Garry Mason is not reinventing the wheel. He’s just the first one to use it in our sport.
There’s little secret to success in college athletics. You recruit the most talented athletes, you usually see the best results. And when it comes to recruiting, the creator and head coach of the Bethel University bass fishing team is the best. He also happens to have been the first.
“When Bethel approached me about starting a team I told them I’d only do it if they allowed me to offer scholarships,” said Mason, who has been in the outdoor industry most of his life as a fishing guide and the founder of the Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame. “I wanted the school to support the bass fishing team like it would the baseball team. They agreed, and I went to work.
“I couldn’t believe no one was offering scholarships. These young men and women deserve the support of their athletic programs like any other sport.”
Four years later, Mason has turned a small college in western Tennessee into the Alabama football of college fishing, with him playing the role of Nick Saban.
While most bass fishing programs simply take any angler who happens to attend the school, Mason and his coaching staff — yes, he has a staff like any other collegiate sport — actually scours the high school fishing ranks for the top talents. Then, like any good recruiter, they go to work.
“We have a huge following from high school students now because of our success and the fact that we offer scholarships,” Mason said. “The sad part is the amount of anglers we have to turn down. We’re all about education first, so being a part of the team means having a good GPA.”
Currently, he has 31 anglers on scholarship (29 boys, two girls) that fit the criteria of being a good angler, good student and good teammate. And don’t think all that talent comes from Tennessee or even its neighboring states. The roster includes anglers from Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, Iowa, Wisconsin, Arizona and California, with the anglers from South Carolina and Arizona both being The Bass Federation high school champions.
Like they have for Saban, those recruiting classes have led to Bethel ascending to the top of the sport. The school is No. 1 in Bass Rankings’ School Rankings, having won four events in the last year. Not to mention, in those same victories Bethel has had at least one other team place second or third. Meanwhile, the duo of Cody Ross and Dewey Swims are atop the Team and Individual rankings, with teammates Myles Palmer and Matthew Palmer not far behind in sixth. Bethel has won back-to-back Southern Collegiate championships, and it holds three college records (most weight for five fish in one day, most weight for 10 fish in two days and most weight for 20 fish in a two-day team event).
“It’s been a phenomenal ride building up this program,” Masons said. “And we were ecstatic when we reach No. 1. I anticipated that eventually we would get there, but I didn’t think it would be this soon.
“To be No. 1 in any sport is a fabulous thing. It means a lot to our team and to our school.”
Eventually, Mason hopes that other programs will adopt philosophies like his to help “create the future of the sport.” A couple have already contacted him to pick his brain about how to start and build a program, and he’s all for it.
But for now, the first man to use the wheel in college bass fishing will just keep rolling along.