FGCU Women’s Basketball Coach Inspires Many Mentees
By Craig Handel
After Kate Schrader Bruce finished an All-American basketball career at Florida Gulf Coast University by leading her team to the runners-up in the 2007 Division II National Tournament, she didn’t see herself as a coach.
But FGCU Coach Karl Smesko did.
After Bruce spent a year playing professionally in Holland, Smesko hired her as a graduate assistant when she returned to the U.S. in 2008. While working alongside the third-winningest active Division I coach in the NCAA, Bruce said getting a “behind the scenes” look at college basketball sparked her passion to continue as a coach.
After three seasons at FGCU, Bruce assisted at Youngstown State (2010-13) and Ohio University (2013-16) before becoming the head coach at Walsh University (Ohio), where Smesko started his career.
On May 22, 2022, Bruce became head coach at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).
“I wouldn’t be coaching if it weren’t for Coach Smesko,” Bruce said. “He saw the potential in me before I did.”
Bruce, elected this year into the FGCU Hall of Fame’s second class, is one of 29 former players or assistants of Smesko who are (or were) involved in college or high school basketball – either as head or assistant coaches or support staff.
When asked about Smesko’s influence, a number of these coaches eagerly shared their appreciation. A collection of their responses included:
• Smesko empowers his assistants in key game situations.
• Many former players called Smesko before they took a basketball job and shared information about potential recruits he may be interested in.
• Some were not eager for their teams to play FGCU – even if Smesko welcomed the matchup.
• Some of the players, like Bruce, never planned on being coaches until being introduced to Smesko’s preparation, attention to detail and the unique way he sees the game.
With the Eagles’ current momentum, FGCU (24-3) is on pace to win at least 25 games for a 13th straight season, which only has been achieved by Connecticut, Baylor and South Carolina. That victory also elevated Smesko’s record to 573-104 (84.6%) at FGCU, which equates to the Eagles having the highest winning percentage in Division I history, putting FGCU ahead of Tennessee, UConn and Stanford. FGCU is the only school to have a winning percentage over 80%.
Smesko said he has a great deal of pride in his former players who continue to be involved in basketball.
“Very few thought they would go into coaching,” Smesko acknowledges. “The fact is they knew enough about the game, then they had a passion and love for the game. After that, they wanted to give back as a coach.”
The Smesko Coaching Tree
Smesko’s coaching tree is extensive. It includes a star at the top, some strong stems with their own leaves, other stems that have branched out on their own and another strong root system Smesko has formed.
“Coach Smesko’s coaching tree is truly remarkable, and I think that it speaks volumes about him as a coach,” said Stephanie Haas, now an assistant at Ohio. “One of the coolest parts of this is seeing former FGCU teammates and players while on the road recruiting or at the coaches’ convention every year. I still talk to most of my former teammates.”
Smesko’s tree includes more than a dozen former players who are currently coaching at the collegiate level and several assistant coaches who went on to head coaching positions elsewhere. Nicki Collen, an FGCU assistant from 2014-16, is now head coach at national power Baylor. Former FGCU Point Guard Chelsea Dermeyer Banbury is now head coach at Division I High Point (N.C.). Her assistants include former Eagles’ players Jaime Gluesing, Brittany Brown, Jessica Cattani and Nasrin Ulel.
LeAnn Freeland-Curry (FGCU assistant 2003-07) is in her 11th year as head coach at Nova Southeastern in Fort Myers, and Bob Boldon (FGCU assistant 2009-10) is in his 10th season as head coach for Ohio University. One of his assistants is Haas, who played for FGCU from 2012-16 and subsequently served on Smesko’s staff.
Several former FGCU players are on Smesko’s current staff. Chelsea Lyles (2008-10), is in her fourth season as associate head coach and 13th season on staff. Shannon Murphy (2007-11) was an assistant at Embry-Riddle (2013-19) before returning to FGCU as an assistant coach before the 2019-20 season; she has been promoted to recruiting coordinator. Sheahen Dowling (2017-21) is FGCU’s director of video operations, and Kendall Spray (2021-22) is director of operations.
