During the inaugural Fiesta Bowl in 1971, Arizona State quarterback Danny White connected with Calvin Demery for a 21-yard pass for the first touchdown in Fiesta Bowl history.
The Sun Devils won the game, 45-38, and postseason college football was well on its way to becoming a staple in Arizona.
Although just a one-year-old at the time, current Vanderbilt Head Coach Derek Mason can recall the early memory as a boy growing up in Phoenix.
“I was very young but my uncle Calvin played in that game under Coach Kush,” said Mason. “You remember it as a child and it seems so big. Then to come home and have a chance to coach in the Fiesta Bowl was surreal.”
After graduating from Camelback High School, Mason headed north to play cornerback for Northern Arizona University and went on to have coaching stops at several schools, also coaching defensive backs for the Minnesota Vikings, before landing at Stanford in 2010.
In 2012, Mason returned home as co-defensive coordinator and associate head coach with Stanford to take on Oklahoma State in the 41st Annual Fiesta Bowl, a bowl game that his idol was instrumental in starting.
“College football for me was Frank Kush,” said Mason. “Coach Kush dominated my household growing up. To have a chance to come back and participate in a Fiesta Bowl was an exciting time for me and something that I will never forget.”
Although the Cardinal fell to the Cowboys by three points in overtime, Mason will always have fond memories of the season that culminated in the chance to coach in the bowl game of his childhood.
“My parents, my family and a lot of proud people who taught me and watched me grow up saw my coaching career come full-circle,” explained Mason. “The journey with all of those young men and coaches made it special.”
Currently, Mason is embarking on a new journey as the head coach at Vanderbilt. As a first-time head coach in the rugged Southeastern Conference, Mason is taking the season one day at a time, setting expectations for his team and helping the Commodores keep sight of the ultimate goal.
“It is a great goal for any team to have to make it postseason play,” said Mason. “Every team in the country wants to be there and to be playing in bowl games.”
With a strong coaching resume that includes appearances in the Fiesta Bowl, Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl, Mason knows what it takes to get there and the experience elite bowl games provide for teams.
“Having an opportunity to go to a Fiesta Bowl is something that you will never forget and you never know if you will get back there,” said Mason. “You cherish the moment and invest everything you have into that one opportunity and if you are able to capitalize then they are calling you a Fiesta Bowl Champion.”
While Mason hopes to win the bowl game that his uncle helped Coach Kush win years ago, he also knows the importance football can bring off the field.
“It is all about impacting the community and we have to make a difference,” said Mason. “Whether it is a bowl game or another organization we have to make sure that we give back, be an example and an agent of change for our communities. The Fiesta Bowl has a history of giving back and that’s what sets the Fiesta Bowl apart.”