NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Rhett Lashlee tried to get away from coaching’s endless grind of film study, practice and recruiting trips. He really did.
No. 2 Auburn’s whiz kid of an offensive coordinator got out of the business after the 2006 season at Arkansas, getting married and running a high school sports magazine for a year and a half or so.
Lashlee turned down a chance to follow Gus Malzahn, now the Tigers’ head coach, to Tulsa in a decision that flummoxed his mentor and others.
“He wasn’t really happy with me,” the 30-year-old coordinator said Thursday. “He thought I was crazy like everybody else, and rightfully so.”
When Malzahn called again with an offer, Lashlee jumped back into coaching as an Auburn graduate assistant from 2009-10.
It doesn’t look like he’ll be leaving the business again anytime soon.
Malzahn and Lashlee have forged the nation’s top rushing offense and ridden it into Monday night’s BCS championship game against No. 1 Florida State.
Though they have different personalities, they’ve been around each other since Lashlee was a quarterback running Malzahn’s no-huddle offense as an eighth-grader in Springdale, Ark., before setting national records under him at Shiloh Christian High School.
Lashlee is affable and laid back and often sneaks out of the office either for a jog or to pick up a takeout lunch to break up the monotony of the marathon days. He even danced with the players in the locker room after the Alabama game.
Malzahn is studious, reserved and all football, for most of his 20 waking hours a day.
The combination seems to work awfully well despite the occasional marital discord during the heat of the moment.
“If you are on the field with us, looking over at the sidelines they are like a married couple fighting sometimes,” Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “I’m telling you, they are back and forth, ‘We need to do this, we need to do this.’ And coach Malzahn will say some stuff and it’s constant back and forth, and that meshes together perfectly.
“But it’s funny sometimes to be able to listen to them.”
They’ve been together a long time, with occasional amicable separations. Lashlee played for Malzahn at Shiloh Christian from 1999-2000 and the following year under Chris Wood, leading the team to an Arkansas-record 40 wins, three straight championship games and two titles. He set national prep records with 171 career touchdown passes, 200 total touchdowns and 672 passing yards in a game before going on to a backup role at Arkansas.
Lashlee left again to serve as Samford’s offensive coordinator for a season before following Malzahn to Arkansas State in that capacity in 2012.
Both are perfectionists, demanding players be lined up precisely at the right spot, not six inches off. Lashlee can serve as a buffer, too, for his intense boss.
“Coach Malzahn, any time something doesn’t work he takes it really personally,” Uzomah said. “Coach Lashlee will be like, ‘Coach, calm down, it didn’t happen on purpose. They didn’t mean to drop the ball or run the wrong play, it’s OK.’
“And coach Malzahn will freak out.”
Malzahn makes sure to often credit Lashlee for his work with quarterback Nick Marshall, who had to take a crash course in the offense during preseason camp.
Since Malzahn designed the offense and is what Lashlee describes as “the best playcaller in the country,” it leads to inevitable questions about their respective roles.
“People ask all the time, how do you call plays? How are you between drives?” Lashlee said. “I don’t know if it goes back to when I played for him in high school. It just works. We never sat down and laid out parameters for it. It just happens.
“Some games are more one way or the other. But we always know going in we’re on the same page of what we want to do, how we want to attack people.”
However it works, it does work.