Working for Potential Sam Pittman Successor Showed Next Step as Inevitable

SMU football
SMU Athletics

One of the skills I honed early on as a reporter was connecting dots – a gut instinct. Reading between the lines. What direction is a story going? What could happen? 

The more I talked with Rhett Lashlee, who was my boss at VYPE magazine at the time, the more his clipboard fate became abundantly clear. Soon after his graduation from the University of Arkansas, where he was a backup quarterback 2002-04, he became the market manager of the local edition of the national high school sports magazine based out of Tulsa, Okla. 

Lashlee turned down a chance to follow his high school coach Gus Malzahn to Tulsa, to which the polarizing coach had jumped after the fabled 2006 Hogs season which ended in controversy and his defection and the transfer of former Springdale High School QB Mitch Mustain. Lashlee was a graduate assistant on that staff working with the offense under Malzahn’s direction. The two had been clicking together since their days together at Shiloh Christian High School when Lashlee quarterbacked Malzahn’s offensive system to break virtually every state passing record.

When Lashlee’s prep career had finished, he had broken the national record for career touchdown passes (171), career touchdowns (200), most passing yards in a game (672) and was second with 13,201 passing yards.

Rhett Lashlee Had “It” Factor Coming from Arkansas Football

Lashlee initially used his Marketing and Business Administration degree from the UA to begin a career in the publishing business. There, he thrived. It didn’t take me long to discover that Lashlee had the ‘it’ factor. A talented football player and athlete and multi-sport Shiloh Christian under Malzahn, he had the intangibles and intelligence to be successful in whichever field he chose.

However, the more I visited with him, the more I knew the Springdale native had the itch to coach. Never was that more evident than during a late-night work session preparing our annual football preview. Each preview included some general information about each school including the defensive scheme the team ran. Casually, I asked what the ‘Eagle’ defense was.

Instead of just laying it out verbally for me, Lashlee took his response to the next level. He found the nearest dry-erase board that we had used to track our progress and erased it and furiously started scrawling Xs and Os, and not only explained the Eagle but how to combat it. It was a little more than I had bargained for at midnight with a publication deadline looming, but that chalk talk was a hint of the nascent teacher that raged inside him.

A few weeks later, over burritos at lunch, I asked him about coaching. He gave me the most coach speak answer ever: “I’m focused on the magazine.”

That was all I needed to know. I had heard those answers from sources before. Not long after, on a winter Sunday afternoon, Lashlee was calling to inform me he had taken a graduate assistant position with Malzahn at Auburn. He said the opportunity was too good to pass up. I agreed with him and told him I knew that was his destiny all along. He chuckled.

Since he took that job with Malzahn, he’s enjoyed a wild ride that has landed him, at 40, as the head coach at an up-and-coming SMU. 

Leading SMU Football into the Big-Time

He got his first OC job at FBS Samford for one season and then was with Malzahn and Arkansas State for a year, Auburn for four, UConn for one, SMU for two, Miami for two and then back in Dallas to lead the Mustangs in 2022.

He is 18-9 in two seasons and has two bowl bids to his credit. The Mustangs were 11-3 overall and 8-0 in the AAC last fall, SMU football’s best record in more than 40 years.

This season, Lashlee faces his biggest challenge as SMU moves into the ACC. They kick off competition in their new conference with a home game against perennial power Florida State. That will be one of the bigger home tilts in school history.

While the competition steps up, recruits have also taken notice of SMU’s new prestige. Lashlee already has a pledge from 2025 QB recruit Keelon Russell, a star at Dallas-area power Duncanville, the alma mater of Anthony Black and former Arkansas football LB Jordan Crook. Russell is ranked by some as the top recruit in Texas, a four-star prospect and also holds offers fom Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Baylor.

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“It’s very big, and that’s also one of the things that made me commit. When [former SMU assistant Jonathan Brewer] told me one day, he was like, ‘Hey man, we’re going to the ACC,’” Russell told On3.  “My eyes kind of opened up a lot more towards SMU. The biggest thing about me is I’m a competitive dude. I want to play against the best of the best. Every quarterback has a mistake. Even Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, don’t go have a 20-for-20 game.”

“If they did, that’s great for them, but I want to play best of the best. That’s what really pulled me to SMU. A lot of people saying, ‘Oh man, you’re not going to get no recognition at SMU.’ Now that we’re in this league, it brings starlight to SMU’s program.

“Just playing up under that spotlight, being QB1 for them, it means a lot. Just hoping this journey, like next year, and the year after that 2025 group, we can seal the legacy at this school, make something really happen. Like Rashee Rice, Eric Dickerson, we can make a legacy at the school for sure.”

Russell may be just one of many high-profile recruits that will flock to the Dallas school to play for Lashlee. When they see the success, the Mustangs have had in his two seasons along with the new affiliation, plus SMU alums are known for deep pockets. They may be the next big player in the NIL game if the Mustangs continue to win. Given the $100 million raised in just seven days to help with SMU’s transition to the ACC, it’s clear there is money to be spent. That’s a must if in this day to compete in the bidding war that is now college football.

Possible Sam Pittman Successor?

Just like he was when I asked him about a potential coaching career years ago, Lashlee wouldn’t want to talk about how bright his coaching future is. If SMU wins this year, you can bet his name will be mentioned with high-profile openings.

If Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman doesn’t win this year at Arkansas, Lashlee’s name will most likely appear in connection with an opening at his alma mater. It would be a natural fit with his connection to the school and the NWA area. There are some that probably would already have liked to see him there.

No matter what happens, he is in a good situation to have a long coaching career. Life is good. He has two sets of twins with his long-time wife, Lauren, and he’s used the lessons he’s learned as a Power 5 assistant to become a good head coach. His character and ability to relate to young people has only shone brighter as he has moved up the ranks.

Lashlee is a football coach, and a darn good one at that. Just as I predicted. 


In basketball, SMU’s hiring of Andy Enfield could set into motion a domino effect that leads to Eric Musselman’s departure. More on that here:

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Here’s a breakdown of Arkansas’ Saturday scrimmage:

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More on Arkansas football from BoAS:

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