How Arthur Smith's UNC days forged path to becoming Falcons head coach

It didn't take long for Brian Chacos to realize the teammate he came into University of North Carolina with in July 2001 was different.

And it wasn't because that teammate was the son of FedEx founder and billionaire Fred Smith.

Arthur Smith would speak up in meetings early and often, despite being a redshirt freshman in 2001.

"You could tell from any early age — I mean, we were 18, 19 years old — you could tell that coaching was definitely going to be in his future," Chacos told FOX 5 Sports. "When you play the game of football, it’s one thing to know the plays that you’re going to run and it’s a different thing to conceptually understand the offense or what the defense is doing. And Arthur, immediately, he was just a really bright guy. He just conceptually could understand what we were doing at the University of North Carolina from an offensive standpoint and even from a defensive standpoint. So he could always help the younger guys — and heck, he even helped the older guys when we were the younger guys on the team."

Smith, left, and Chacos, right, carry the Victory Bell off the field after beating rival Duke in 2005. (Courtesy of Brian Chacos)

And if you ask anyone who’s known Smith as long as Chacos has, the same refrain is sung over and over: Smith has always left an impression that he could be a head coach, with his calm demeanor, hard work ethic, leadership ability and deep understanding and passion for the game of football.

It took Chacos until December 2001 to find out about Smith's blue-blooded background — which wasn't exactly an easy secret to keep on campus.

"We found out pretty quickly," former UNC head coach John Bunting told FOX 5 Sports with a chuckle. "The people who raised money at North Carolina... They became very aware of what we had here and there was possibilities down the road to recruit the dad."

After choosing between UNC and Georgia Tech coming out of Georgetown Prep in Maryland, Smith redshirted in Chapel Hill in 2001, started a game at left guard in 2002 and then broke a bone in his right foot, going through a long rehab with lots of setbacks.

"It was disappointing and a little bit depressing for him so I think he found this outlet in saying to himself at least, 'Hey, I love this game,'" Bunting said. "In order to be good at football, you gotta love it. You don’t just like it, you gotta love it. You’ve got to embrace it. You’ve got to have the passion for it. And Arthur had all of those things. He had every bit of them; he just couldn’t exploit it on the field because of his injury. And it was kind of a down thing for him, but he hung in there and I think that’s the toughness coming out in him."

Bunting said that’s when the light went off in Smith’s head about becoming a coach one day.

Smith never ended up cracking the starting lineup again. But as he was preparing to join the Marine Corps after the 2005 season, Bunting sat down the young Smith, offering him a gig as a graduate assistant under UNC offensive line coach Hal Hunter for the 2006 season.

"I appreciated his intellect, his football intelligence, the 'FBI' part of it," Bunting said. "He had great football intelligence, and I think it was a no-brainer for us to pursue him to get him to spend a year with us as a graduate assistant."

And that was the springboard for a coaching path that led to stops with the Washington Football Team, Ole Miss, and nearly a decade with the Titans before being a red-hot head coach candidate who then chose the Atlanta Falcons as his landing spot.

Bunting said Smith’s calm demeanor will be vital as a head coach now in the NFL, and his biggest hope is that Smith surrounds himself with the right people to succeed at this level.

"As his friend, we knew this opportunity was going to come," Chacos said. "We didn’t know at 38 (years old) it was going to come, but we knew he was going to be successful at whatever he does. Again, that’s why we’re so excited for the Falcons to get our buddy."

And Chacos has a good grasp on how his good friend will fit in with Atlanta. He used to work in the Falcons ticket office.

"I think the City of Atlanta is so hungry to have a winning football franchise. I mean, I know they are. I’ve been on the phone with our season ticket holders, I’ve seen our front office, I’ve talked with Mr. Blank. And it’s just so awesome to know someone so closely who I think has the blueprint to bring that type of winning football to Atlanta," he said. "To tell you the truth, I think I was more giddy and excited than he was. I was so giddy and happy for him. I mean, I almost had tears in my eyes. It is something I know he has worked so hard for. I mean, he has worked so hard for, put so much blood, sweat and tears, time away from his family."