recover.”
In November of 1996, Allen’s condition worsened, and he died less than two months later. Mason was not hired as Boise State’s head coach, as the team lost nine of the ten games under his watch.
Mason became the defensive coordinator at the University of Northern Iowa and then Nevada. He also was a position coach in the Canadian Football League and the now-defunct XFL. In 2001, Mason was hired as the linebackers coach at Fresno State University. He spent seven years in California before Jones lured him to SMU.
During Mason’s time at SMU, he has interviewed for several schools’ head coach positions, including Fresno State and Nevada. He claims he had a couple head coach offers, but opted to stay at SMU.
“I really like the people [at SMU],” Mason says. “I think this program has a chance to really do something special, and there’s a lot of really good people around it.”
All of Mason’s previous experience has prepared him for round two as an interim. He also talks to Jones every other day, asking him for advice and running ideas by him.
“One of the reasons I took this is because I’ve been through it before. I don’t know if there’s another coach in America that’s taken an interim deal twice,” he jokes.
Mason is the first to admit he would love to be SMU’s next head coach, but getting the job is not his primary goal. After Mason learned Allen was dying, he was concerned with doing everything he could to get the head job, which prevented him from focusing on the players.
“I’ll never make that mistake again,” Mason says.
Despite that vow and the slew of changes he has made since taking over at SMU, players say they still see the same old Coach Mason.
“Really the only thing [that is different] is that he has the offensive stuff to work with now too,” SMU linebacker Stephon Sanders said. “He’s still the same coach he’s always been. He likes to joke around with us but he also means business when he comes to work.”
Mason knows he has to win games to keep his name in consideration for the SMU job. He says that in the eyes of the athletic departments, coaching comes down to winning. With the way SMU’s season has gone thus far (0-3, scored 12 total points), winning will be a tough task. But that won’t stop Mason from enjoying every minute of the next two and a half months.
“I’m just doing it for the kids right now,” Mason says. “I’ll do the best job I can until this is over. If they want to give [the job] to me, I’d love to have it. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.”
After all, Mason did spend 18 years between trips to the sidelines.