The Eagles had a losing record, were weeks away from a new coach, and still a few years from opening Lincoln Financial Field.
But, for more than a decade, Smolenski ended up working in a stable culture. Andy Reid was the coach. Joe Banner was the president. Donovan McNabb was, usually, the quarterback.
The only notable figure still with the team is owner Jeffrey Lurie.
The first sign of upheaval came one year ago. Banner left, and Lurie promoted Smolenski, 46, to team president on June 7. Turbulence lasted throughout the season, which led to Lurie's replacing Reid with Chip Kelly. Smolenski played a major role in the coaching search. He's overseeing a $125 million stadium renovation project. He restructured part of the organization's executive staff.
It's all occurring during a delicate period in recent franchise history. His task is trying to keep fans from offering the qualifier he heard while out to dinner 14 years ago.
"Fourteen years later," Smolenski said, "I totally understand it."
'Voice of reason'
When the Eagles announced their front-office succession plan last year, Banner's departure and Smolenski's promotion altered the organizational flow chart. Banner had maintained a direct role in football operations. Lurie sought a "more traditional" front-office structure in which the president does not oversee player contracts or salary-cap management.
It essentially streamlined the front office, but it does not mean Smolenski lacks influence in the side of the NovaCare Complex where football decisions are determined.
General manager Howie Roseman cannot remember an Eagles game without Smolenski by his side. When the Eagles go through draft strategy, Smolenski is in the room. Roseman asks Smolenski to be a "voice of reason." Even if Smolenski cannot recite intimate details about players, Roseman seeks his input on the process.
Whenever Roseman signs a player, he consults with Smolenski. When Kelly wants to play music during practice, plans for training camp at the Eagles' facility, or needs a significant investment in weights and technology, those issues must come across Smolenski's desk.
"But it's all with the eye toward how do we make this work, and what's the best way to make this work?" Smolenski said.
Smolenski spoke with neighbors about when music will be played and with what lyrics. He found five dates for open practices at Lincoln Financial Field. He approved an investment in excess of $1 million for new strength equipment.
"Success on the business side provides the resources that the football side needs for them to be successful with their program," Smolenski said. "It's in our collective best interest for that to occur."
One step ahead
Smolenski's fitness for the team's presidency was not a surprise to Banner, who hired Smolenski as CFO in 1998 and promoted Smolenski to chief operating officer in 2010 with the same foresight.
"He's always been one step ahead of the title he's got," Banner said. "So he was really functioning pretty much as the COO for a short period of time when he was still called CFO, and he was really doing all the functions of a president a little bit before he officially got the title."
Smolenski, who grew up in western New York, arrived at Amherst College as an economics major and graduated a biology major. A summer of organic chemistry convinced him that medicine was not in his future, and he realized during an accounting course that numbers came easy to him.
After four years at Arthur Andersen, Smolenski pursued a sports administration degree and joined the IHL. He served as the CFO and helped expand the league from 12 to 19 teams. Then the Eagles called.
"He was a perfect cultural fit for what we were trying to put together," said Banner, who believed Smolenski could grow into a greater role. "I think everyone who meets him has this air of solidness about him."
Both Roseman and former Eagles executive Mark Donovan, now the president of the Chiefs, praised Smolenski's ability to work with others in the workplace. Donovan noted the key working relationships that Smolenski built with Lurie, Banner, and Reid.
"For years, he's been the most respected executive in the Eagles organization," Lurie said. "That's a big statement, but that's true."
The culture of an organization starts with ownership and is spread by the president. But the most visible person is the head coach. When Lurie needed his first new coach in 15 seasons, he used two trusted confidants: Roseman and Smolenski.
Finding a coach
Smolenski, Roseman, and Lurie met on Jan. 1 to review their plan. For Smolenski, it was critical to maintain the strategy. Roseman specifically asked Smolenski to keep him on point.
"When we set out, I had never been through it, so I didn't have an expectation other than we were prepared," said Smolenski, who kept a daily journal of the search.
When the Eagles brain trust arrived at the airport for their first interviews on Jan. 2, they saw the Chiefs executives in Philadelphia to meet with Reid.
"It was ironic, I think, for all of us," Donovan said.
Smolenski's responsibility did not require in-depth knowledge of the candidates. The neutral perspective was important for Lurie and Roseman to lean on during the process.
"Howie and I had researched a lot of people over the last year or so, and Don was someone who was sort of a sounding board to have as a fresh view," Lurie said.
Smolenski did not ask about scheme or football philosophy. He tried gauging the candidate's leadership and management styles, and how he'd fit within the culture the Eagles sought to create. He also did not negotiate the contract - that was Lurie's decision.
The two parts of the two-week process that most fascinated Smolenski were the speed of the search and the flow of information. They met with 11 candidates, and Smolenski said no interview lasted less than four hours.
"It's a programmatic investment, a cultural investment," Smolenski said. "People think our search took forever; it took 14 days! If you were to talk to people in the rest of the world how long job searches take, sometimes it takes six weeks, sometimes four weeks, or months."
'Grateful every day'
From his desk at the team facility, Smolenski peers toward Lincoln Financial Field down the street. He played a major role in the conception of the stadium, and now he's in charge of a major revitalization.
"Ten years later, when we're starting on a renovation?" Smolenski said. "I still feel like we constructed it."
He remembers the meetings and the milestones. The scoreboards not working, the toilets not flushing, and the initial open house. He admits the initial failure of the green initiative before the installation of solar panels and wind turbines. He even shoveled snow overnight with stadium workers before the 2004 NFC championship game.
Smolenski swivels from a conference table to his desk, revealing a laminated 2010 USA Today article headlined, "Make a note to be grateful every day." He reminds himself of that daily.
His title is different and his office is different, but there are similarities between the team's current situation and when Smolenski started in 1998. There's a new coach and claims of a new culture. They're embarking on a major stadium project. Smolenski is responsible, although he's not analyzing linebackers or fitting the quarterback into the salary cap.
Whenever Smolenski goes to Wawa or parks his car at a city lot, he hears from customers or attendants about the Eagles. He likes to pass along anecdotes of encounters with fans, and he knows the role the Eagles play in this region.
He also knows that when the team is losing, fans don't like you very much, as he heard at dinner 14 years ago. His first year as president included the most losses since his first year with the team. The challenge for everyone in the office he oversees is what will happen next.
"If you want to know what keeps me awake at night," Smolenski said, "it's to be able to keep this going."
Contact Zach Berman at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @ZBerm.