Editor’s Note: Karl Smesko has been the head women’s coach at Florida Gulf Coast University since 2001 and helped start the program from scratch. Since the program’s elevation to Division-I in 2007 and becoming eligible for the Big Dance in 2011, he has led the Eagles to six NCAA Tournament appearances, two NCAA Tournament wins and nine ASun regular season titles, and before leaving Division-II, his program completed two one-loss seasons and were national runners up in 2007. He has coached college basketball since 1997, with an NAIA Division-II national championship under his belt. This is the fifth installment of our series on him. We encourage you to also read part one, part two, part three and part four.
In a Naples Daily News article about Karl Smesko from March 2007, a prediction into the coach’s future was made.
“He’ll likely move on to a higher profile job in the not-too-distant future,” wrote the author, presuming Smesko would treat Florida Gulf Coast the same way most coaches treat similarly-positioned schools.
That was 2007. It’s now 2019. Nine ASun regular season titles, six NCAA Tournament appearances and two tournament wins later, Smesko is still kicking in Fort Myers.
“After our first year, we went 30-1,” Smesko said. “People would tell our recruits, ‘Oh, he won’t be there very long, he’s going to be leaving for another job.’ It’s 20 years later, and I’m still here.”
It’s an understandable forecast, though. It’s rare to see a coach experience that level of success at a school like FGCU, mainly because they’re normally gone before it’s possible. Mid and small-majors are accustomed to the revolving door their head coaching positions can become after the titans catch a whiff of a winner.
And Smesko has caught the eyes of bigger fish. He admitted there have been approaches made, and he reportedly interviewed with Oregon State in 2008, Indiana and Illinois in 2014, and was offered the USC job in 2017.
Nothing has been tantalizing enough to attract him away from southwest Florida, although in standard Smesko fashion, he always does his due diligence.
“I love where I live. I love where I work,” Smesko explained. “That’s not to say there wouldn’t be a new challenge that I wouldn’t gravitate toward, but I’ve been really happy with what I’ve been doing and where I’ve been doing it. I don’t really plan on going anywhere. I always listen and see what’s out there if somebody’s interested in talking to me. I always want to hear what they have to say. I am really happy where I’m at, so it has to be a situation I think would be tremendous to get me to leave.”
After 17 years at FGCU, Smesko has built up quite a list of program alums, enough that all his assistants are former Eagles who played under his guise. It wasn’t like that to start, but as he kept adding more of his past players to his staff and saw the results, it gradually became modus operandi.
Smesko said it helps relationships with current players as his assistants, having gone through the same program, can relate specifically to their needs. He’s not the early-30s coach he used to be, and sometimes having an assistant who is closer in age and has the same background as the player can make communication smoother.
But other than the results, there’s another reason Smesko prefers to keep his staff in house. It was tough sledding for him when he was trying to break into coaching, and it took a bit of luck, some advice and tons of work to get his start, as covered in our first article on him. Now he’s in a position to give aspiring coaches their first break, and he wants to reward those who have aided his program’s construction.
“I always wanted somebody that played in the program, give them a chance. I know how hard it is to break into coaching, and you need somebody to give you an opportunity,” Smesko said. “Then as time went on, we had more and more players who were really interested in coaching who I thought would be good at it if given time to develop, and it’s gone to the point where we have a preference now. If we have former players who are really interested in it, they know the program, they usually have a deep affection for it, and it means something to them. I think it makes them more engaged as assistants, and they’re done a great job. We’ve had such success with former players as assistants that it seemed like it makes a lot of sense right now, but it was originally just to give back to our players.”
It makes sense for a coach who said his greatest joy comes not from wins or personal accomplishments, but rather the success of his old players and assistants, who sometimes overlap.
“I get some of the best satisfaction from seeing former assistants do really well,” he said. “I get a lot of satisfaction when I hear from former players from 10 years ago, and they’re staying in contact, and they still have a real positive relationship that much time later. There have been some wins that have been enjoyable and some things that we’ve done that have been exciting, but I don’t know. I don’t look at any of it as being all that important.”
Smesko doesn’t put much emphasis on himself, in his coaching or larger life evaluations. I asked the coach what was something about him people didn’t know but he wished they did, and it was the easiest answer of the interview.
“This one I’m sure of: I don’t think there’s anything,” he said. “I’m somebody who likes to be out of the spotlight as much as possible. I’m never looking for people to know me better or anything of that nature. I like any relationships that developed with people at the university or in the community to just come naturally. I’m definitely someone who likes his time to himself or with a couple of people you’re really close to. I’m not looking for anybody to really understand me better.”
It makes sense when you watch him coach. While some are demonstrative on the sideline, jumping and shouting like a Broadway musical, Smesko slowly paces, his slight body shifts to follow the play is the most animation he shows. He will occasionally write notes or calmly gesture a player over for an explanation or tweak.
It bleeds over to his philosophy, which is more about numbers than anything else. That’s not to say he doesn’t value toughness, attentiveness and other intangibles required for a successful hooper, but to Smesko, math is the core principle to his brand of basketball.
“I would say they might be mathematical in nature,” he explained. “You do things a certain way because they tend to provide more efficient results, and then you’re constantly looking at where you can do it better and ways to do it better. And that’s really the whole thing. It’s all about getting more shots and better shots than your opponent, so more shots and more high-return opportunities than your opponent. When you get it to its simplest points, it’s not very complicated at all.”
When you break the sport down to that level, it begs the question: is basketball a simple game?
“I think you do not have to do very many complicated things to be very good, I will say that,” Smesko said. “I do think to be good at basketball requires a great deal of effort and the ability to concentrate and focus for long periods of time, but … a lot of people will say, ‘Boy, (FGCU has) a really complicated offense,’ or, ‘The way (FGCU does) things, it’ll take a long time to learn.’ I hope that isn’t the case. I hope it looks more complicated than it actually is in practice. We try to have things broken down so that it’s done in a simple way. The complexity is really a façade. It’s all the motion in an NFL play to run a basic play.”
Although Smesko said his system is simple, his team of course works tirelessly for months to get it right, like with all basketball teams. It’s a grind to get through a season, including the preseason preparation, a grueling five-month season, the emotional swings and having to do it all over again the next year. There’s not much of a reprieve for coaches or players, and there can be days you don’t want to go to the gym yet again.
But you do, and you have to. And during those roller coasters throughout the season, managing pain from losses, handling highs from wins and dealing with everything in between, your only choice is to strap in. You have a small group of people – teammates, coaches, anyone else with the team – by your side, but that’s it. Otherwise, it’s about putting your head down and pushing through.
That’s part of what Smesko tries to teach his players, and he said he and his staff use basketball as a vehicle for life lessons. The parallels between sport and life are vast, and it’s not lost on him.
“I think there’s opportunities for perseverance, for work ethic to be developed, for being reliable, being someone other people can count on,” Smesko said. “You get faced with so many difficult situations, and being able to handle it the right way, deal with disappointment. Things not going as you hoped or planned and having the right response to it. Just having an appreciation for what you get to do rather than, ‘Ah, we had practice for three months now, I’m ready to do something else.’
“You probably love amusement parks, but if you went every day for three months, you’d probably get sick of it. So, having that mentality of giving great effort, even on days when you don’t feel like it, trying to get better even after you’ve been doing the same thing for a number of months. I think there are all kings of things players can learn from the situation. Probably most important is how to be a better teammates and handle situations that aren’t exactly what you thought they would be.”
All photography courtesy of the athletic department at Florida Gulf Coast University.