Smesko’s winning ways extend through his coaching tree

6 – minute read

photo shows FGCU head women's basketball coach
Karl Smesko is in his 21st season as women’s basketball head coach.

When Kate Schrader Bruce finished an All-America basketball career leading her team to the 2007 Division II national runner-up trophy at Florida Gulf Coast University, she didn’t see herself as a coach.


But FGCU coach Karl Smesko did.


After Bruce spent a year playing professionally in Holland, Smesko hired her as a graduate assistant when she returned to the U.S. in 2008. While working alongside the third-winningest active Division I coach in the NCAA, Bruce said getting a “behind the scenes” look at college basketball sparked her passion for continuing to be a coach. She has been head women’s basketball coach at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis since May 2022.


“I wouldn’t be coaching if it weren’t for Coach Smesko,” Bruce said. “He saw the potential in me before I did.”


Smesko’s coaching acumen and his team’s “Raining Threes” reputation will be in the spotlight Monday night as FGCU has a shot to advance to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament’s Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. The Eagles take on fourth-seeded, 10th-ranked Villanova.


After beating Washington State University Saturday, the Eagles’ record is now 582-104 with Smesko at the helm – the highest winning percentage in D-I history.

Over 21 seasons leading the Eagles – the only head coach the program has had – Smesko has inspired a generation of players like Bruce. She is one of 29 former players or assistants of Smesko’s who are or were involved in college or high school basketball – either as head or assistant coach or support staff.


Several coaches shared their insights about Smesko’s influence through his coaching tree – his connections with those he’s worked with. Here are some of their responses:


•      He empowers his assistants in key game situations.
•      They’ve sought his advice and shared possible recruits he may be interested in.
•      Some players, like Bruce, never planned on being coaches until being introduced to their coaches’ preparation, attention to detail and the unique way he sees the game.


“I definitely have a great deal of pride (in former players being involved in basketball),” said Smesko. “Very few thought they would go into coaching. The fact is they knew enough about the game, then they had a passion and love for the game. After that, they wanted to give back as a coach.”


photo shows FGCU assistant head basketball coach
Smesko sometimes lets Chelsea Lyles, center, his longtime associate head coach, act as head coach for a game while he’s the assistant.


Smesko’s coaching tree is extensive. It includes a star at the top, some strong stems with their own leaves, other stems have branched out on their own and another robust root system Smesko has formed.


“Coach Smesko’s coaching tree is truly remarkable, and I think that it speaks volumes about him as a coach,” said Stephanie Haas, now an assistant at Ohio University.


“One of the coolest parts of this is seeing former FGCU teammates and players while on the road recruiting or at the coaches’ convention every year. I still talk to most of my former teammates.”

Smesko’s current staff includes former players Chelsea Lyles (2008-10), in her fourth season as associate head coach and her 13th season on staff, and Shannon Murphy (2007-11), who returned to FGCU as an assistant coach before the 2019-20 season and now is recruiting coordinator.


When FGCU players’ careers end, some approach Smesko about being a coach. Others, he steers toward coaching. Often, their careers start at FGCU.

photo shows FGCU women's basketball coach with team
Smesko talks to players during FGCU's game against Duke University in December.

“First, you always want to hire somebody who can do a good job,” he said. “It’s tough to get into this field and into this business, so if there is an opportunity to help a former player get started, I like to do those things when I can.”

FGCU means something to them, and they know the program’s expectations and standards.

“And it definitely helps in the training curve as opposed to bringing in somebody with different ideas from a previous program,” Smesko added. “Our players have learned the terminology and the way we do things. That takes time.”

photo shows fans at an FGCU basketball game
Smesko is the only head coach fans and players have known since the women’s program began.

Like Bruce, Murphy didn’t plan to coach. But playing for Smesko changed how she saw and played the game, and when she worked with other coaches for eight years before returning to FGCU, she realized how much of an influence he was.

“There are a lot of reasons why Karl has been successful, but one of the main reasons is his level of preparation,” Murphy said. “You can perform better if you prepare better. It takes a lot of time and effort to be as prepared as he is for every game, but he is willing to do more than most coaches.”

Former Eagles point guard Chelsea Banbury, now head coach at High Point University in North Carolina, said she realized she wanted to be a coach when Smesko taught her the game’s complexities.

“When you play for him, he makes you look at the game completely differently,” Banbury said. “He really teaches you about basketball and why something is effective or not.”

When his assistant coaches have earned Smesko’s trust, he’s empowered them. Sometimes, he’ll have longtime assistant Lyles act as head coach for a game while he’s the assistant.

“It’s a great experience for me,” Lyles said. “More than anything, I get to experience what it’s like to manage a game, from substitutions to play calls and timeouts. I’m grateful he allows me to do it.”

photo shows FGCU basketball coach
FGCU has a shot to advance to the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament’s Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.
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