It’s not often that a head coach leaves a job for their local rival. In particular, it’s not common to do so when you’re running the more successful program already. It’s even more surprising when that coach does so, despite having a massive extension in front of them. However, that’s exactly what Sonny Dykes did when he turned down more than $4 million a year at SMU to go to TCU for “significantly more money.”
Another strange thing about this situation for SMU was that they had already targeted their next coaching candidate in what was a very clean (at least publicly clean) coaching search. In fact, SMU even announced its next head coach before TCU announced they had hired Sonny Dykes.
That head coach will be Rhett Lashlee.
Background on Rhett Lashlee
Rhett Lashlee is an Arkansas native, and that’s where he got his start in college football, playing for the Razorbacks in the early 2000s. After that, he immediately got into coaching at Springfield High School in Arkansas. That’s important to remember, because the head coach of Springfield High School at that time was Gus Malzahn.
After the 2005 season, Malzahn left the high school for the college game. Lashlee went with him, becoming a grad assistant at Arkansas, where Malzahn was then the wide receivers coach. He’d separate from Malzahn after that season, though, going back to the high school ranks briefly, before popping back up to college to be a grad assistant at Auburn in 2009. That’s the same year Malzahn took over as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator. Once Malzahn got the Arkansas State job, he brought Lashlee in as offensive coordinator and the two worked together until 2017. During that time, Lashlee was a Broyles finalist.
After leaving Auburn, Lashlee went to UConn and then SMU. This gives him experience at the Dallas-based program, helping him to come in understanding their culture and recruiting territory. He would leave for a more prestigious Miami job after two seasons where he helped turn around the SMU offense.
How This Hire Could Work
The transition under head coach Rhett Lashlee should be fairly seamless. He was coaching at SMU as recently as 2019, and he’s an offensive mind to help carry the team’s identity forward. This means that he should continue their current offensive success, without having to rebuild any recruiting relationships.
Of course, SMU is already great offensively. They’re trying to take a step forward overall, though, which means finding a way to improve their defense. That’s why it’s so important that his biggest mentor is Gus Malzahn. Malzahn is an offensive mind who wrote the book (literally) on the spread offense. However, he emphasizes the entire team, including the defense. If Lashlee can do the same, then he is in a position to thrive in Dallas.
Why This Hire Might Not Work
The first knock on Rhett Lashlee is that he has no head coaching experience at all. Hiring a first-time head coach is always a roll of the dice, unfortunately. You don’t know if they’re capable of making strong hires, how they handle stress, or if they’ll have an effective plan to succeed. It’s, ultimately, guesswork. That could bite SMU if Lashlee isn’t ready.
You also have to wonder if the Lashlee era will just be more of the same as the Sonny Dykes era. That might not sound like a bad thing, but Dykes couldn’t get over the hump through his entire to at SMU. He was, ultimately a big game loser. If Lashlee is being hired to an easy transition and because he fits the mold, then isn’t that part of the mold?
Final Thoughts on Rhett Lashlee to SMU
Ultimately, most people are going to agree that Rhett Lashlee is the most sensible hire for SMU. It’s probably the safest hire too. He should, at least at a glance, succeed and keep SMU at the top of the AAC. However, this is all guesswork until he proves it on the field.