When FGCU players’ collegiate careers end, some approach Smesko about coaching; other times, he approaches them.
“First, you always want to hire somebody who can do a good job,” he said. “It’s tough to get into this field and into this business, so if there is an opportunity to help a former player get started, I like to do those things when I can.”
Former players already know the expectations and standards of the FGCU program.
“It definitely helps in the training curve as opposed to bringing in somebody with different ideas from a previous program,” Smesko said. “Our players have learned the terminology and the way we do things. That takes time.”
Like Bruce, Murphy didn’t plan to coach; playing for Smesko changed the way she saw and played the game. Returning to FGCU after working with other coaches for eight years, she realized how great an influence Smesko was for her.
“There are a lot of reasons why Karl has been successful, but one of the main reasons is his level of preparation,” Murphy said. “You can perform better if you prepare better. It takes a lot of time and effort to be as prepared as he is for every game, but he is willing to do more than most coaches.”
Chelsea Banbury said she realized she wanted to be a coach when Smesko taught her the complexities of the game.
“When you play for him, he makes you look at the game completely differently,” she said. “Through all of the film, you learn as a player to analyze film and the game. He really teaches you about basketball and why something is effective or not. I think once I learned about the game at that level, I realized I wanted to be a coach.”
LeAnn Freeland, coach at Nova Southeastern, said working with Smesko for four seasons gave her the confidence to become a head coach.
“His attention to detail helped me see the game at a different level, which has been priceless to me as a head coach for the past 16 years,” she said.
Empowering His Assistants
Whether it’s a player or assistant coach at FGCU, Murphy said expectations remain high.
“He still expects your best every day,” she said. “He pushes us as a staff to make us better as coaches. No different than when he pushed us to be better players back in the day.”
When assistants have earned Smesko’s trust, he’ll empower them.
Playing in the Women’s NIT in 2016 after a heartbreaking loss to Jacksonville in the ASUN Conference Championship, the Eagles won four games in a row, then played host to Michigan in the semifinals. Before a record sell-out crowd of 4,633 at Alico Arena, the Eagles beat the Wolverines 71-62.
However, FGCU led just 62-60 with 2:31 to go. During a timeout in the final minutes, Collen – who had scouted Michigan – asked to diagram a defense the Eagles would play when Michigan inbounded the ball. Smesko agreed.
“I asked Karl if I could take the board,” Collen said. “When the players went out and saw the Michigan players standing in almost the same exact places I told them, the ladies turned around and they were so fired up. We messed up their timing on the inbounds. It’s like we had the cheat code. We blew up their play.
“The trust coach had for me really meant a lot.”
If fans are paying attention, they might see Smesko let Lyles, his long-time assistant, take the head coaching role for a game while he serves as assistant.
“It’s a great experience for me,” Lyles said. “More than anything, I get to experience what it’s like to manage a game – from substitutions to play calls and timeouts. I’m grateful he allows me to do it.”
This summer, Lyles helped organize a reunion of former FGCU players.
“It was special have so many former players come back,” she said. “We all shared similar stories and experiences.”
FGCU Women’s Basketball is a unique program because all of the alumni have played for the same coach–the one who started the program and is still going strong.
While Smesko enjoyed the get-together, he said he’d also welcome a “think-tank” gathering where he and his former players could discuss strategy and various aspects of coaching.
Unlike some coaches, he also likes competing against his former players and assistants. Last year, High Point played the Eagles. But after FGCU won 86-50, Banbury said, “Right now, I don’t plan on scheduling him any time soon.”
Bruce said, “I’m smart enough to know it’s not a good idea to be his opponent.”
McCaskill shared that sentiment. “I don’t think my head coach would be pleased with my trying to schedule FGCU!”
When Smesko’s former players and assistants reach out to him, they said he is quick to respond. Conely and Kennedy said they consulted with him before taking their jobs at Wisconsin-Parkside and at Community Colleges of Spokane.
“It’s always a good feeling when former players take time out to call or text or write,” Smesko said. “They’re long letters, and I definitely keep all of those because they’re much appreciated.”