DALLAS — A new era has begun at SMU as Rhett Lashlee embarks on his first season as a head coach in college football.
"I'm just trying to walk in what I'm called to do," Lashlee said. "Yes, I've always wanted to be a head coach."
It's a reunion of sorts for Lashlee, who spent the 2018 and 2019 seasons as offensive coordinator for the Mustangs. Some of the players on that 2019 team, like now-starting receiver Rashee Rice, are still on the roster.
"Nothing is better than when a kid leaves here, like a James Proche," Lashlee said. "And every time they come back, they give you a hug and tell you they love ya."
Lashlee is a native of Springdale, Ark. and one of the most prolific high school quarterbacks in Arkansas history.
Under head coach Guz Malzahn, Lashlee led Shiloh Christian School to three state title appearances including two championships.
"I loved nothing more than playing the game and competing with my guys," Lashlee explained. "I don't get to do that anymore because I'm not good enough and I am too old. We're guys. We're just big kids anyway. To still do it and get to help other guys live that dream. Be a part of it. There's nothing better."
After playing college football at Arkansas, Lashlee joined Malzahn's staff at Springdale High School as quarterbacks coach.
Over the next 18 years, Lashlee coached at eight different schools including six stints as an offensive coordinator. He was the offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2013 when the Tigers lost in the national championship game to Florida State.
Lashlee has now ascended to the role of college head coach -- one of a current handful to do so before age 40.
"Having two sets of twins and college football, I don't feel young at all," Lashlee joked.
After two years at the University of Miami, Lashlee is back on the Hilltop -- and back on the bump. He threw out the first pitch at a Rangers game this summer.
President George W. Bush, a noted SMU and Rangers fan, would approve.
"I sure watched [Bush's] video from 9/11 when he threw a strike," Lashlee said. "You talk about a pressure moment... They flip you the ball and last thing they say is, 'Hey, just don't bounce it.'"
Bounce is what the previous SMU football coach did.
Sonny Dykes left Dallas for Fort Worth to take a (bigger) job as head coach at TCU.
However, the news of Dykes taking the job at SMU's rival school got out before he coached his final game at SMU last season, which made for some awkward final weeks in Dallas for Dykes and the Pony fans.
"I have so much respect for Sonny," Lashlee said. "He hired me [as offensive coordinator at SMU]. If he hadn't done that, I probably wouldn't be the head coach here now. Our program is in a better place than when he got here."
Lashlee and Dykes, along with their wives, are still friendly and on good terms.
"We don't talk as much now because we are 'rivals' but even before I got the job, I feel like [Dykes] fully supported me getting it. We have a lot of respect for each other. We're both gonna want to beat each other bad that day."
That day? Sept. 24.
Sonny Dykes and TCU make the trip to Dallas to face SMU in what will be a sizzling Battle for the Iron Skillet.
"It's not about Sonny and it's not about me, it's about the guys playing," Lashlee asserted. "Yeah, we're gonna have to manage our emotions. We gotta play passionate, not emotional. And that's what's awesome about college football. Everybody's anticipating it. But we've got three games before that, they've got two, and a whole lot after. But that's going to be a big day."
Lashlee makes his college head coaching debut when SMU visits North Texas on Saturday, Sept. 3.