On the college and professional coaching circuit, the word "protege" gets bandied about with reckless abandon.
Any successful coach who has ever worked under another, it seems, is called the protege of his current or former employer, as if the only requisite for being one is an awkward team photo and a job reference.
But really, the term means so much more. It connotes a deeper, vested, more personal stake between mentor and student. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the relationship requires both guidance and support.
So is the case between Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee—a duo whose bond exceeds mere tutelage. Lashlee has coached under Malzahn for seven of the last 10 seasons, but even that is just the tip of the iceberg.
He is, unlike many, both a lifetime student and a genuine protege.
As a teenager, Lashlee played quarterback for Malzahn at Shiloh Christian School in Springfield, Ark. Here he was first introduced to the tempo and principles of Malzahn's system, which he rode to a record-breaking high school career.
Per the National Federation of State High School Associations, Lashlee ranks top 10 all time in the following national passing categories:
|Stat||Total||National Rank||State Rank|
|Passing Yards (Career)||13,201||7th||2nd|
|Passing Yards (Game)||672||6th||1st|
Lashlee didn't just learn the system; he lived the system, embodied the system, became the system. It helped him earn a 3-star rating in the Rivals.com class of 2002, not far behind current NFL players like Drew Stanton and Matt Moore, along with former ones like Vince Young and Trent Edwards.
At the University of Arkansas, Lashlee backed up another future professional, albeit one who played receiver at the next level: Matt Jones. However, according to his official bio at Auburn, a shoulder injury cut his playing career short after the 2004 season.
But that wouldn't be the end of his story.
Undeterred from pursuing a career in the sport that he loved, Lashlee returned home to Springdale as a fresh-out-of-school 22-year-old, though he wouldn't graduate until 2006. He rejoined Malzahn's staff as an assistant and worked with future Razorbacks QB Mitch Mustain, who was still in high school at the time.
After a dominant 2005 season at Springfield, Malzahn piqued attention at the next level. He was invited to join Houston Nutt's staff as the co-offensive coordinator at Arkansas, and he took Lashlee back to his alma mater as a graduate assistant.
Then came the first schism in the duo's relationship. Malzahn left Arkansas to become the offensive coordinator at Tulsa, and naturally, Lashlee was invited. Saying no made little sense—to the outside eye—but to Lashlee, something felt off.
Per Joel Erickson of AL.com:
In the two or three days Malzahn gave him to make a decision, [Lashlee] couldn't get any peace.
"It made no sense, I knew it was crazy, Coach knew it was crazy, my dad knew it was crazy, my Mom knew it was crazy, everybody was like, what're you thinking," Lashlee said. "But it was just something, I was praying about it for a couple of days, and something wasn't right."
Lashlee turned his high school coach down.
Lashlee took a two-year sabbatical from coaching, using the break to spend more time with his new wife, Lauren. Today, they have a pair of young boys.
"We laid more of a foundation for our relationship, for our marriage," Lashlee said, per Erickson, of the time away from his trade. "I just trusted my gut."
His gut pulled him back into coaching a couple of years later, citing an emptiness after being away from the job. Malzahn had just been hired as the offensive coordinator at Auburn and lobbied to bring Lashlee on.
"He knows this offense inside and out," Malzahn said, per Erickson. "He responds to pressure very good...and been in pressure situations, and he's got the ability to stay calm and make wise decisions, especially for somebody his age."
Working as a graduate assistant from 2009 to 2010, Lashlee helped Malzahn guide the Tigers to a 14-0 season and BCS National Championship. Their quarterback, Cam Newton, won the Heisman Trophy in his first year after transferring from JUCO.
In this offense, that almost seemed par for the course.
In 2011, Lashlee broke free of Malzahn for the first and (to-date) only time in his career, accepting the offensive coordinator job at Samford. He helped improve the Bulldogs offense by implementing an up-tempo system, but he left when Malzahn accepted his first college head coaching gig at Arkansas State,
At the tender age of 29, Lashlee was running his very own FBS offense.
Tethered to his mentor's side, Lashlee rooted back in the SEC when Gene Chizik was fired and Malzahn was hired as the head coach at Auburn. Their sole season in Jonesboro, Ark., saw the Red Wolves go 10-3 and average 466 yards per game.
Then, of course, came the magical season of 2013, when Lashlee and Malzahn came back to the Plains and turned a 3-9 team into one that came within 60 seconds of another national title. Less than 10 years after the end of his playing career, Lashlee is one of the hottest young coordinators in football—be it college or pro.
He's the closest you can come to Malzahn.
Relationship With Gus
"It’s honestly like a married couple fighting sometimes."
That's how Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah describes the Lashlee-Malzahn relationship, according to Kevin Scarbinsky of AL.com. Their bickering, yin-and-yang dynamic plays out like a "Good Cop-Bad Cop" interrogation.
"Coach Malzahn will freak out," Uzomah said about how each handles mistakes on the field. "Coach Lashlee’s like...'We got you.'"
In the same piece, running back Tre Mason calls Lashlee "a younger Malzahn," which is a testament to how much time they've spent together. Lashlee met Gus when he was in seventh grade. He's only now 30 years old.
That's basically half of his life, and it's more than half of his sentience.
But Malzahn doesn't let Lashlee ride coattails. He doesn't just like having him around for comfort. According to the head coach himself, Lashlee is the one responsible for Auburn's chief—and often brilliant—game plans, per B/R's Barrett Sallee:
Malzahn: "He (OC Rhett Lashlee) does the majority of game planning and the work that goes along with it."— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) December 1, 2013
Malzahn has paved a future for Lashlee at the college ranks, and their combined success has expedited his time line. With another good season in 2014, he would likely generate some buzz for head coaching jobs. If Lane Kiffin can coach in the NFL at 31, Lashlee, at the same age, can at least head to the Sun Belt or C-USA.
In that regard, the reputation as "Malzahn Jr." might never go away. He won't have to whet his blade and ply his trade coaching high school for 15 years. Who's to say where Malzahn would be if he'd been discovered earlier?
So acquaint yourself with Rhett Lashlee: offensive guru; SEC champion; Broyles Award finalist; world's cutest dad. He's a coach with whom it's hard to find a fault. He's a reflection of his mentor.
He's Gus Malzahn's protege.