Arthur Smith brings unique wealth of experience to Falcons coaching job

New Falcons head coach Arthur Smith gets down in the trenches with his old team, the Tennessee Titans, back in 2018. (James Kenney/AP)
New Falcons head coach Arthur Smith gets down in the trenches with his old team, the Tennessee Titans, back in 2018. (James Kenney/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

There is nothing quite so dependably inspiring in sports as a good rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger tale. We can’t get enough of the kid who escapes poverty. Who makes it big on the playing field where, more than anywhere else in his world, performance outranks privilege. And who changes the course of an entire family history for the better.

Getting to know the Falcons’ new coach means playing that old standby in reverse. And that fascinates as well because it is rarer by far.

Arthur Smith’s up-from-everything story has brought him to Atlanta, where a great challenge awaits. As the son of FedEx founder Fred Smith, he could have been almost anything he wanted to be, you figure. And here he is fiddling with the Falcons, hardly an industry leader in the NFC South, soon to be toiling on a hot practice field and holding long conversations about zone blocking schemes.

There is something about these Smiths that makes them seek their own way. Call it wise parenting, perhaps, for they have more Wikipedia entries than the Kardashians. The main difference being that the Smiths actually accomplish stuff.

There’s father Fred, the highly decorated Marine captain and bold risk-taker who legend has it once helped keep his fledgling air-ground delivery business going with a desperate blackjack run in Vegas. There’s Arthur, one of 10 Smith children, who kept taking low-paid grunt-work positions in college and the NFL, paying dues, proving that he was no football dilettante. There was late sister Windland, a noted nature photographer. And sister Molly, a film producer.

When asked about his father Tuesday during the get-to-know-him virtual news conference, Smith employed a line that he must have used at every stop from North Carolina grad assistant to Washington Redskins defensive quality control coach to Ole Miss intern to myriad jobs with the Tennessee Titans over nine seasons to Flowery Branch.

“I’ve never mistaken his success for my success,” he said.

In some way, Smith’s background could have worked against him in his profession of choice. There would be the built-in disbelief that anyone with his advantages would really take the hard road of proving himself in football. Why bother when surely something easier and more lucrative had to be readily at hand?

He’ll joke of his back story, “It some ways it might have helped, maybe it lowered expectations, I don’t know.”

But then admit that fighting the assumption that he was just dabbling in the game, “made me want to prove them wrong, maybe gave me a chip on my shoulder.”

“That’s what I love about football: There are results. That’s what attracted me to this game,” Smith said.

I just assumed all billionaires knew each other, that they held quarterly meetings in the Alps to determine interest rates, gas prices and the general fate of mankind. But Arthur Blank, the Falcons owner, said he never met Fred Smith. Still, he just knows in his heart that Fred must also have passed down a wealth of advice to his son that will serve him well when leading the Falcons.

“I had great parents,” Arthur Smith said Tuesday. “Both my mom and dad instilled great values in us about hard work and compassion. I didn’t realize as a little kid who my dad was. I certainly don’t think I’m special. He doesn’t think he’s special.

“Like every resource we have here in Atlanta I’ll use them all. My dad, as we’ve gotten older, has provided great lessons in management, leadership, strategy. He’s been a great father, a father I want to be to my kids as well.”

The billionaire’s son can hold great passion for a silly game, too. He can devote a life to building a better team – isn’t that what any good executive must do?

On Tuesday, Smith offered no specifics about how he would transform the Falcons, how much longer he’d ride Matt Ryan or when this team would sniff the postseason again. He didn’t get this far by being chatty.

But the billionaire’s son did emphasize the sense of humility that many others have seen in him.

“You understand it’s a competitive business, there are a lot of smart coaches out there, a lot of good players,” he said. “I’d certainly never think I’ve got all the answers. Once you do that, you’re set up for an epic fail.”

And Smith stepped out and declared why, of all the possibilities laid out before him, football gripped him.

“It let me see the world in a different light,” he said. “You had to go out and prove it. It didn’t matter if your dad was a CEO or (just some guy) from Pomona, Calif. – you get on that football field and you have to go prove it.

“That’s what’s always attracted me. It’s a results-driven business, and I want to be judged by that.”

Let the judgment of all Atlanta commence.

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