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 third installment of our series on him. We encourage you to also read part one and part two.
After turning around his second program in four years, Karl Smesko decided to bake his own cake.
In 2001, he learned of a unique opportunity: Florida Gulf Coast University, a recently-opened school in Fort Myers, Florida, was building an athletics department, and it needed someone to start the women’s basketball program.
What many would see as a near impossible mountain to climb, Smesko saw as a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
“How many times are you actually going to get to be the first coach of a program, get to build something from scratch and be part of the first game in school history?” he said. “That was definitely an attraction for the job. I think a lot of people may perceive that as a negative. They don’t have the infrastructure in place, they don’t have any players, it’ll take a long time. I never looked at it like that. I looked at it as an exciting opportunity. How often will you get an opportunity to do something similar?”
Smesko accepted and joined the men and women working out of trailers to piece together the athletics department and its teams. There were no facilities. There were no players. Only administrators and ambitious coaches who wanted to be the FGCU firsts.
After spending a year recruiting, building a staff and arranging makeshift facilities, Smesko’s team began competing. It was built with girls who bought his sales pitch: to be members of a program’s first team and to the set the tone for what would follow.
They set that bar high. In 2002-03, the program’s opening season, it went 30-1. In the matter of one year, Smesko had taken a team that did not exist to a nearly perfect record.
Smesko’s Eagles competed in Division-II for four more seasons, reaching the Division-II Regional Semifinal in 2006 and losing in the national championship game in 2007, before elevating to Division-I and joining the Atlantic Sun Conference. It took until the second season for the Eagles to win their first regular season conference title, and following four-straight WNIT appearances, the team made the NCAA Tournament in 2012 in its first season eligible for the Big Dance.
FGCU hasn’t looked back since. The Eagles made their sixth NCAA Tournament appearance in 2019 and third in a row. The program has won two tournament games, one in 2015 and another in 2018, and has claimed eight of the last nine A-Sun regular season championships. In his 17 completed seasons in Fort Myers, Smesko is yet to come close to a losing record and has won at least 30 games in five separate campaigns.
If it sounds like it’s been smooth sailing, it hasn’t. For all the success and celebrations, there have been heartbreakers and daggers along the way.
In the team’s first March Madness bid in 2012, it was a No. 12 seed facing St. Bonaventure in the first round. The Eagles had a, 53-42, lead in the second half that St. Bonaventure erased with a 14-1 run that concluded in the game’s final two minutes, giving the Bonnies their first advantage in 16 ½ minutes. FGCU got the game tied at 58 to send it to overtime but ultimately fell, 72-65.
When the time in regulation was winding down, FGCU had a sideline out of bounds opportunity it didn’t convert. Smesko said after the fact, he realized he didn’t tell his inbounder, who was notoriously safe with the ball, that it was okay to take a risk and throw it into a tight window given the game situation.
“I didn’t do my job of letting her know this was a situation where it was okay to put it in a tight window if it was there,” Smesko said. “You know there’s things you could have done better as a coach and that very easily could have changed the outcome of the game, and you learn from it.”
When his team returned to the Big Dance two years later, it again found itself as a No. 12 seed, this time facing Oklahoma State. Again, the Eagles played an overtime tournament game, and again it lost in heartbreaking fashion. This time, an Oklahoma State layup with 43 seconds remaining in the extra period made the difference, 61-60, in a game FGCU led for much of the second half.
A chance at redemption came sooner than expected, though, with a rematch in the first round the following season. A 31-3 (14-0) record earned Smesko’s nationally-ranked side a No. 7 seed in 2015, now the favorites against the Cowgirls.
“I thought it was a really good thing,” Smesko said of the replay. “I think it was something our players were really excited about. I don’t know if Oklahoma State was excited about it, so I thought we had an advantage in that situation. Our players had the mindset that they had amble opportunity the year before to win the game. Give Oklahoma State credit, they made the plays down the stretch to win, but I felt like our players saw they had a chance to make up for what they didn’t get accomplished the last year, and they were going to make the most of it.”
The Eagles didn’t need overtime or last-second baskets for this one. They defeated Oklahoma State, 75-67, to extend their winning streak to 26 and giving the program the NCAA Tournament win it had been aching for.
With all the success Smesko and his Eagles have seen in their nearly two-decade long marriage, excellence is now the expectation. After losing five of the top eight players and two All-ASun talents, the Eagles were picked to win the conference again in 2019.
“I think that’s more expectations that we’ll find a way to do it,” Smesko said. “We know there’s high expectations from our fan base, there’s high expectations from people who are familiar with our program, and most importantly, we have high expectations that we’ll improve throughout the season, we’ll continue to get better, and we’ll be playing our best basketball at the end of the year. I think once you have a lot of success, that’s the natural byproduct of it.”
The Eagles performed as predicted this season, adding another ASun title to their trophy case. Outside opinions, pressures and expectations have yet to hinder Smesko at FGCU or any of his previous posts, flipping programs’ fortunes and making something out of literally nothing.
In FGCU’s short documentary on the program, “Raining 3s: The Story of FGCU Women’s Basketball,” Smesko was asked if he found a special satisfaction from launching the program to scratch and taking it to where it’s gone.
“I don’t really look back at what we’ve done too often,” he said in the video. “I’ve always been of the mindset of, no matter how beautiful the past is, it’s always an ugly place to live.”
On Nov. 25, 2018, Smesko earned his 500th career victory, a 90-71 win over American in the Rainbow Wahine Showdown in Honolulu, Hawaii, hitting the milestone in just 616 games. He got there by making the most of what he was given and maintaining a forward-thinking outlook. It’s a technique that’s been useful to him in coaching but can serve many purposes in one’s life.
“Your mindset going in might dictate a little bit of how much success you have and how early,” he said.
Smesko completed his 17th season as FGCU head coach this year and shows no signs of slowing down. His unique basketball philosophy, what has kept him in Fort Myers and more will be featured in our fourth piece of our series on him.
Photo provided by FGCU Athletics, photographer Brad Young.