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 fourth installment of our series on him. We encourage you to also read part one, part two and part three.
In the last five years, three-pointers have become all the rage.
Analytics have gained popularity in basketball, and with the numbers has come a wave of deep shooting emphasis that’s changed the game. From the NBA down, many teams are placing more importance on threes and moving away from the mid-range and post play, a stark contrast from even 10 years ago.
If you watch Karl Smesko’s women’s team at Florida Gulf Coast play a game, you won’t see mid-range jumpers. You’ll see five guards on the floor plenty of times. You won’t see much post play. What you will see is a lot of quick shots, plenty of hard-nosed drives and an assortment of threes.
His style has brought plenty of success to the program, which has won eight of the last nine Atlantic Sun regular season titles, appeared in six of the last eight NCAA Tournaments and advanced to the second round twice in that span.
While the severity of his system is stronger than with most other teams that put a premium on the deep ball, it’s not extraordinarily unusual to see in 2019. But in 1999?
“We’ve always had naysayers throughout the whole time,” Smesko said. “Whenever you lose a game, shot a lot of threes and missed a lot of threes, it’s, ‘You live by the three, you die by the three, you shoot too many threes, when they’re not falling you need to something else.’”
When he was starting his career as a head college coach in his mid-20s in the late-90s, he came with zero college basketball experience. He didn’t play when he attended Kent State, and he never had a college coach mentor or teach him any style or scheme. He had help from his father, who coached high school basketball, and watched tons of videos of Bob Knight and Don Meyer, learning from their philosophies. But he said his largely self-made path allowed him to play around with things when others might not have given themselves the same freedom.
“I didn’t have anything set in my mind that I had to be like anybody else. I got to think about the game differently,” he said. “I guess I took some risk and challenged some conventional thinking about basketball despite being a very young coach. There were some things I was willing to try early, like playing five guards at a time, starting all five guards, playing people with three or four fouls, even in the first half, having a heavy emphasis on the three-point shot and looking for opportunities to create good three-point shots.”
Those experiments paid off, and Smesko won the 1998 NAIA Division-II national championship at Walsh University in his first season as a head coach at any level.
“If we didn’t have immediate success, I’m sure I would have faced a lot of criticism, because it wasn’t conventional thinking,” Smesko said. “I was really fortunate that I had a good team that did believe in what we were doing, and they had a lot of success. For the people who thought that’s not how you play basketball, it was hard to argue with the results.”
That’s not to say people quickly rallied behind his ideas. Many gawked at his system despite the success, and even in the modern climate, some dismiss it as a fluke, especially on days when it doesn’t work. But at every level Smesko has employed his tactics, it’s worked and worked quickly, and now there are numbers to show why.
But there will always be non-believers. Their reasoning just changes.
“You have a bad day, and all of a sudden somebody says you have to change your zone offense,” he explained. “Now, there are things like synergy and it says your zone offense is in the top 5 percent of the nation, so you have some validation from outside sources that are more neutral, but I think there will always be naysayers. I think people at first looked at us as a gimmick of some sort that wouldn’t have much staying power. Then it was always the next time we moved up, ‘That may work in NAIA, but that’ll never work in Division-II.’ Then you go to the national championship game in Division-II, and then, ‘That may work in Division-II, but there’s no way you can pull it off in Division-I.’
“But actually, you can, and you do very well. I still hear it, ‘Well, you can do that at the mid-major level, but if you go to the BCS level, you can’t do that anymore.’ It’s like, we play a lot of BCS programs and we’ve beaten a lot of them. People always want to downplay something that’s working and give a reason why it won’t work somewhere instead of realizing there are things to be incorporated that can work at any level.”
There are still those who degrade Smesko’s style, but that has decreased over the years as his ideas have become more common in the basketball world. NBA teams use numbers to help understand aspects of the game previously unrecorded, and you see more three-pointers at all levels than ever before.
While the vindication for what he was doing decades ago can be nice, it was never Smesko’s intention to spark a basketball revolution. He was just trying to win games.
“We’ll see stuff that comes into basketball, and it’s like, we were doing that 20 years ago, and now some other coach has adopted it, and look how ahead of the curve he is,” Smesko said. “There’s some of that thinking, but we’ve never really been pushing it or advocating it. We just did it because we thought it was the best way to be successful as a basketball program. I’m somebody who really keeps to himself most of the time, so it’s not like I was beating the drum for, ‘Hey, pay attention to us, this is how you should do things.’”
That’s not to say things can’t change. The offensive opportunities Smesko saw in the game 20 years ago could change as teams adapt to the updated style. He isn’t married to anything in his system and always willing to switch something up.
“I do think what’s effective can change over time,” the coach explained. “I do think post play has been really inefficient, but post play used to be a lot of traps, double teaming of the post, all that. Now, teams are afraid to double team because of kicking it out for three, so a post might become more efficient than they were ever able to be in the past. So, I think you’ve always got to be thinking ahead of what may be coming next and not be afraid to try things that may not be what you had a lot of success with.”
There is nothing static about Smesko’s coaching. He is constantly reevaluating what his program does, looking for anything that can be improved, no matter the size. Smesko doesn’t close himself off to alternate angles on how the game can be played.
“There are a lot of people who have been successful, they have a system and they make that system work without a lot of changes from year to year,” he said. “I always like to watch as many clinic videos as I can and read as much as I can about the game and see if a different perspective can’t change something, even something small, that might help your efficiency, or maybe just how you help kids understand or perform in the system better. I think it’s important to have an open mind to new ideas and to be actively pursuing new ideas.”
Smesko completed his 17th season as FGCU head coach this year and shows no signs of slowing down. What has kept him in Fort Myers, his outlook on life and more will be featured in the fifth piece of our series on him. Photography provided by FGCU, photographer Brad Young.