Dec. 10, 2013
Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee speaks at Broyles Award luncheon on Tuesday in Little Rock (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – For Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, the climb has happened with dizzying speed. At the age of 30, just three years removed from being a graduate assistant, was one of five finalists Tuesday for the Frank Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s top assistant coach.
In 27 days, he’ll be on the field at the Rose Bowl as No. 2 Auburn plays No. 1 Florida State in the BCS Championship Game.
For Lashlee, the Broyles Award luncheon Tuesday had even more meaning. He’s an Arkansas guy. He became a great quarterback when he played for Gus Malzahn at Shiloh Christian High School in Springdale. And that started a journey that, with a two-year interruption, took him to Arkansas and Auburn as a graduate assistant for Malzahn the offensive coordinator, to Samford as offensive coordinator for Pat Sullivan and back to Auburn as offensive coordinator for Malzahn the head coach.
Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi won the 2013 Broyles Award, but that didn’t reduce Lashlee’s appreciation for being in the final five. Broyles, the legendary Arkansas head coach and athletics director, was there as Lashlee stood to talk to the packed house.
"I grew up knowing who Frank Broyles was,” Lashlee said, nodding in Broyles’ direction. “It is an honor to even have my name associated with you."
Lashlee rode the wave of Auburn’s turnaround season to little Rock. The Tigers, 3-9 a year ago, are 12-1 and a win away from writing the ultimate success story and winning the national championship. They beat No. 1 Alabama 33-28 to earn the right to play in the SEC Championship Game, where they rolled over Missouri 59-42.
With Malzahn as offensive coordinator and Lashlee as his graduate assistant and right-hand man, Auburn beat South Carolina 56-17 in the SEC Championship Game en route to the 2010 national championship. That was, at the time, the record for the most point scored in the game. It lasted until last Saturday, when Malzahn and Lashlee returned.
“It’s a great credit to the players on both of those teams,” Lashlee said. “To beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl and be able to refocus that next week and go play against a really good opponent to win a championship says a lot about those two teams.”
But 115 points in two championship games?
“I don’t know,” Lashlee said with a grin. “We like playing in the dome. Our fans always show up.”
The Auburn offense that rushed for 545 yards against Missouri, 297 against Alabama and 326 against Georgia wasn’t there as Malzahn’s first season as head coach unfolded. The Tigers struggled but beat Washington State 31-24. They beat Arkansas State 38-9, then beat Mississippi State 24-20 when junior college transfer quarterback Nick Marshall led a 88-yard drive that started with 1:58 left and no timeouts.
“We weren’t very good at the beginning of the year, but we found a way to win the first three, and the way we won the third one,” Lashlee said. “Then we lost to LSU and had two weeks to regroup. That’s when we figured out what we were going to be with the personnel and the players and where we needed to go.”
It wasn’t long before Auburn football was big again around the country. And Auburn’s offense was biggest of all.
“We got a little better each week,” Lashlee said. “We kept peaking at the right time. We had some things go our way and our guys played with a lot of confidence and played together.”
Tre Mason was off and running on a surge that would take him all the way to New York City. But Marshall is the man who has driven it all.
“The strides he’s made from the first game when he dropped the first snap to the championship game are a great tribute to him and his work ethic and his ability to be coachable,” Lashlee said.
Even before Auburn had the look of a championship contender and before he had fully grasped the offense, Marshall refused to be rattled.
“Nick sets that tone,” Lashlee said. “That’s what we saw when we had them go live that day (in preseason camp). He’s just so level-headed, but he is a fierce competitor. He’s level-headed, but he wants to win. He’s the first guy if somebody needs to get going he’ll let them know. He responded well from that fumble just like he has all year and like our team did.”
Auburn’s veteran players, Lashlee said, recognized Marshall as a winner and a leader from the very start.
“They believed in him from Day 1,” Lashlee said, “even before he was making plays. I think it is unique. It probably has something to do with being a little more mature. He’s a little older. I can’t explain it. A guy shows up and is still learning the offense, but still our guys believed he was the guy.”
For Lashlee, for the players and for Auburn, the biggest step of all remains. On the night of Dec. 6, in the hallowed Rose Bowl, they’ll play for a second national championship in four seasons. Meanwhile, coaches are focused on recruiting and will be until next week’s dead period arrives. They are bearers of good news.
“People told us before the season ‘we just want to see how y’all are going to do,” Lashlee said. “Probably when we beat Texas A&M is when guys started opening their eyes and saying ‘these guys really are changing things. It really is a new day.’”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: