The architect of the Stanford defense that subdued Oregon's offensive attack once coached the receivers for a Utah team that suffered through a losing season in his only year in Salt Lake City.
If that background seems unlikely, consider that Derek Mason's next job was at Saint Mary's College, which dropped football after that season.
Fair to say, Mason's career outlook is much more promising these days. Oregon had scored 42 or more points in 13 straight games until Mason's defense held down the No. 1-ranked Ducks in a 17-14 overtime victory on the road Saturday.
Stanford lost its nation-leading status in rushing defense in the process, but Oregon's 198-yard night represented an achievement for the Cardinal. Kenjon Barner, Oregon's Heisman Trophy candidate, gained only 66 yards on 21 carries. The result is that a Stanford staff that includes three other coaches with Utah ties is in line for a Pac-12 championship game berth. If the Cardinal win Saturday at UCLA, they'll earn the North division title and will host the Bruins next week, with a Rose Bowl bid at stake.
Mason's defensive staff includes Dave Kotulski, who worked at Utah from 1978-89 and was Utah State's defensive coordinator in 2003-04, and Lance Anderson, who coached with Kotulski at USU. Running backs coach Mike Sanford Jr. is the son of USU assistant coach Mike Sanford.
Mason, who also coached at Weber State, joined Ron McBride's Utah staff in 2002, then lost his job as receivers coach when McBride was fired after that 5-6 season and Urban Meyer arrived.
"He was awesome, a great guy," McBride said. "Real smart guy, good recruiter. … He's become a very good football coach."
After spending the next season at Saint Mary's (where Anderson also worked), Mason went to New Mexico State, followed by Ohio. He then landed with the Minnesota Vikings under Brad Childress, another former McBride assistant who had coached Mason at Northern Arizona.
Mason was hired by Jim Harbaugh as Stanford's secondary coach in 2010 and stayed as co-defensive coordinator when coach David Shaw took over, then became the full-time coordinator this season.
Mason has succeeded by "recognizing the talent that we have and putting those guys in position to play great team defense," Shaw said. "They've done a great job of believing in the system and playing extremely hard."
Shaw admires how the defensive players have realized that "every week might be somebody else's turn to shine" and keep playing within the framework of the defense. Stanford's defense features a dominant front seven, enabling the Cardinal to lead the Pac-12 and stand No. 18 nationally in total defense. California, Washington State and Colorado combined for a net total of minus-34 rushing yards in a three-week stretch against the Cardinal, who lead the country with 101 tackles for loss in 11 games.
Outside linebacker Trent Murphy is responsible for 15.5 of those tackles, and five other players ends Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson, linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas and nickel back Usua Amanam have at least 7.5 tackles for loss. In the secondary, Ed Reynolds has intercepted five passes, returning three for touchdowns.
"We lose a couple guys, but next year we're going to be really good on defense, too," said Shaw, whose team will visit Utah in 2013.