NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- About five years ago, Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee stood up in a meeting room and began frantically writing on a white board. Instead of drawing up zone reads, he scrawled out advertising goals. Instead of devising game plans, he scrawled out business plans.
Lashlee, 30, is the precocious offensive coordinator responsible in part for the Tigers' drastic improvement this season. Auburn boasts the nation's No. 1 rushing offense (it ranked No. 80 last season) and No. 11 total offense (No. 118 last year).
But just six years ago, he turned down a chance to go to Tulsa with Gus Malzahn, his longtime mentor, when Malzahn became the Golden Hurricane's offensive coordinator. Lashlee instead ran High School Sports The Magazine with his brother-in-law, even driving around his native Arkansas in a black Hummer adorned with the magazine's logo. The decision irked Malzahn, who first coached Lashlee as a seventh-grader.
"He thought I was crazy like everybody else," Lashlee said with a laugh. "And rightfully so."
Lashlee's nearly two years away from coaching offers insight into why he has become one of the country's most accomplished young assistants. He got married, built a house and ran a successful business. He also developed relationships with high school coaches around the state, landed meetings with Walmart and promoted his magazine at a high school game of the week. (High School Sports was later renamed Vype, a combination of varsity and hype.)
"It was almost like a coaching meeting when we had sales meetings," said Mike Capshaw, who ran the magazine's editorial side. "He'd be on the white board with the marker going at it. He was in his own element when he had that marker in his hand."
From an early age, Lashlee showed an aptitude for football. His stepfather, Phil Phillips, remembers him snaring passes with both hands when he was six. Jimmy Dykes, the athletic director at Shiloh Christian High, in Springdale, Ark., who hired Malzahn in 1996, recalls one play in which Lashlee, then a seventh-grader, threw an interception and then stripped the player who picked him off and ran for a touchdown. (Yes, it's that Jimmy Dykes, the affable ESPN announcer who played basketball at Arkansas.)
"He's got something about him that's different and special," Dykes said. "I just think that sums up who he has been his entire life. He always thought the game beyond his years."
Lashlee became the early face of Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense at Shiloh Christian, playing quarterback and setting a single-game national high school record for passing yards (672), as well as career marks for touchdown passes (171) and total touchdowns (200). Chris Wood coached Lashlee in junior high and again during Lashlee's senior year in 2001, when the team won a state championship. Wood says that the miracle play on which Auburn beat Georgia earlier this season was called "Little Rock" back at Shiloh, after the site of the state title game. No word if Malzahn has since changed the name to "Atlanta," or "Pasadena."
Lashlee went 40-3-2 as a starter for the Saints, but Wood was more impressed by the way Lashlee fought through a shoulder injury -- suffered in the second game of the season -- his senior year. The injury ultimately shortened Lashlee's college career as a preferred walk-on at Arkansas.
"What really stood out was that people were drawn to him and teammates were drawn to him," Wood said. "He raised the level of people around him."
Lashlee's love of teammates, camaraderie and the grind of football were the reasons so many were surprised when he elected to walk away from the game. After college, Lashlee returned to the sideline with Malzahn at Springdale for two years. In 2005, Mitch Mustain won National Player of the Year honors with Lashlee serving as an offensive assistant. In '06, after Arkansas hired Malzahn to be the offensive coordinator, Lashlee was an offensive graduate assistant. The Razorbacks won the SEC West and nearly upset Florida in the conference title game. But when Malzahn departed Fayetteville for Tulsa the next year, Lashlee stayed in Northwest Arkansas.
"I thought he was crazy because you don't get those opportunities to go to a Division I school very often," said Phillips. "He had one right there in his hands and turned it down. I figured Rhett [blew] his chance to get into college coaching."
As it turned out, Lashlee got to experience what he called "normal" life. He married his girlfriend, Lauren, and appreciated the chance to "develop our relationship as a newly married couple." (They now have twin boys, Thomas and Hudson.) He also relished running a company. The leadership aspects of his time at the head of College Sports The Magazine have carried over to the field, and the sales element now helps him with recruiting.
"It's a lot easier to want to sell a kid to come play college football in Auburn than to ask someone to put an ad in a magazine," Lashlee said.
Perhaps more importantly, the time that Lashlee spent away from football reinforced how much he missed coaching. When his schedule allowed it, he would volunteer as Wood's quarterbacks coach at Springdale's Har-Ber High. Still, he spent a lot of Friday nights promoting the magazine on the sideline at games.
Capshaw recalls Lashlee always having a ball in his hands, whispering potential play calls and defensive adjustments.
"He'd fake a handoff or run a bootleg out, just like he was playing quarterback," Capshaw said. "He was definitely a coach. He shouldn't have been running a magazine."
When Malzahn was hired as the Tiger's offensive coordinator after the 2008 campaign, he asked Lashlee to join him as a graduate assistant. This time, Lashlee couldn't say no. The rest, as they say, is current events. Lashlee spent two seasons under Malzahn on the Plains as a GA and worked at Samford for a year before joining Malzahn at Arkansas State.
When Malzahn came back to Auburn last December, Lashlee did, too. There was initially some skepticism surrounding the 29-year-old offensive coordinator. Malzahn serves as the lead play-caller, but Lashlee handles the meetings, game-planning and a lot of the nuances of the offense. Lashlee and Malzahn have been around each other for so many years that Tigers tight end C.J. Uzomah jokes they're like "an old married couple." Said Lashlee: "I don't know which one is the husband and which one is the wife." The couple has clicked; Malzahn said they call plays together and he leans on Lashlee for adjustments.
"We're talking a play ahead when the official puts the ball down," Malzahn said in a phone interview. "He deserves a lot of credit for what we're doing."
Malzahn and Lashlee think similarly, but they have very different personalities.
"Gus can be dry," Wood said. "If you ask him a question, he may not answer in more than two or three words." Lashlee? One childhood friend, Nick Floyd, said Lashlee's charisma reminds him of Kirk Herbstreit.
"[Lashlee and Malzahn] really complement each other," said Floyd, who played with Lashlee at Shiloh Christian. "It's why they get along and work together so well. Kind of like a marriage."
When the tandem's next separation happens, it will likely be when Lashlee leaves for to take over a team of his own. Given his offensive acumen and big-game experience, it shouldn't take long for him to take charge of his own Division I program.
"I'm not so sure he couldn't have been a head coach this year," Dykes said. "He thinks like Gus, knows how to work like Gus and he's got more personality. Of all the athletes I've been around the last 15 or 20 years, he's as much of a natural leader than I've ever been around."
Instead of running a magazine, Lashlee seems destined to keep appearing in them.