Detroit Lions will get up-close look at Titans OC Arthur Smith, a hot head coach candidate

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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Rumors were swirling early in 2014 that the Tennessee Titans were for sale.

Owner Bud Adams had died less than a year earlier, and as Mike Mularkey, then the Titans’ tight ends coach, walked off the field, he overheard a couple players joke that his young assistant tight ends coach, Arthur Smith, should have his father buy the team.

Mularkey, six or seven months into his job at the time, was perplexed.

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“Finally, I just said, just in passing, ‘Who’s your dad?’” Mularkey recalled.

Smith, now the Titans offensive coordinator and soon to be one of the hottest head coaching candidates on the market, is the son of FedEx founder and CEO Frederick Smith.

The elder Smith is one of the 200 richest people in America, worth an estimated $3.9 billion, according to Forbes, and yet his son toiled away in anonymity as a football grunt for years.

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Mularkey said Smith never mentioned his upbringing during their first few months together in Tennessee, and never used it to try to advance his career.

“He didn’t say a word,” Mularkey said. “You would never know.”

Others who have worked with one of the NFL’s rising coaching stars say the same, that Smith is incredibly smart, very good at what does, determined to make his own name in the sport he loves and a big reason why the Titans (9-4) can clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Detroit Lions (5-8) and help from other AFC playoff contenders on Sunday.

The Titans rank second in the NFL in rushing offense, third in total offense and fourth in scoring. The Lions, who fired Matt Patricia as head coach last month, will be looking for a replacement at the end of the season and could have Smith on their short list of candidates to interview.

“Extremely proud of him,” said former North Carolina coach John Bunting, who recruited Smith to North Carolina and gave him his start as a graduate assistant in 2006. “You know who his dad is, so he was born with that silver spoon, but he never, ever was anything but a hard worker, a gentleman and a tough guy. Fitting for an offensive lineman. He had a couple injuries. He played a little bit, not a lot, but when it came to him asking me to have him as a graduate assistant, I jumped at that because I knew that he would be super dedicated and committed to what we were doing.”

Smith, part of Bunting’s first recruiting class, had a modest and injury-riddled playing career at North Carolina and spent one year as a graduate assistant at the school before making the leap to the NFL.

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He joined Washington as a college scouting assistant and defensive quality control assistant in 2007 under Joe Gibbs — whose NASCAR team has a FedEx sponsorship — and stayed on Jim Zorn’s staff the following season, before returning to college as an administrative assistant/defensive intern at Ole Miss in 2010.

In 2011, Smith jumped back to the NFL, where he made the slow climb to coordinator, surviving three coaching changes in Tennessee and doing any job thrown his way.

“You never would have known nor thought that, that was his father just because of maybe your pre-disposed to think something else about him,” said ex-Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt, who retained Smith as assistant tight ends coach when he spurned the Lions to take the Tennessee job in 2014. “But not the way he worked, not how much he really wanted to get better and interacted with guys and no job was too small for him, and everything that he did was done really well. So, he’s very impressive because where he was in his career at that point, he was still young and still kind of in a position where he was trying to get better and get a position for himself. He’s really done a great job.”

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Smith endeared himself to Mularkey with his thirst for knowledge when the two first started working together, and he took over as tight ends coach midway through the 2015 season, after Whisenhunt was fired and Mularkey was promoted to head coach.

He helped Delanie Walker make three straight Pro Bowls in Tennessee, and when Mularkey was fired after a playoff loss in 2017, Mularkey thought enough of Smith to call current Titans coach Mike Vrabel and strongly recommend he keep Smith on staff.

Vrabel did, and a year later, when the Packers hired Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur as head coach, Mularkey phoned Vrabel again to recommend Smith as LaFleur’s replacement.

“I’ve just trusted him,” Mularkey said. “And that business, trusting people is very difficult to do and I’ve always trusted him. That’s big.”

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A who’s-that hire when he was named offensive coordinator two years ago, Smith has helped transform the Titans offense into one of the most formidable in the league.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, deemed a bust after six mediocre seasons with the Miami Dolphins, has experienced a career resurgence in Tennessee. He led the NFL in yards per attempt while taking the Titans to the AFC championship game last season, Smith’s first as play caller, and has a career-high 28 touchdown passes in 13 games this year.

Derrick Henry leads the league this season in rushing yards (1,532), attempts (297) and touchdowns (14) and has an outside chance to become the eighth back in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards.

And two Titans receivers, A.J. Brown and Corey Davis, are on pace for 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

“He gets what it takes balance-wise as an offensive coach,” Mularkey said. “He likes to run the ball, which, the reason we get along so well what is because he’s basically running my same offense. He may be using the Kyle Shanahan mentality and LaFleur and whatever that offense is called, but he’s using what we did and that was beat the tar out of people.”

A few months shy of his 39th birthday, Smith could be a hot commodity when he can start interviewing for jobs next month.

Mularkey said Smith has answered any questions about his ability to command a room with the way the Titans have responded to his coaching, and Smith’s background as the son of a prominent Yale-educated executive and former Marine who served two tours in Vietnam leaves little doubt about his own leadership ability.

“I don’t like to talk much about my dad, cause like I’ve said before I’ve never really thought any of his success was mine,” Smith told reporters in Tennessee this week. “You talk about leadership and management, we talk all the time. We talk several times a week, at night on my way home from work, some of the best conversations I think I have all week about life and different issues. But he’s been a great father to me, so it’s more that relationship. A lot of it’s just observing, listening. I think I’ve been exposed to a lot of things growing up that weren’t normal, but you didn’t know any different. So I’ve been very fortunate in that regard.”

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Vrabel said whatever team hires Smith will be fortunate, too, to get a coach he has “a lot of respect for.”

“He works hard and is prepared, he communicates well with the players and him and I have a very good relationship to talk about what we want and the vision that we want for our offense and how it can relate to our football team,” Vrabel said. “I’m excited about any opportunity any of the coaches could get that could help them with their families.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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