Rhett Lashlee's rise from OC to head coach culminated with SMU job

Courtesy of SMU Football

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DALLAS – New SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee assumed his coaching career was over in 2007 when he turned down an offer from Gus Malzahn to become a graduate assistant and running backs coach at Tulsa. Lashlee, who played for Malzahn at Shiloh Christian School in Springdale, Ark., was a young man who trusted his gut. His gut told him that Tulsa wasn’t the right situation. 

“I told Gus I wasn’t coming, which was like ending my career,” Lashlee remembered in his new office a day after early signing period for the Mustangs. “I ended any opportunity I ever had (in coaching) because I just burned one of the only two connections I had in coaching. Anybody who wanted to do this would have run to that job. So, I needed a job.”

Lashlee, engaged to his current wife at the time, decided to go in another direction. He earned a marketing degree while playing quarterback at Arkansas and decided to venture into the private sector. He and his brother-in-law helped produce High School Sports The Magazine, which was later renamed VYPE. This move allowed him to stay in his native Northwest Arkansas, and it allowed him to build a foundation with his new bride. 

The 20 months Lashlee spent away from coaching didn’t cure him. In fact, it only let the disease of wanting to be a football coach spread. Lashlee remembers longtime football coach Louis Campbell telling him that ‘if you can do anything in the world besides being a college football coach, do it. But if you can’t, be a coach.’ Lashlee wanted to be a coach, and Malzahn would be the man to lead him through the early part of his career. 

“He was mad at me for a while,” Lashlee laughed. “The time away from the game solidified in my brain that I wanted to be a college football coach. It is what I was called to do.” 

Football was always important to Lashlee. He grew up a fan of the San Francisco 49ers because of Joe Montana and Bill Walsh. Lashlee was 40-3-2 as a starter at Shiloh, winning two of the three state championship games he played in on varsity. He broke numerous passing records in the state of Arkansas, including career completions (858), passing yards (13,201), and touchdown passes (171). 

Malzahn was there every step of the way. He became the head coach at Shiloh when Lashlee was in seventh grade. Lashlee would eventually be a three-star recruit who signed with Arkansas before a shoulder injury ended his career. He graduated from Arkansas in 2006. That same year Malzahn was hired as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator and kept Lashlee on campus as an offensive grad assistant. 

“We ran a no-huddle offense in middle school,” Lashlee fondly remembers of Malzahn’s influence on his young career. “I’m not sure how much I appreciated it then, but looking back, we weren’t always the most talented team. The thing he did was get the most out of his players. He knew how to push us past what we thought was possible.” 

A new beginning 

Lashlee and Malzahn were attached at the hip. Take away a year as the offensive coordinator at Samford in 2011 and Lashlee was on a staff anchored by Malzahn from 2009 to 2017. The two were reunited in 2012 when Lashlee was hired as the offensive coordinator under Malzahn leadership as head coach. A year later, the two went back to Auburn. Malzahn was the head coach and Lashlee the offensive coordinator. Lashlee was a finalist for the Broyles Award in 2013, which is given annually to the nation’s top college football assistant coach. 

Lashlee ventured out on his own in 2017 when he became the offensive coordinator at the University of Connecticut. One year later, Lashlee was hired as the offensive coordinator at SMU. It’d be a fateful move. Lashlee engineered the Mustangs’ offense for two years before leaving for the same job at the University of Miami, but Dallas remained close to his heart. When Sonny Dykes left SMU for TCU, Lashlee was interviewed and eventually offered his first head coaching gig. The opportunity was too good to pass up. Roughly 15 years after turning down a job at Tulsa, Lashlee is the head coach of the SMU Mustangs. 

“Dallas is the place we want to live and raise our family,” Lashlee said. “I’m from Arkansas, so I’m five hours from home. My parents aren’t getting any younger, so it checked a lot of boxes. But knowing that we had been here and the familiarity with the program and the players was the real selling point.”

