Rhett Lashlee didn’t have to answer the question. I already knew his answer from the look on his face. I asked him, “Do you want to coach college football?”
He quit eating his burrito and looked at me with a serious expression and paused. Then said, “I’m focused on the magazine right now.” Translation — “Yes.”
This was 2009, and the magazine was VYPE High School Sports the Magazine. Rhett served as the market director and hired me as Central Arkansas editor. The way he talked about football and his former high school coach Gus Malzahn, I knew VYPE was a temporary gig. He knew it, too, but tried not to show it.
However, after interviewing hundreds of subjects, I read his reaction like a book. His expression gave it away. The thought of coaching college football excited him. He got a taste of it as a graduate assistant at Arkansas under Malzahn during the 2006 season when the former high school coach kind of ran the Hogs offense for a season. Malzhahn wanted Lashlee to follow him to Tulsa, but Lashlee and his new wife, Lauren, wanted to stay in their native Northwest Arkansas. Then, the High School Sports the Magazine (Later named VYPE) opportunity arose.
It was a year later I got a call on a Sunday afternoon from Rhett. He told me he was taking a GA job at Auburn to work under Malzahn. I wasn’t surprised. Since then, he’s been the offensive coordinator at Samford, Arkansas State and now Auburn.
I’m not surprised by his rapid promotion, either. He told me on that day in January that Malzahn promised him if he took the GA job, he could move with him. He got his first coordinator job under former Auburn Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan at FCS Samford and gained some experience as a full-timer. As Rhett finished his first year there, Malzahn accepted the ASU head-coaching job. Rhett is one of the few who has played and coached in Malzahn’s complex offense, so it was an easy decision to bring him to Jonesboro. It also helped he had a year’s experience on his own.
After the Red Wolves torched the Sun Belt Conference, Auburn brought Malzahn, and Lashlee with with him, back to ‘The Plains.’
Suddenly at 30, he was one of the younger coordinators at a BCS program. Just a few years ago, we were pulling an allnighter publishing a high school football preview magazine, and now he’s making calls helping Auburn win at Texas A&M.
Saturday he’ll coach his first game at Razorback Stadium as a visitor. I know it will be a strange feeling. Rhett grew up in Northwest Arkansas and played briefly at the U of A and graduated from there. At one point, he probably envisioned himself as a full-time coach on the Hogs’ staff. That won’t be on his mind Saturday. Like his boss, he’ll be locked in on moving the Tigers’ win streak to five games.
Chances are if he hadn’t taken Malzahn up on his offer he’d be involved in business, publishing or otherwise, in Northwest Arkansas. Lashlee is intelligent and savvy enough to be successful in most any field.
However, I think he made the right choice. It was apparent, even that day at lunch, that coaching is his passion.