Smesko’s ho-hum attitude toward 500-win milestone rubs off on FGCU players

BY MATT ROTHMAN
SPECIAL TO CSI

Among active coaches in women’s college basketball, his career winning percentage (.811) trails only that of Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma (.883) and Baylor’s Kim Mulkey (.847).

He’s guided Florida Gulf Coast University to four straight 30-win seasons.

Karl Smesko, the first and only women’s basketball coach in FGCU history, is about to add to his long list of accomplishments. He’s one win away from 500 in his career. 

Karl Smesko can pick up his 500th career coaching victory today when FGCU faces American in the teams’ Honolulu finale. SUBMITTED PHOTO

“I don’t really think about 500,” said Smesko, who earned win No. 499 on Saturday as his Eagles defeated Hawaii, 73-67, on Day 2 of the three-day Rainbow Wahine Showdown in Honolulu. “I don’t even know about it until somebody tells me. If it means something to our former players that they’re a part of a lot of those then I’m excited about it. Otherwise 499 will feel great; (and) 501 hopefully if we ever get there will feel great. The even numbers just never had any significance to me.”

(Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer is tied with Smesko for third place among active coaches’ career winning percentage thanks in part to the 88-65 victory her seventh-ranked and 5-0 Cardinal recorded over the Eagles on Friday.)

Similar to Smesko, the idea of 500 wins isn’t necessarily on his players’ minds. 

“He is an extraordinary coach and it is bound to happen sometime,” said FGCU guard Chandler Ryan, who has been with the program for three years. “We’re working for him to get to that point. I think he cares more about the end-of-the-year goals rather than the even numbers. He is an extraordinary coach. We want to do the best for him.”

With a retooled roster following last season’s trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament, Smesko has gotten contributions from a bunch of different players this season. Keri Jewett-Giles leads the Eagles (3-2) in scoring, averaging 14.8 points per game, including a game-high 18 versus FIU. 

Ryan has made her impact from the 3-point line — shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc — and has been a spark off the bench. Alyssa Blair, who was not a big part of the Eagles’ rotation last season but has already started one game this season, is shooting the ball extremely well (63 percent from the field).

The 3-point shot has always been a staple of Smesko’s offense. After setting a new NCAA record for 3-pointers made last season, the Eagles may end up breaking their own mark.  

Smesko began his coaching career at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio, where he went 29-5 and won an NAIA Division II national championship in his only season (1997-98). He served as an assistant coach at Maryland for the 1998-99 season before becoming head coach at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne for two seasons and posting a combined record of 32-22. 

On April 2, 2002 (before the university had even erected Alico Arena), Smesko was hired to build the FGCU women’s program from scratch. He’s turned it into one of the most successful women’s college basketball programs in the country — year in and year out.

Smesko will get his first chance to reach No. 500 on Sunday when his Eagles face American (3-2) to wrap up the Honolulu trip. Like FGCU, American made the NCAA tournament as a No. 14 seed last season; but unlike FGCU, it failed to make it out of the first round. 

Should FGCU lose Sunday, Smesko’s next chance to reach the milestone would come Wednesday night before the home crowd at Alico Arena when the Eagles host Houston.