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Jeff Jacobs: Not The First Time New UConn OC Lashlee Has Folks Scratching Their Heads

Rhett Lashlee, who left Auburn as offensive coordinator for the same position at UConn, has been there before. He has left people wondering, what the heck is Rhett thinking?

It was early in 2007. Gus Malzahn, Lashlee's forever mentor, had just taken the job as Tulsa offensive coordinator under Todd Graham. Lashlee had been a graduate assistant at Arkansas, where he had played for Malzahn. He had a chance to be a GA coaching the Tulsa running backs.

"It was a no-brainer career move," Lashlee said. "I went over there with him for his press conference, worked for a day, driving back the two hours to Northwest Arkansas. Something within me said this just isn't right.

"I couldn't explain it to you. My dad thought I was crazy. Coach thought I was crazy. Everyone thought I was crazy. You don't walk away from an opportunity you may never get again. But I was getting married, and in my gut it just wasn't right, just didn't fit."

Instead, Lashlee partnered with his brother-in-law Monte Johnston to operate the West Arkansas branch of High School Sports The Magazine, later renamed Vype. Not yet 25, he learned about starting a company and running a publication on a daily basis. He had a half-dozen people working for him, all older. He learned how to walk into somebody's office and convince them to buy an ad for $1,600. He learned how to manage the editorial side, the design and distribution sides.

"For 22 months I was out of coaching and Coach Malzahn didn't talk to me for about six of them," Lashlee said. "It went against the grain, but so what? It was a great real-world experience for me to try to lead a group of people.

"Selling those ads is no different than recruiting. We had a lot of success, but it also was good for me to realize coaching is what I love. What I was meant to do. The first couple years of my marriage I wasn't in coaching. Coaching is tough on a marriage. When Coach asked me again to go to Auburn, my wife knew she was in at that point, knew what I needed to do. But had we started our marriage in this profession, who knows where we'd be? Family is first with me."

So here was Lashlee sitting in the luxury seating area early Wednesday night looking out at a snow-covered Rentschler Field, already itching to call plays for Randy Edsall. He's 33 now, not 23, but still young and still there's that question. Why leave Auburn of the SEC for the same position at UConn of the AAC? Why take a pay cut from $600,000 a year to $350,000 with some performance bonuses? What were you thinking?

"To the average person, yeah, it's not a common thing," Lashlee said. "I think you've got to be comfortable in your own skin to do what you think is best for you and your family at a particular point in time.

"Everything is not about money. Money can't make you happy. If you do this for money, you are doing it for the wrong reasons. I feel really good about the leadership with Coach Edsall and [athletic director] David Benedict. I believe in those guys.

"I am very grateful to Coach Malzahn. He has given me a lot of opportunities. We've had a really good run. But you get to a point in your career where you've kind of gone as far as you can go until you take another step. I knew for me to continue to advance as a coach, develop and grow, I was going to have to leave Auburn. It was time."

Lashlee inherits an offense that was last in the nation in scoring under Bob Diaco. It's also past time to change that.

"Big challenge," Lashlee said. "Great opportunity."

Landing Lashlee and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes from Auburn is a coup for UConn. The Huskies will run a no-huddle offense. After a couple of weeks, Lashlee joked, if you ask his team to get into a huddle, they won't know how to do it.

"We're going to play fast," he said. "We're going to try to dictate tempo best we can, play to the strengths we have until we can recruit to the level and get where we want.

"We believe in tempo. I think it's exciting for the guys to play. It's exciting for the fans. You get more plays if you're successful. We believe we can physically and mentally wear down an opponent a little bit, because they might not be used to it. A lot of times it will simplify the defense."

Lashlee believes in balanced offense, which is the exact term Edsall used when he was rehired in late December. Figure out what an offense can do best and play to it.

"Balance doesn't mean 50-50 distribution in terms of a number of passing and running plays," Lashlee said. "I believe balance is being able to take what the defense gives you. One game they may be defending the pass, so you run the football more. But you are able to do so. Next game they may be loading to stop the run, so you throw it more. But you are able to do so.

"You've got to be able to run to win championships. You've got to be able to throw to score."

A week after UConn lost to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, Lashlee recalled, Auburn beat Oregon for the BCS national championship at the same University of Phoenix Stadium. He knew UConn skidded badly after Edsall left. Lashlee had been in Connecticut once before, last year to recruit for Auburn.

"The American is a phenomenal conference," Lashlee said. "I know a lot of coaches in it, we run the same offense. Chad Morris at Houston is a really good friend. He took the offense to Clemson that just won the national title. We run the same offense [and use similar terminology]. Mike Norvell at Memphis, we come from that same tree."

After Malzahn was hired as OC at Auburn in 2009, Lashlee had accepted his offer to get back into coaching as a graduate assistant. He left Auburn in 2011 to become offensive coordinator at Samford. When Malzahn became coach at Arkansas State, Lashlee became his OC. When Malzhan returned to Auburn as head coach, he again named Lashlee his OC. By 2013, when Auburn returned to the national title game, Lashlee was a finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach.

Lashlee said Malzahn was great about him leaving. He said they had talked the last couple years about the possibility. He coached Lashlee in high school. To this day, he won't call him Gus. He calls him Coach.

"He is a great offensive coach, always has been, always will be," Lashlee said. "He is always going to be involved in the offense. Even though we're on the same page in a lot of areas, believe in a lot of the same things, I may have a different personality in the passing game, maybe with the tight ends."

Benedict impressed Lashlee during his two years as chief operating officer at Auburn. Lashlee did not know Edsall. Lashlee said he and Benedict had talked over the holidays. He called again after Edsall was named coach to see if he'd be interested in being the offensive coordinator.

"In one 45-minute phone call it was very obvious Coach Edsall knows what he's doing," Lashlee said. "The more we got into it, the more I felt it was right. It doesn't have to make sense to anyone else. I believe what we can do here can be special."

Lashlee wants to be a head coach some day. Of course, he does.

"Most coaches want to be a head coach," Lashlee said. "I'm not in a hurry. I'm fully invested in what Coach Edsall is building."

He says he knows the larger truth. If he doesn't do a good job here, the head coaching jobs he wants won't be there either.

Lashlee said he hasn't watched a UConn game from last year. Instead he watches clips of players to get a feel for what they do well. Spring ball will give him his answers.

"I don't care about last year," he said. "It doesn't help us moving forward."

He calls Grimes as good an offensive line coach as there in the country. There will be progress there. He runs through all the quarterbacking possibilities and settles on nothing, except "the best guy is going to play. It will probably [go] into fall camp until we figure it out.

"The biggest thing for us is between the ears, trying to get our guys to gain some confidence. That's half the battle. We don't have a lot of that right now, but we're going to get it."

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