Smesko’s Immediate Success Starts With Willingness to Adapt

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 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 second installment of our series on him. We encourage you to also read part one.

In 1996, Karl Smesko accidentally began his women’s college basketball coaching career.

It was partly intentional: the mid-20s aspiring coach found a graduate assistant opportunity with the women’s program at NAIA Division-II Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio, and used it to get his foot in the door. He wanted his master’s and a start in coaching. Women’s basketball was never something he considered when he called coaches across Ohio for advice.

“I didn’t call the coaches of women’s programs, I just called the men’s coaches,” he said. “It really didn’t cross my mind. That’s not the objective I had. But when I saw the opening and saw an opportunity, I realized that I could be coaching basketball and get my master’s paid for, I definitely jumped at it.”

For the 1996-97 season, Smesko worked on the staff and for his master’s, occasionally picking up shifts at the docks loading trucks for Roadway to make ends meet.

At the end of the season, another opportunity came knocking. Walsh’s head coach left the program, and the players lobbied athletic director Jim Dennison to hire Smesko as the replacement. He wasn’t sure if he would get the job or not, but it was euphoric when he heard the news. Smesko was now a first-time head coach.

He inherited some talent, and his team started off strong to kick off the 1997-98 season, winning its first several games in a row. There was a bit of a rocky patch in the middle, but by the end of the regular season, Smesko had put together a solid squad.

Of course, there was a learning curve. It was his first time running the show, and there were aspects to head coaching he couldn’t have encountered before experiencing it for himself.

“When you become a head coach, you do learn that there’s going to be times where not everybody is totally aligned with your decisions or feel good about who’s playing and who’s not,” he explained. “Being able to make good decisions for the group doesn’t mean every individual is going to be happy with it. It’s something that you have to come to terms with. If you need everybody to be happy all the time, that’s a really hard thing to get accomplished.”

Smesko took the lessons he learned with him into the conference tournament, but his team fell just short of a title, losing in the championship game. The coach did some calculations and determined Walsh would finish one spot outside of the NAIA Division-II Tournament, bringing an end to his first year at the helm. One of his girls left town for spring break, and everyone else grieved the season’s close.

Then the phone rang.

“I got a call a couple days later that they had received a fax saying we were in the tournament,” Smesko said. “I was like, ‘No, that’s a mistake, they shouldn’t be doing that, they take six at-larges, we’re seventh.’ I guess maybe I didn’t factor in that they did an additional thing after the (conference) tournament, and we made it all the way to the championship game in the (conference) tournament, so we actually took over the last spot. I think it reenergized everyone because everybody thought the season was over, and to get a second chance, everybody wanted to make the most of it.”

His team made as much of the new-found life as possible. Walsh went from last team in to national champions in Smesko’s first season as a head coach at any level.

“That’s an embarrassing first-year mistake, but it happened,” he said. “I do think other than the girl leaving for spring break, it was something that worked to our advantage. Sometimes you have a mistake that works for your advantage. When I was calling the players, they had already gone through the mourning of ending a season. We had seniors who thought their career was over, and then they’re given one last chance. They always practiced well and had a good attitude, but there was definitely an edge about them going into that tournament that I didn’t even see in the conference tournament, and it led to a great run.”

At 27, Smesko had taken a team that was predicted to finish sixth in its nine-team conference to a 29-5 record and national championship in his first season running the show. Unsurprisingly, his career moved quickly.

He accepted an assistant coaching position at Maryland for the following season, and in three years had gone from a high school freshmen boy’s coach who could barely get a phone call returned to sitting on the sideline in one of the premier basketball conferences in America. An impressive resume proved his merit, but Smesko knows there was some luck involved, and he’s very thankful for it.

“One thing I’ve always appreciated is understanding that being in the right place at the right time is a big part of it,” he said. “When I was done with my GA and wasn’t sure I was getting a head coaching job, I applied to dozens of schools and heard nothing back from any of them. If I didn’t get the head coaching job (at Walsh), I don’t know where my next coaching job would have been or when I would have got one. A lot of it is good fortune and making the most out of opportunities whenever they come. I know probably a lot of the greatest coaches that there ever were just never got an opportunity or an opportunity to show what they’re capable of doing. That’s just the way it is. There are so many jobs, and so many people want them.”

In College Park, Smesko worked for Chris Weller, a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, former Maryland player and Terps head coach from 1975-2002. It was Smesko’s first time coaching on a stage like the ACC, and it opened his eyes to how it runs at the top. Weller allowed him to be around the strength and conditioning sessions, and Smesko learned how they ran their program for the women’s team but also other sports, like football. On top of it all, he was also afforded a chance to breakdown some of the best in the game at the time.

“I got to see first hand everything from the trainers to the team doctors to the administration to marketing, and that’s not to say anything about getting to study,” Smesko explained. “I was in charge of the scouting, so I got to study some of the best teams in college women’s basketball. North Carolina and Duke were excellent at that time. Virginia was really good. Clemson was really good. There were so many really good teams. As much film as I watched that year, I think I learned a lot about the game, and I got to see how professional and how well-run things are at the highest level.”

Maryland finished 6-21 (3-13) that season, and Smesko moved on to his third school in three years at the end, accepting a head coaching position at IPFW (now Purdue Fort Wayne) in 1999.

The Mastodons went 2-24 the year before Smesko arrived, and reviving the team was going to be a chore. He and his assistant, Bob Boldon, who is now the head women’s coach at Ohio University, would watch seemingly endless amounts of film and dedicated their lives to starting a winning program. Smesko said the experience made him a better coach.

“The turning around of IPFW was definitely tough because you’re inheriting players from another staff. They have to learn how to trust you and believe in what you’re doing,” Smesko said. “Between (Boldon and I), we just stared at tape. We’d go over one game film for eight hours and just keep coming up with ideas for how we could overcome some of the deficiencies we had as a team. I think it’s good to coach at places where you don’t have everything. You have to find the way to make it work. You may not have as much talent as other teams, but you have to find a way to win.”

And he did. In his first season in Fort Wayne, the Mastodons improved to 13-14. In Smesko’s second season, his team went 19-8. In only two seasons, Smesko turned a near-winless program into a winning one.

It was his second time in a few years taking a program to heights it couldn’t have imagined in such a short period. Smesko said there wasn’t anything particularly special he remembers doing at Walsh or IPFW. He just remained open to the possibility of improvement.

“It’s really tough to say,” he said of how he found quick success at multiple programs. “You just went about it. You had a plan for how you wanted the team to play, and you tried to get better at it every day. You took the time to really, honestly evaluate what you’re doing. Does it work, does it not work, how can we do it better? I think if you keep asking yourself those questions and not just assume you’re doing it the right way because you decided it’s the right way, I think there’s an opportunity to become better as a coach and become better as a team.”

After his two seasons at IPFW, Smesko moved south to Florida to start Florida Gulf Coast’s women’s basketball program from scratch, and he has been in Fort Myers ever since. Why he took the job, his experience at FGCU the last nearly two decades and more coming in the third piece of our series on the coach.

Photography provided by Florida Gulf Coast University.

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