FGCU Women’s basketball coach built organization and success from the ground up

Published: November 24, 2022 8:24 PM EST
Updated: November 25, 2022 11:25 AM EST

The Florida Gulf Coast University women’s basketball team is ranked in the top 25 in the country and is getting dubbed as the top mid-major program in the country.

While Karl Smesko may not be the most well-known head coach, he is one of the most successful coaches of all time.

FGCU women’s hoops aren’t regarded as one of the top programs in the country yet.

But it doesn’t take long to look around Alico Arena and understand the accomplishments speak for themselves.

Trophies line the halls of the arena while banners hang from the rafters. Success for the Eagles is par for the course.

Guard TK Morehouse remembers when the Eagles began recruiting her.

“I looked them up and I was like wow, it’s so much winning in this program but I’ve never heard of this program! That’s crazy,” Morehouse said.

The man behind all of the winning is still at the helm.

Forward Sha Carter said head coach Smesko doesn’t let the team get caught up in the past.

“Of course, we look at him as a legend! He’s an amazing guy. But he doesn’t let us stay in that moment,” Carter said.

“He just seems like a regular guy, he always checks up on us. We don’t look at him any type of way besides a great coach,” Morehouse said.

Smesko is the only coach in FGCU women’s basketball history.

He helped create the program more than 20 years ago, a fact he doesn’t dwell on.

“Almost never. The only time I think about it is when someone else brings it up,” Smesko said.

Entering his 21st season, Smesko and the Eagles have made the NCAA tournament five years in a row, including a trip to the second round last season.

It’s been a long journey for Smesko building the team from the ground up and becoming a division one powerhouse.

Smesko explained that all his best teams have the same selfless approach.

“For us, it’s all about building the best team that we can and having players who buy into a team concept and help each other be great,” Smesko said.

A new challenge faces the Eagles this season because they need to replace WNBA first-round pick Kierstan Bell, the first in program history.

“You don’t replace a Kierstan Bell,” Smesko said. “What you do is redistribute some of what she does.”

They also lost five of their top seven scorers, but the team doesn’t seem concerned.

“That recipe still works. So, as long as we listen to him and do what we have to do and play as a team, the rest will continue to work out,” Morehouse said.

“We just have to try to put together the best team we can this year. The players on the current team deserve that,” Smesko said. “This is their opportunity. I take their opportunity very seriously.”

Success can bring more opportunities in professional sports.

Smesko has been linked to larger programs in years past but hasn’t taken the leap to schools that can offer more money and attention.

Why does the fifth-winningest coach in women’s hoops history stay at FGCU where he’s the fifth highest-paid women’s coach in the state and the 60th highest-paid coach in the country?

“I’m enjoying what I’m doing and I love where I live. I don’t see a need to mess with it,” Smesko said. “I’m competitive and I like to have challenges so there’s definitely some draws for being at the biggest program where you’d have the chance to win a national championship, but I never let this be about my ego or necessarily my bank account.”

And, his players don’t want him to go anywhere anytime soon.

“There’s going to be a time when you see FGCU in the Sweet 16, possibly even the Final Four. It’s gonna shock a lot of people but I think it’s very possible for this program,” Morehouse said.

The Eagles have started the season undefeated with a 4-0 record, and their next home game is Dec. 4 against Ave Maria.