Dykes and Lashlee remained in contact when Lashlee went to Miami. Lashlee said the two were in contact in the weeks leading up to Dykes’ departure to TCU. The two have talked since both took new jobs. Coaching changes are messy on the outside, especially when a head coach leaves one job for a crosstown rival, but behind the scenes, the people involved understand it is a business. 

“I wouldn’t have this opportunity if he didn’t hire me because he brought me here,” Lashlee said about Dykes’ importance to his career. “It is hard because he went to a rival. The timing because of transfers and the early signing period makes it look messy, but he and I have a great relationship. He poured four years into this program, and he wants to see us do well.” 

SMU viewed Lashlee as a potential head coach during his time as the offensive coordinator in 2018 and 2019. Athletic director Rick Hart is no stranger to change. Lashlee is the third head coach Hart has hired in his SMU tenure. He said that all coaching changes are challenging and complex because of the amount of people the hire impacts, but the rise of SMU on the football field over the last decade meant the pool of coaches to interview was larger than previous hires. 

Lashlee was considered the in-house candidate despite coaching at Miami. Hart knew what to expect in Lashlee. He’d seen Lashlee at his best, and he’d seen Lashlee deal with adversity. 

“When Rhett left here, we felt like we had someone to put into that pool if there was a future transition because of the job he did while he was here and the type of person he is,” Hart said. “When you work with people, and that is a lifestyle in this profession, you get to interact with them in a lot of different situations: success, adversity, failure. You see them in moments away from the job. You get a feel for the essence of that individual.” 

On the job training 

Lashlee described his first few weeks on the job as “drinking through three fire hoses.” That’s the plight of a first-year head coach, especially in the modern era. Coaches of the past didn’t need to worry as much about the current roster when hired in December or January. The first priorities were recruiting and building a staff. The transfer portal changed that dynamic. Job No. 1 for coaches nowadays is to recruit the current roster or risk heading into the spring with half the roster overturned. 

Lashlee knew this. He only spent one day on the recruiting trail leading up to the early signing period. Instead of focusing on future players, Lashlee spent his time with his current roster. He spent his first week meeting 1-on-1 with his current players, some of which he helped recruit to SMU in the first place. 

“Yeah, I need to go recruit. I need to hire coaches. I need to go talk to our supporters. There is a long list of things I need to be doing, but the most important thing is them,” Lashlee said about the players currently on the SMU roster. “It is their team because they are here. That must be my priority.”

Lashlee is now a head coach, but that doesn’t mean he’s done calling plays. He knows why he was hired, and his ability to call a game is one of the reasons he rose from GA to offensive coordinator to head coach. Lashlee plans on calling plays at SMU, at least early on. 

“I’m not the head coach and the coordinator. I’m the head coach and the play caller, and I think there is a difference there,” he explained. “My main job is to help us win, and if that is calling the plays, that is exactly what I’m going to do. How that looks long term I don’t know, but that is how it’ll start.”

Lashlee might not know exactly what the offensive duties will be in the future, but he knows exactly what type of identity he wants for his program. He wants SMU to be simple. To become "TDU," which stands for tough, disciplined, and united. Lashlee wants SMU to continue to embody the city of Dallas and represent the area by showcasing the top players from the city. He chose the job, in part, because Dallas is a hotbed of recruiting talent. 

“It doesn’t matter how good of a coach you are; you have to have the players,” Lashlee said. “Fortunately for me, Dallas is a place that we can recruit. I’ve been here and I know how we’re viewed. We have a great brand in Dallas.” 

SMU missed out on an opportunity to play in a bowl game when the Fenway Bowl was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns inside Virginia’s locker room. The Lashlee era officially begins Sept. 3 with a trip to North Texas. The Mustangs host TCU, and Dykes, on Sept. 24. No one is naïve to the drama surrounding the 101stBattle for the Iron Skillet, which currently sits in Lashlee’s new office.  

“I can’t speak to the times when we shared a conference, but I expect it will take us back to those days, and that will be good for one of the oldest rivalries in college football,” Hart said. “I expect that next year’s game will be a lot of fun. It’ll be a great atmosphere and I expect it to be competitive. We’re all looking forward to it.”

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