Coach’s Chair: Karl Smesko, Florida Gulf Coast University

Karl Smesko is the only women's basketball coach Florida Gulf Coast University has ever had. Photo courtesy of FGCU Athletics.
Karl Smesko is the only women’s basketball coach Florida Gulf Coast University has ever had. Photo courtesy of FGCU Athletics.

Karl Smesko entered his 16th season as head coach at Florida Gulf Coast University this year with a 404-82 (.831) record. The seven-time ASUN Coach of the Year is just one of four active Division I coaches with a record of .800 or better. The Eagles are seven-time regular-season champions, and have won the ASUN Tournament on four occasions.

Smesko has a Bachelor’s degree in broadcast news journalism from Kent State, and a Master’s degree in education from Walsh University. He was head coach at Walsh for one year, and then served as head coach at IPFW for two seasons before being named FGCU’s first women’s basketball coach in 2001. The Eagles have been to the NCAA Tournament six times and the WNIT six times during the Smesko era.

You graduated with a Bachelor’s in broadcast journalism and began coaching while you were getting your master’s degree. What was your original career path, and how did you come to begin coaching? Did you play basketball?

I played basketball in high school, and when I went to college I went back and volunteered as an assistant coach at that high school. In my last year of college I became the freshman coach there, so that was my first paycheck in coaching. At that time I was looking to become a sports TV anchor, but I really enjoyed coaching and I thought I’d see if I wanted to make it a career. I started calling all the college basketball coaches in Ohio. The Miami, Ohio men’s coach was kind enough to call back and explain to me about getting my Master’s degree. I was naïve and didn’t realize how competitive it was to get into college coaching. Literally a week later I saw an ad in the paper to be GA for the women’s team at Walsh University. I think I was the only person to apply for that position, and I got it. After that year the coach left to be a principal at a high school, so that gave me the opportunity at 26 to be a head coach. A lot of that was being in right place at right time.

Originally I was trying to get assistant jobs on the men’s side in college, but the opportunity came on the women’s side. When my opportunity to be a college head coach came, I had a great group of hardworking, dedicated athletes. I was excited to be named head coach of that program.

It’s special being the first and only women’s basketball coach FGCU has ever had. How were you hired for the position?

At IFPW in Fort Wayne, some of the other coaches started talking about FGCU and how beautiful it was and how great a place it would be to work. The former AD at IFPW was an assistant at FGCU. It intrigued me, the idea of living in Southwest Florida and building a program from scratch. I applied, and I got the job.

You have a great coaching record for the Eagles. How did your previous two coaching stints prepare you for FGCU?

I left Walsh and became an assistant for Maryland for a year, and that really opened my eyes to all the stuff that goes on in big time athletics, and I mean that in a positive way. All the care, all the detail and how well-organized everything was from the top down impressed me. I worked for Chris Weller, and she was great to me. It gave me a better understanding of how to run a program at the highest level, no matter where you’re at. The IFPW team was 20-4 before I got there, and that really challenged me to get as competitive as we could as quickly as possible. I was left with a lot of time to study, watch film and to try to get efficient. If you’re not overloaded with talent, it forces you to be more creative and to find ways to be competitive.

What was your approach in creating your program, both on and off the court?

When we first started out we didn’t have a gym; our offices were in trailers. Everything was emphasizing the vision of what FGCU could become. Early on we took the best players we could find who would be coachable. That included walk-ons to transfers to signed freshmen. We pieced a team together, and in a lot of ways it was easier than rebuilding a program because we got to pick the pieces for ourselves and fit them into the overall plan. We wanted players who were willing to share the ball, who were really good shooters. Kids that could move their feet and play man-to man-defense. We were bringing in kids who could play the way we’d like them to play.

Describe the style of basketball that the Eagles play.

We try to be very disciplined defensively, and we try to take away what you do best. We want to push the tempo and create as much space on the floor on offense as we can. We use drivers and cutters as much as possible. If we collapse, we move the ball. We have a lot of ball movement, and we put player in situations where they can be successful.

Have you reached your program goals yet?

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished at FGCU, and I’m proud of the consistency we’ve shown over the years, being a quality program even in years when we were replacing a lot of players. You’re always, as a competitor, you’re always looking for the next challenge. We’ve done this and we can do it again and go a little further. There is still room to improve and play at an even higher level. We’ve really upgraded our facilities this year, and that makes a difference in the quality of student athletes we bring in. That will translate in a few years to how competitive our program should be.

You turned down a coaching offer from USC last year, reportedly because of your love for FGCU. Is it your plan to remain the head coach there?

I don’t have any plans on going anywhere else. For me I love where I live, and the staff that I have here, they all played for me. I love coming to work, and that’s something I really value. For me the competitive parity of having the opportunity to have a team with a chance of going to Final Four was the only thing that got me looking at other situations.

How have you changed as a coach since you first began?

I think I have a little bit more patience and understanding. I try to find more ways to reach kids to help them achieve their potential, whereas when I started it was more hard-nosed in terms of “we’re going to be intense and you’re going to do it this way because I said so.” Now we’re more about teaching and educating and trying to be a little more understanding of diff athlete’s situations.

Is having staff that are former players special?

They are really good at what they do, and are about the program and how we run things. It’s a positive thing when a staff gets along as well as we do. My director of basketball operations, Amanda Pierce, and my associate head coach, Chelsea Banbury played together. My video coordinator Stephanie Haas and assistant coach Jenna Cobb played together.

How do you approach your players today that is different from 20 years ago?

Twenty years ago I was like, “this was a bad practice, let’s talk about this in the office right now.” You can make a small thing a big thing in the office. Now I ask an assistant “what’s going on with this kid?” I have more patience when they come in. I ask them what’s going on, and can we make sure this doesn’t become a bigger thing. There are different ways to approach it than imposing your will.

What do you want your athletes to learn or know by the time they leave your program?

I just want them to understand the value of being a good teammate and working with other people. I want them to be somebody who is reliable and trustworthy, who understands the details and that the quality of their work matters. The impact they can have on others, where they realize it or not. Even as a teammate, if you come into practice in a bad mood, it’s going to affect other people on the team.

Why do you coach?

You should always know your why, why you’re doing things. I coach because I like working with young people and trying to teach them good habits for life. I do that through sports and basketball, but hopefully I’m teaching more than how to pass and read a screen.

If you had down time, how would you spend it?

Any down time I have, I usually spend with my girlfriend, Elena. We enjoy going to movies, vacations, and spending time outside. It’s usually pretty nice weather down here. I spend a lot of time in the gym and in my office, so on my own time I like fresh air and sunshine