Five years ago, Rhett Lashlee arrived at Samford as a 28-year-old with a limited résumé. On it, he listed two years as a high school coach, two years as the co-owner of a sports magazine, and a few more as a graduate assistant.
When he showed up in Birmingham, he had a new title — “offensive coordinator” — and a veteran staff to win over.
He also had “it.”
“I don’t know how else to say it,” linebackers coach Ross Newton told SEC Country this week. “I don’t really know what ‘it’ is. If I did, I would bottle it up. But he’s got ‘it.’”
The youngest coach on the staff quickly earned the respect of his players and colleagues by introducing a fast-paced spread attack and bumping Samford’s scoring offense from 100th in the nation to 43rd.
By the next offseason, he was off to Arkansas State to become an FBS coordinator before the age of 30. Few were surprised.
“What makes Rhett good is, he’s good at all of it,” Newton said. “There’s plenty of good X’s and O’s coaches. There’s plenty of coaches who are good people but don’t know X’s and O’s. Or just good recruiters, or whatever. But he’s all of it. He can relate to kids. He can coordinate the coaches. He can game plan. And, obviously, call the plays.”
In other words …
“He’s got ‘it.'”
When Gus Malzahn hired Rhett Lashlee as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in December 2012, he called Lashlee his “right-hand man.”
Their relationship is at the forefront of this season’s narrative — “Gus Malzahn can thank Rhett Lashlee for helping save his job,” one ESPN headline read last week — just as it was during the 2013 season when Auburn won the SEC and just as it was last year when the offense crumbled.
Malzahn and Lashlee have been nearly inseparable since the day Malzahn was hired as head coach at Shiloh Christian High School in 1996. Lashlee was a junior-high quarterback who eventually won a pair of state titles and set several national records. He took a scholarship offer from Arkansas and sat on the bench for a few seasons before following Malzahn to Springdale (Ark.) High School, and has spent the better part of this past decade under his prep coach’s wing.
But Lashlee, now 33, is not a carbon copy of his longtime mentor.
There’s a difference between the two that was apparent to at least one key player in Malzahn and Lashlee’s shared coaching past.
“Rhett is, in a lot of ways, the antithesis of Gus,” said Mitch Mustain, a former 5-star quarterback recruit from Springdale (Ark.) High School. He was a senior in 2005, when Lashlee joined Malzahn’s Springdale staff on a full-time basis.
Mustain remembers a yin-and-yang scenario, with Lashlee being the smooth antidote to Malzahn’s frenetic approach.
“He’s a calm force,” Mustain said. “Gus is very intense. In his high school days, (Gus) was very one-track minded. Very demanding in terms of performance and what exactly he wanted. Rhett was a great mediator. He’d been through the process with him years before I had. He was where I am now: removed from it.
“As a 16, 17-year-old kid, you’re trying to figure out a lot of things, much less what your mad-scientist football coach wanted from you. So Rhett, in a lot of ways, was a great arbiter in terms of stepping in and being able to provide feedback and a clearer picture of what Gus wanted.”
Springdale went 14-0 and won the 2005 5A state championship with Mustain leading Malzahn’s up-tempo spread offense. The Bulldogs defeated every opponent by at least four touchdowns.
“Sometimes, Gus would turn to Rhett and wonder what I was doing or what I was thinking out on the field if I made a mistake,” Mustain said. “You could see Rhett’s reaction. It’s the same as it is now, just, hands up, ‘I don’t know!’”
Springdale’s success — and the highly publicized recruitment of Mustain — helped Malzahn land the offensive coordinator gig at Arkansas in 2006, and Lashlee followed along to become a graduate assistant at his alma mater.
What followed was a season full of theatrics and reality-TV-worthy moments. (Brandon Marcello wrote an excellent recap of “the lost year” for AL.com). The bare bones: Mustain was benched and decided to transfer to Southern California, Malzahn left for the offensive coordinator job at Tulsa, and Lashlee briefly left coaching to run a prep sports magazine in Arkansas.
But the 23-year-old graduate assistant had made a strong impression on the players he worked with during his year with the Razorbacks.
“It was very uncommon for a guy like him to have that knowledge,” said Casey Dick, who battled for playing time behind center in ’06. “You could kind of tell when you looked at him that he was gonna be a good coach no matter what level he was at. Because he understood the small things. He understood the fundamentals. He could put things together and create the big picture, which is what you’re seeing now at Auburn … He had that moxie, that ‘it’ factor more than anything.”
It’s a theme that began early for Lashlee, who was raised by his mother, Judy Phillips, and stepfather, Phil Phillips, in a Christian household.
Ronnie Floyd, the senior pastor at Cross Church — the organization that founded Shiloh Christian — remembers Lashlee stopping by his home after school to hang out with Floyd’s sons, Josh (Malzahn’s first starting quarterback at Shiloh in ’96) and Nick (a running back in Lashlee’s class).
He also remembers the respect that upperclassmen had for Lashlee when he began starting games as sophomore.
“He’s always been a leader,” Floyd said. “That’s never been a question.”
Under Malzahn’s tutelage, Lashlee began putting together crazy box scores. In one come-from-behind victory, he racked up nearly 700 passing yards. Three-touchdown quarters were no surprise to anyone in the stands.
When Lashlee broke the national record for career passing touchdowns as a senior, he opened the game 10-for-10 and tossed his sixth score with three minutes remaining … in the first half.
“They’ve seen a lot of good football at the Field of Champions,” Shiloh’s play-by-play announcer proclaimed. “But I’ll tell you what: It doesn’t get any better than Rhett Lashlee.”
So, here we are 15 years later, and Lashlee is on the cusp of his first head coaching gig.
Those who worked with him more than a decade ago are not surprised he’s been courted by several schools over the past couple seasons — Tulsa and Louisiana-Monroe, to name a couple — and they expect him to potentially land a bigger gig if the Auburn offense keeps rolling this November.
“You look at what they’ve done over the last five or six games, and it’s been incredible,” Dick said. “They’re mixing things up. It looks a lot like what they did when Rhett first got to Auburn. They’re playing fast. They’re playing simple. They’re doing some things they haven’t done in awhile.”
His principles haven’t changed much. His demeanor hasn’t, either.
“What I see when I’m watching an Auburn game on TV … that’s Rhett,” Mustain said. “He’s very calm. He pulls guys over. He has a talk with them.”
Back in the Shiloh Christian community, they’re still paying close attention to their record-breaking quarterback (and the coach who’s been teaching him for 20 years).
“I think it’s unquestionable,” Floyd, the pastor, said. “In a matter of time, Rhett will be leading some major program in the country. I’m not sure when that will be, but whenever that happens, he will be very good at it. He’s been trained well.”
Most of the coaches from Lashlee’s 2011 season at Samford — his first as a coordinator — are gone, but Newton, the linebackers coach, is now in his 11th season with the Bulldogs.
When he talks with Lashlee, they skip football and instead discuss their children. Newton has two sons. Lashlee has twin sons and twin daughters. The Samford coach still remembers the example the Auburn coach set both on and off the field five years ago.
“He’s an outstanding person,” Newton said. “You don’t know me from Adam, but I don’t say that just to sound good in a soundbite. He’s a good person that cares about people and understands how to reach kids. He has an ability to coach ’em hard, but they always know he cares about ’em, so they’ll run through a wall for him.”