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, he has led the Eagles to five NCAA Tournament appearances, two NCAA Tournament wins and eight A-Sun 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 first installment of our series on him.
Karl Smesko was destined for basketball.
Smesko was always around the game while growing up in Bath Township, Ohio, near Akron. His father was the head coach at Revere High School, where Smesko would eventually attend, until his middle school years, and the elder Smesko would often bring his son to practices, on bus rides and even scouting trips.
“I grew up around the game, and I really enjoyed being around the team,” Smesko said. “I looked up to all the players. I think being around it so closely, you get an affection for it.”
He loved the game so much that after completing his high school career at Revere, Smesko took aim at playing Division-I basketball, his dream to compete in the NCAA Tournament. He didn’t have any full scholarship offers, though, and wanted to stay close to home, so he chose to try to walk on at Kent State.
Unfortunately, Smesko never made the team and didn’t play college basketball, an opportunity he said he regrets missing, but fortunately it opened a different door for him. The time he would have spent playing basketball, he spent coaching instead.
Smesko connected with the people at his high school alma mater and started helping out with the boy’s program as a volunteer. By the time he was finishing up his college degree, he was offered the freshman boy’s coaching job at Revere, the first time he collected a check for his coaching services.
But coaching wasn’t the plan at the time. Smesko had gone to school with a sports broadcasting aim, and it took some convincing to get him into head coaching.
“There was a coach who was (at Revere) at the time, Todd Sutton, who wanted me to help out because I used to still go to all the open gyms and play with the team and things of that nature,” Smesko said. “He actually talked me into taking the freshman position. He said he thought I would be a good coach.”
Once he was in it, Smesko was sold. He knew he wanted to stay in sports, but now he had to choose between the booth and sideline, fully understanding neither would be easy to get in to.
“I gave it a shot and really loved coaching, so that was a point where I needed to make a decision,” he said. “I just felt like I had more of a passion for the coaching part of it, so I wanted to see if there was any way possible to make that work even though I never played college basketball, and I didn’t have any connections of any sort.”
Without anyone to turn to, Smesko took to the phones. He called countless men’s college coaches across the country trying to get involved any way he could. Almost no one returned his calls, and only one person gave him a conversation: Herb Sendek.
Sendek was the head coach at Miami of Ohio at the time, and although he didn’t have any openings to offer Smesko, he did have some guiding advice.
“He told me to work camps, meet as many people as possible, and the big one was he told me to get my master’s degree and wherever you can find a way in, take it, don’t worry about anything else,” Smesko remembered. “That was something that stuck with me.”
Only a few days later, Smesko happened to pick up the classified section of the newspaper and noticed a help wanted ad for a graduate assistant for the women’s team at Walsh University, an NAIA Division-II program in North Canton.
“Following (Sendek’s) advice, I put a resume in there, they called me in for an interview, and I got the job,” Smesko said. “I learned later that I was really the only person who applied, but it got my foot in the door, and I’m forever thankful that I happened to be looking in the classifieds that day.”
Smesko said his conversation with Sendek was a one-off and the two haven’t reconnected since, but he’s grateful the established coach took the time to help him out.
“There may have been one or two more who returned the call, but I left messages for about every men’s coach in Ohio, and Herb Sendek was the only one who actually took the time, had a long conversation with me and gave me advice for getting my foot in the door,” Smesko said. “I’m always really appreciative that he did that.”
Smesko joined the staff at Walsh University in 1996 and began his now more than two decades-long journey coaching women’s college basketball. In the span of two years, he went from graduate assistant in NAIA Division-II to an assistant in the ACC, then ran his own Division-I program one season later. All that and more will be explained in the second part of our coverage of him.
Photo credit to Brad Young, FGCU.