The Coach Who Built a Powerhouse Women’s Basketball Program

By Scott Graison

The 2019-20 season for the Florida Gulf Coast University Women’s Basketball team is just about to tip off. Way back before its inaugural year in 2002, a relatively obscure coach who hailed from Ohio was hired to lay the foundation for a program that didn’t even have an arena built for it yet. No one could have looked into a crystal ball to see what the future would hold.

Head coach Karl Smesko gives instructions to his team during a timeout against South Dakota State during the 2018-19 seasonHead Coach Karl Smesko has achieved numbers that are simply staggering while developing a program that is consistently ranked at the top of Women’s Mid-Major basketball programs nationwide. This success story is about the path and mantra that has led to such sustained excellence and dominance in the sport.

“It’s just been consistently wanting to get better, continuing to learn and get better at coaching, and still achieving the desire to get better today,” says Smesko, who never coasts, no matter how successful his program becomes.

Ken Kavanagh became FGCU’s athletic director a decade ago, and inherited the head basketball coach. Suffice to say, this AD is thrilled with the guy commanding the sidelines at Alico Arena.

Head coach Karl Smesko shouts instructions to his team during the 2017-18 season

“He’s a great team player,” says Kavanagh. “He cares more about the school than himself. He’s the total package, constantly re-evaluating. We’ve worked together 10 years, and I got to see what everyone was raving about.”

Coach Smesko is hard working and ultra-competitive, yet there’s a humble side to him that doesn’t always come with the other two traits. Those on his coaching staff, all of whom formerly played for him (unique in itself), share the same sentiment.

“His work ethic is amazing,” marvels Associate Head Coach Chelsea Lyles, who is in her 10th season working with Smesko. “He’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever been around. He’s smart. He’s always reading books, watching film, always developing himself. His drive and expectations, well, he sets the example.”

Assistant Coach Shannon Murphy played under Smesko from 2007 to 2011. When she hung up her high tops, she went on to be the first head coach for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona. The opportunity was a big one for her, but after five seasons, she returned to Fort Myers in June to learn more about coaching from one of the game’s elite.

“He’s so intelligent,” says Murphy. “He knows the game better than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s a great coach, but also a great teacher. He’s never worried about his individual accomplishments. He’s focused on what we need to do to accomplish the big picture.”

Head coach Karl Smesko celebrates with his team after winning the 2017 ASUN tournament championship

And then there’s Sydnei McCaskill, who was promoted to Director of Operations for the team after just one season on staff. She’s awe-stricken by her boss’ work ethic: “He’s always the first one in. He’s always prepared. After practice, he’s already preparing for the next day.”

It’s clear the statistics Smesko has amassed are not by accident, given what those closest to the coach share about him. Here’s a small sampling of Smesko’s many accomplishments:

  • 30-1 record in his first season with the Eagles
  • 15 consecutive 20-win seasons
  • 3rd best winning percentage among active women’s head coaches
  • 5 undefeated regular seasons since 2011-2012
  • 62-5 record (when FGCU is ranked) versus a ranked opponent

FGCU is on pace to become the Division I all-time leader in win percentage this season, despite one tough slate of games that includes a date with reigning NCAA runner-up Notre Dame in late November. But, if you’re familiar with Coach Smesko’s makeup, he’s never one to shy away from a challenge.

“We’re excited for the season,” says the coach. “We have a lot of talented players and have maybe the most difficult schedule we’ve had since I’ve been here. But we’ve always liked challenging ourselves.

Head coach Karl Smesko celebrates with his team after winning the 2017 ASUN tournament championship“Our conference should be really good this year,” adds Smesko. “A lot of the better teams have almost everybody back. It shapes up to be one of the strongest years for our conference.”

Point Guard Keri Jewett-Giles has so relished her experience on the team that she is returning for a final year of eligibility as a graduate student. As for her future, she knows one thing: “I wouldn’t ever turn down a coaching job with (Coach Smesko). Being with this program, people would die for it.”

A coach with Smesko’s resume will certainly and regularly have overtures from other programs, many of which have a long history of prestige. Each year that Smesko stays at FGCU, fans, players and staff count their blessings.

“On behalf of all our fans who ask me if Karl will still be here, I am thrilled that he’s here for the start of every season,” says Kavanagh, who doesn’t take the gift of Smesko’s continued presence lightly.

So, what is it that keeps him in Southwest Florida? Smesko didn’t even blink before answering: “The easiest reason to discuss my loyalty is that I love living here and working at FGCU. I don’t have the sense things will be better if a program is more prominent or financially better. I found a place where I’m really happy. Watching it grow from the start, it makes it a special place.”

Mark your calendar for the first home game of the season on Nov. 13, versus Central Florida. See the full schedule at www.fgcuathletics.com.