‘You can’t outwork’ new Falcons coach Arthur Smith

5 things to know about new Falcons coach Arthur Smith
5 things to know about new Falcons coach Arthur Smith

Arthur Smith was coaching before he realized it.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Smith spent his high school days boarding at Georgetown Prep in Bethesda, Maryland. He became a star offensive lineman on the varsity football team, in part because of a growth spurt and a ton of weight gained before his junior season.

More important, Smith spent his teenage years devising his own system to confuse defensive linemen and linebackers at the line of scrimmage. He did this without assistance from the Georgetown Prep coaches, quarterback or other skill position players. By the time he was in college at North Carolina, he was teaching this system to Division I teammates.

To those who know Smith best, it’s no surprise that he’s now the Falcons’ new coach. He actually left his first NFL job to escape his famous father’s shadow. He never wanted an easy path over the past 15 years of his coaching career.

“That’s the way Arthur is,” his father Fred Smith, the founder and CEO of FedEx, said. “He’s there in the building until 10, 11 o’clock at night. He gets up at 5:30. You can’t outwork Arthur.”

Plays within plays

About that system Arthur designed in high school: At Georgetown Prep, the blocking scheme involved offensive linemen calling signals to one another based on what the defensive front was showing. Arthur’s high school teammate and close friend John Tabacco, a sports-medicine physician who is on the NFLPA Mackey-White Health and Safety Committee, played left guard next to Arthur at left tackle.

During their sophomore year, Tabacco said Arthur noticed that teams would eventually pick up on certain signals, such as a letter of the Greek alphabet indicating when the left tackle needed to block down instead of up. When opposing teams figured out the call, they overloaded that side of the line to disrupt the play.

That’s when Arthur started to think about how he should counter.

“We would find ways where we would have to double a certain block,” Tabacco said. “I’d have him come down to take a block from me so I could target a linebacker. We didn’t want people to pick up our code words. We noticed people would get the gist of what we were going for. He said, ‘Let’s come up with a different set of code words to distract opposing linemen.’ We had a whole nomenclature of calls and fake calls so that we could talk in complete covert discussions on the offensive line.”

The go-to code words were Marvel superhero characters, taken from Arthur’s older brother Richard Smith’s affinity for the comic-book franchise. And as this system developed over two years, it worked to near perfection during Arthur’s senior season.

The unbeaten Little Hoyas in 2000 won their first conference title in four years, with Arthur earning a first-team All-Met honor from The Washington Post. Little did anyone know at the time, but he was orchestrating many of the left side of the line’s calls.

“He’d say ‘Wolverine’ or ‘Cyclops’ and then go crush two guys straight ahead of him,” Tabacco said. “We’d be dying laughing because people would think we were doing one thing, but we were doing another.”

Arthur actually took this idea to North Carolina, where he earned and accepted a scholarship to continue his football pursuits. And at this highest level of Division I football, such a concept was unheard of to his new teammates. Tabacco remembered conversations from those days when Arthur told him the Tar Heels’ offensive line implemented what they did at Georgetown Prep.

“Many years later, we’ll still laugh about how he was a sophomore or junior year of college and there weren’t people doing what we were doing in high school,” Tabacco said.

Seeking a competitive edge in football was present from the moment he showed up at Georgetown Prep. Arthur fell in love with football at the age of 9. He would dress in his full uniform and helmet before waking his parents two hours before kickoff on game days to ensure they arrived on time. As Arthur approached high school, Fred was doing a lot of business in the Washington area. The FedEx head of government affairs at the time suggested that Fred and his wife, Diane, send Arthur to Georgetown Prep, a private and prestigious Jesuit school where Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh once attended.

It also allowed the Smiths a do-over with Arthur, who Fred admits was put into a school a year too early. Fred said his son’s May 27 birthdate inadvertently put him in classes with children nearly a year older than him. After completing the ninth grade in Memphis, Arthur enrolled at Georgetown Prep for four years.

It didn’t take long for Georgetown Prep football coach Dan Paro to realize Arthur had a special player enrolling. It wasn’t because of his size or athletic ability, since he didn’t become a 6-foot-4 and 275-pound tackle until midway through high school.

It was his understanding of the game that set him apart.

“It’s always been his passion,” Paro said. “He used to come by the office and ask questions. He loved football. He had the access to meet a lot of people. He knew the history of football, he studied it. He had questions. He was always very inquisitive.”

Arthur spent his first year on the freshman team before making the varsity squad as a sophomore. Tabacco also made the varsity squad, which was a thrill for him. For Arthur, it was a different story.

Although he knew every play in the playbook, Arthur was forced to wait his turn as a starter. For as competitive as he was, and still is, that was a tough thing to deal with in the moment.

“He was an ultimate teammate, he supported the older kids on the team, so he stomached it,” Tabacco said. “But I swear, the look of pain on his face when he wasn’t playing, you just knew he wanted to be out there leading. You come from a military household like the Smiths, to be a good leader sometimes you have to learn to follow.”

Paro said that sophomore season turned Arthur into the ultimate practice player. As his frame filled out before his junior year of high school, he began to look the part of a starting left tackle.

He also started to practice as if each rep was part of an actual game. Sometimes this meant Paro had to use his whistle more than previously to ensure Arthur didn’t hurt anyone.

