A.J. Smith’s career in football began shortly after graduation from Kentucky Wesleyan College. He started as a high school coach and steadily worked his way through the ranks, eventually serving over 30 years in the National Football League. Most recently, Smith was Senior Executive with the Washington Redskins, which followed 14 seasons with the San Diego Chargers in various capacities including Executive Vice President/General Manager (2003-2012). He spent 14 seasons (1987-00) with the Buffalo Bills, working his way from area scout to director of pro personnel during the team’s most successful period, which included four straight Super Bowl appearances.
Smith was widely recognized as one of the NFL’s top executives. He was named the NFL’s 2004 Executive of the Year by Pro Football Weekly, the Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA), FoxSports.com and CBS Sportsline.com. In 2006, Forbes named him its top NFL General Manager, and in addition, the magazine ranked Smith fourth overall among his counterparts in the four major professional sports leagues in the U.S. and Canada (NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB). In 2009, USA Today ranked Smith sixth on their list of the Top 20 Personnel Executives in the NFL, and Forbes recognized Smith once again in 2010, ranking him fifth on its list of the Top 10 NFL GMs.
He was a recipient of the Kentucky Wesleyan College Alumni Achievement Award in 2010 and inducted into the College’s inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame class in 2013.
Read more about A.J. Smith from the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal here.
How did Kentucky Wesleyan prepare you for your life and career?
“I arrived at the College sight unseen. My relatives in Carlisle, Ky., were familiar with Wesleyan, and that is why I chose to attend. My desire was to be a physical education teacher and football coach, and I had wanted that profession since I was in the 9th grade. My football coach and physical education teacher in Rhode Island was Emo Dinitto, and he was an outstanding coach and teacher. He was my idol. I admired and respected him a great deal and stay in touch with him today. Kentucky Wesleyan provided the curriculum for me to pursue my dream.”
What are special memories of your Wesleyan years?
“I have quite a few. Having the experience of watching your school win two national championships in basketball was a prideful, amazing experience. One of my fraternity brothers, Dick O’Neill ’69, was a close friend and the starting center. That made it more personal and special. We had some great players in George Tinsley and Dallas Thornton, to name a couple.
“There are other special moments, but walking across the stage at the Sportscenter and receiving my college degree ranks at the top. I was far from a crackerjack student, I can assure you, but I made it. It was a great sense of accomplishment and a goal I had set for myself.”
Who served as your mentors when you were a student and in what ways?
“My number one mentor was Joe Roop, who was the dean of students. He was always there for a lot of us, just to talk and help guide us. He was firm and fair, but he would tell you flat out to fly right or be gone. I had great respect for him. He also got me out of a few jams I got myself in.
“Barbara Johnson was one of my physical education professors, and she gave guidance, as well. She was a no-nonsense teacher who demanded excellence.”
What are your greatest career accomplishments?
“Number one for me was trading Eli Manning to the New York Giants. It was my most satisfying moment. His agent, his father and Eli refused to be a part of the Chargers’ organization. I could not wait to ship him out to the Giants by trade. It took me 45 minutes to finish the deal, and that was too much time to wait, in my opinion.
“I would have to say winning 98 career games and five division championships during 10 years as Chargers’ general manager, which was the most in Chargers’ history, was a very satisfying experience. We had some good people and good teams during that span. I just wished we could have won a Super Bowl.”
What does induction to the Alumni Hall of Fame mean to you?
“It means a lot. It is humbling. To be recognized by the alumni of your school is a special honor, and I greatly appreciate it.”
Tell us about your family.
“We have a quote in our home that sums up how I feel about my family, ‘Family is everything. Everything else is just everything else.’
“They mean the world to me, are great support systems, always there for me in the ups and downs.
“My wife, Susan, is the rock of our family and my best friend. We married in 1977 and have lived in Del Mar, Calif., since 2000. My daughter, Andrea, is married to a scout for the Chicago White Sox. They have a daughter, Reese (one year old), and live in Hermosa Beach, Calif. She works for the Anschutz Entertainment Group as director of premium services for the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Kyle is director of college scouting for the Washington Redskins. He coordinates the College Scouting Department in preparation for the NFL Draft and scouts top college players throughout the country.”
Is there anything else you would like for our readers to know?
“Yes, now that you ask. I love and support Kentucky Wesleyan, and I go back to visit everyone every few years. I encourage others to do the same. We should all give back and not forget what Kentucky Wesleyan College did for us.
“President Darrell has put his heart and soul into making Wesleyan the best on many levels. We should all help him in this quest.
“I also want to tell you about the greatest sports information director and greatest coach I have observed and been around in my career. The coach is Bill Belichick of the Patriots, and the sports information director is the great Roy Pickerill.”