The successful journey for Karl Smesko
The accolades for FGCU women’s basketball coach go on and on for Karl Smesko. Seven-time ASUN coach of the year, four-time ASUN Tournament Championship, KAY Now National Coach of the Year in 2012, but when you get your name in the same breath as 11-time National Champion, Geno Auriemma, you know you’re doing something right.
Of the 349 active Division I coaches in women’s basketball, Smesko is just one of four coaches to have a winning percentage of .800 or better. He joins Auriemma of UConn, Tara VaraDerver of Stanford and Kim Mulky of Stanford.
Though it looks easy sometimes for Smesko to rack up the wins, it was a long process that he says “is still a work in progress,” despite his 491 wins.
When he was young, he spent a lot of time with his father, who was a high school basketball coach. He played a little basketball of his own for Revere High School. He was able to draw interest from some smaller schools, but he decided to try and walk-on at Kent State.
At first, he was unsuccessful but still managed to make the team his senior year. However, he had to leave the team to care for a family member. He ended up graduating from Kent State Summa Cum Laude in 1993 and got right into coaching. He spent time coaching at Walsh University and Indiana University followed by Purdue University Fort Wayne, as well as coaching as an assistant at Maryland.
Along the way, he has always been a head coach emphasizing the three-pointer.
“The offense we ran 20 years ago is very similar to the offense we run today. We have always valued good three-point shooting.”
Smesko was hired as the Eagles’ first-ever coach in 2002 and helped build FGCU from a Division II program to a NCAA Tournament team in just 16 years.
“The growth of FGCU has been remarkable. When I first arrived here, I never imagined FGCU would be what it is today,” Smesko said.
He literally helped build Alico Arena, as he was seen at times removing trees in order to create space for a new arena. Gradually, he started to accumulate wins, and though he would only have players for four years, he would have an impact on them as well. His coaching staff currently consists of all former players in Chelsea Banbury, Chelsea Lyles, Jenna Cobb, Stephanie Haas and Amanda Pierce.
“After I finished my Graduate Assistant position here, I realized that I really wanted to make coaching a profession,” Banbury said. “Coach Smesko gave me that opportunity here at FGCU. I didn’t think twice about taking the job because I knew how special of a place FGCU was and that there wasn’t a better place to learn about basketball than under Coach Smesko. I can’t thank Coach Smesko enough for all that he has taught me.”
One concern for many FGCU fans has been their only coach accepting another job at another school. After “Dunk City’s” run in 2012, head coach Andy Enfield took a job at USC. Men’s soccer coach Bob Butehorn left FGCU after 10 years after his team won their first NCAA tournament game and Butehorn moved on to USF.
But for Smesko, he continues to love his time at FGCU. “The University and the Community have always treated me well. I love living in Southwest Florida.”
Smesko, along with softball head coach Dave Deiros and baseball coach Dave Tollett, have all remained as the only head coaches in their respective sport.
There have been lots of games that stuck out to Smesko in his time here. In particular the team’s win over Oklahoma State in the NCAA Tournament, a year after losing to them in the same round. All four of the ASUN championships have been special, as well as the Eagles’ run to the final of the NIT even though they suffered a heart-breaking loss to Jacksonville in the ASUN Finals.
Any loss for Smesko is extremely rare, but conference losses are just so rare for him as he as only had been a part of 16 losses in conference. He holds an incredible .913 win percentage in conference and has certainly received the attention of his players.
“It means a lot to be coached by him,” senior China Dow said. “If you got a guy that has this type of record and you can be coached under him. He’s fun and he’s a cool guy. It’s amazing what he had done for this program. You can put him on the top with Geno Auriemma.”
Even with the high praise of his players, Smesko never seems to be satisfied. Whether the team is leading by 30, which they tend to do a lot, or trail by 30, he is always into the game and never seems to sit.
“I don’t care what the score is. I want to see whoever is on the court playing well. So if there is something they’re doing wrong, I am going to correct them. I’m going to be into the game from the tip-off until the final buzzer. I think our players deserve that. If they get in the court, they want a coach that is going to be into the game and helping them play well, and that is what I think my role is. I don’t quit coaching.”
That mentality has certainly worked well, as his team has already won at least a share of the ASUN regular season title and can win it fully with a win versus Stetson later this week.