“There were times he’s mauling people,” Paro said. “He was just intense, and that intensity spread to the team. There were times I had to blow the whistle early just to keep the guys off of each other, in a good way -- actually in a great way.

“When you have someone who’s great like that and really understands it, he does it the right way and everyone else sees how much fun it is. And everyone sees to follow. All of a sudden you have this culture, and all of a sudden you’re 10-0. You look back and you go, oh, that’s probably why.”

A ‘Ph.D. in football’

As a redshirt freshman at North Carolina in 2002, Arthur appeared in the second game of the season against Syracuse. The following week he broke his navicular bone in practice, which put him out for what was expected to be an extended period of time. An initial surgery didn’t fix the problem, however, and he was forced to undergo a second surgery performed by Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte, North Carolina. This time, the surgery worked.

In the process, Arthur missed nearly two years of football. During this time, he took a backseat and observed his coaches perform their profession.

“The reality is when he was sitting out that year and a half, it actually worked to his betterment because he got a Ph.D. in football,” Fred said. “He sat there and watched (former North Carolina coach John) Bunting and Frank Cignetti, a good guy and offensive coordinator. It was at that point that Arthur decided to become a coach.”

Only one thing nearly kept him from becoming a football coach immediately after graduating. Arthur applied to join the Marine Corps, to follow in his father’s footsteps. Fred was in the Marines from 1966-70. Obsessed with leadership, Arthur’s reason for wanting to become a Marine was to learn how to improve this area about himself.

However, the three pins inserted into his foot denied Arthur’s entry into the Marine Corps. Also, Arthur recently had met Allison Sossaman, whom he would marry. Taking everything into consideration, Arthur followed his first passion and dove head first into being a football coach.

And as a coach, it didn’t take long to discover he had an eye for talent during his lone year as a graduate assistant with North Carolina.

In the spring of 2006, the Tar Heels secured a commitment from four-star quarterback Mike Paulus. But during a recruiting camp later that summer on North Carolina’s campus, Arthur phoned his father the night after he witnessed a 5-foot-11 two-star quarterback excel on the practice field. Fred recalled Arthur being awestruck by the performance, with he and Cignetti holding out hope that North Carolina could extend a scholarship offer his way.

But with Paulus already in the fold for the class of 2007, Bunting was unable to do so.

That quarterback, Russell Wilson, would end up at North Carolina State and start as a freshman.

“Arthur has always been so objective and analytical about players,” Fred said.

After a year as a graduate assistant at North Carolina, Arthur took a quality-control position with the Washington Football Team in 2007 and 2008. After a year off in 2009, Arthur joined Mississippi’s staff as a graduate assistant in 2010. A year later in 2011, he landed a quality-control position with the Tennessee Titans, which would be the catalyst for the rest of his career.

From there, he was hired and retained by four Titans head coaches -- Mike Munchak, Ken Whisenhunt, Mike Mularkey and Mike Vrabel. As his career advanced, Fred said Arthur preferred coaching at the professional level since the talent level is mostly even across the board.

“He just loves the chess match-type games in the NFL versus the perpetuation of dynasties in the college game,” Fred said. “As the famous movie says, ‘Any Given Sunday.’ He just loves the mental exercise of scouting yourself, scouting the other team, having to deal with the various vagaries of the game.”

His own path

When Arthur arrived at Georgetown Prep, Paro described him as mild-mannered and understated. His new classmates, most of whom came from affluent families of their own, had no idea who Arthur’s father, who has an estimated net worth of $5.7 billion, was when they first met him.

Then one day after practice during his freshman year, Arthur invited some of his new friends to his house in Memphis. As Tabacco remembered, how in the world could he arrange that on short notice?

“He said, ‘I’m sure we can get a ride with my dad,’” Tabacco said.

By a ride, he meant a flight on a private plane since Fred was in town for business.

Fred is aware of the perception some may have of Arthur, considering he is the son of a billionaire. In some respects, Fred believes it forced Arthur to work even harder to overcome certain assumptions people in the profession may have had about him.

From what Paro recalled, Arthur never was one to bring up his upbringing.

“Everyone knew what his background was, but you never knew it,” he said.

Early in his career, Arthur didn’t want the appearance that he was advancing as a coach thanks to his father’s influence. He left Washington after the 2008 season to get away from the fact that his father held a minority stake in the franchise and that he was hired by former Washington coach Joe Gibbs, whose NASCAR racing team was sponsored by FedEx. If Arthur was going to make it on his own, he wanted a year away to build connections on his own.

During this sort-of-sabbatical, he met Houston Nutt, then the coach at Ole Miss. When a staffer became ill, Nutt gave Arthur a graduate-assistant opportunity for the 2010 season.

At his introductory news conference with the Falcons, Arthur joked that perhaps his background helped him because it lowered expectations people may have had for him. Regardless, Arthur, over the past 15 years, proved he was worth hiring to become the 18th coach in Falcons franchise history.

“He didn’t want the easy way. He wanted it his way,” Paro said. “He understood the gifts and tools provided for him, but he knew hard work was the only way he could get there. And understanding how to treat people. It’s amazing what happens if you work your butt off, you treat people the right way and you have a little bit of faith. It’s amazing what happens.”

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