Sonny Dykes and Rhett Lashlee first crossed paths on the recruiting trail in 2015. Sonny, then the head coach at Cal, and Rhett, the offensive coordinator at Auburn at the time, were at McEachern High School in Atlanta to recruit quarterback Bailey Hockman. Dykes and Lashlee chatted on the sidelines during the game, and then went their separate ways.
Lashlee knew the Dykes name prior to the chance encounter. Lashlee grew up in northwest Arkansas, smack dab in Southwest Conference country. Sonny’s dad, Spike, was a living legend in Lubbock coaching the Texas Tech Red Raiders during Lashlee’s formative years.
The two would reconnect in December 2017 after Dykes was hired as head coach of SMU. Lashlee by then had left the Gus Malzahn nest and struck out on his own as offensive coordinator at UConn. Dykes liked the offensive philosophy of Lashlee, noting that there were similarities in Lashlee’s passing game – mesh, verticals, smash, cross – to his own Air-Raid roots.
Dykes had also grown past some of those Air-Raid tendencies. Trials and tribulations at La Tech and Cal taught him the lesson that running the football was important. He’d later joke that he was kicked out of the Air-Raid club for running the ball too much. Dykes saw Lashlee as the perfect blend of Air-Raid passing roots mixed with Malzahn’s rushing concepts.
Lashlee was back home in northwest Arkansas a few days after Christmas when his agents called and told him that Dykes wanted to interview him for the SMU offensive coordinator job. Dykes was at his house in Horseshoe Bay outside of Austin, so SMU sent a private jet out to Arkansas to pick of Lashlee. The two ate lunch for an hour and half.
“He told me about his time at La Tech and Cal, and how he was happy to be back in Texas,” Lashlee recalled. “A few days later he offered me the job.”
Being the offensive coordinator for a head coach who was also once an offensive coordinator can prove challenging. Lashlee experienced that under the direction of Malzahn at stops at Arkansas State and Auburn. He struck out on his own at UConn, working for a defensive coach in Randy Edsall during his one season with the Huskies. Lashlee didn’t mind the pressure of performing for an offensive-minded head coach if he was allowed autonomy. Dykes obliged.
“I didn’t run the Air-Raid, and he didn’t hire me to run the Air-Raid,” Lashlee said. “In the two years I worked for him, he never once interfered with what we were doing offensively, even in the first year when we weren’t as good as we hoped to be.”
The 2018 season started shaky. The Mustangs lost three straight games to begin Dykes’ tenure. The offense averaged 18.3 points a game during that span in losses to North Texas, TCU, and Michigan. SMU finished 5-7 in 2018 with an offense that averaged 30.42 points per game. The Mustangs averaged 3.5 yards a rush and 271.67 passing yards per game.
Those numbers increased in 2019. SMU won 10 games for the first time since 1984. The Mustangs were ranked as high as 15th in the AP Poll during the season, which was the highest since 1983. The offense – now engineered by quarterback Shane Buechele – was the catalyst for success. Lashlee’s offense averaged 41.85 points per game. The rushing attack averaged 4.4 yards a carry and the group threw for 309 passing yards per game.
“Those were two of the better years of my coaching career because he let us evolve and figure it out on our own,” Lashlee said. “I was no longer running Gus’ offense. It had a little bit of everything in it and Sonny backed us every step of the way.”
Lashlee left for the same job at Miami following the 2019 season. Dykes and Lashlee remained close. With the Texas Tech and TCU job open by mid-October in 2021, Dykes’ name surfaced as a candidate. SMU was left out of conference realignment and the existing playoff structure made a path to national success hard in the American Athletic Conference, though recent expansion opened new paths. Dykes, who watched his father coach at Texas Tech in the early days of the Big 12, wanted to follow in those footsteps.
“For me, the chance to coach in the Big 12 was one thing I had a hard time getting over,” Dykes told me back when he accepted the TCU job. “I have a lot of respect for the league, and I’ve always wanted to coach in the league.”
Dykes’ departure created an opening at SMU, and he knew the person to continue his four-year run of success at SMU. A four-year run that was the best in school history since the Death Penalty was handed out in the mid-80’s. So, Dykes did exactly what he did on his way out the door at SMU as he did on his way in: Call Lashlee with an opportunity.
“We talked two or three times, and he was like, ‘If I’m not here, would you want this job?’. And of course, I did,” Lashlee said. “He said, ‘If I’m not here, I’d like to help you try to get it.’”
Lashlee was considered the in-house hire despite his one-year work vacation to Miami. Now rivals on the field once a year and on the recruiting trail for 365 days, the two still talk regularly. Boos will rain down on Dykes when he wears purple into Ford Stadium on Saturday when his TCU program visits SMU for the first Battle of the Iron Skillet between the two friends. Both know that a rivalry is good for college football in the DFW area. The two also know that the game is bigger than either of them.
“A lot will be made of it, but when the game kicks off, it is about SMU and TCU – not Sonny and Rhett,” Lashlee said. “That’s just the truth.”
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