January 12, 2023
Karl Smesko: College basketball’s ultimate mad scientist, philosopher and professor
A look inside one of the most innovative programs in college basketball
It was just past 6 in the morning. Karl Smesko had been waxing poetic in front of his team for at least five minutes, perhaps about a play he saw in an NBA game the night before or a motivational video he’d been up late watching.
Nicki Collen – one of Smesko’s assistants at the time – doesn’t remember exactly. But she found it hard to believe that Florida Gulf Coast’s 18 players could’ve been paying attention to any of it.
“I remember saying, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s gonna lose them. He’s gonna lose ‘em,’” she recalls. “Like, I’m trying to stay focused.”
Then came the prompt Collen dreaded Smesko asking the players: “Tell me what you learned.”
“They all shot their hands up,” she says. “They know. He commands their attention. And he doesn’t command it by yelling and screaming. He commands it by, ‘I’m teaching, and you always need to be learning.’”
Even at 6:00 a.m.
The scene bears as much resemblance to a college discussion section as it does a college basketball practice, the players responding to their head coach like top students might to their favorite teaching assistant.
“You don’t know who he’s gonna call on, whether it’s a freshman or a sixth-year senior,” says sixth-year Emma List. “He’ll call on anyone, just to see if you were listening and paying attention.”
You always have to be ready. And on that early morning in the gym in Fort Myers, Fla., during the 2014-15 season, Smesko’s players were. Another smooth day of operations for this well-oiled machine.
Florida Gulf Coast women’s basketball is as much a part of Smesko’s identity as any school can be to a coach – after all, he’s been there since the very beginning, taking the job in 2002 when the school began its first season of play as a Division II program. Since then, he’s overseen the Eagles’ transition to Division I, 10 NCAA tournament appearances (including eight in D-I) and lots of three-point shots – 18,884 to be exact, over 9,000 more than their opponents.
Threes, layups and free throws have been the ethos of FGCU women’s basketball for over two decades, but there’s more to Smesko than just analytics. Not only was he ahead of his time in how he thought about scoring, but he’s still constantly evolving, always tweaking and never settling. He’s as much a professor as he is a coach; he asks questions as much as he answers them; he learns from his players and staff as much as they learn from him. And he’s done it all in a way that’s brought remarkable success to a school that didn’t even exist until 1991.
“I’ve learned so much in the last five years,” says List. “I’ve saved all of my notebooks from film every year. … Just learning the game of basketball has been a great part of my experience here.”
Really, really intelligent
His players and staff call him a mad scientist. Smesko is more lowkey about it.
He only took one statistics course in college but picked up on the inefficiencies in coaches’ decisions when he’d watch basketball – and even football.
“I never understood punting on fourth-and-1,” he says with befuddlement. “The tradeoffs just never made sense to me.”
The tradeoffs in basketball made just as little sense. Why take a long shot for two points when you can move back a couple of feet and have the shot count for three?
“I don’t think you need a real high level of statistics to figure out that there were some inefficiencies going on with some of the decision-making,” he says.
When Smesko took his first head coaching job in 1997 at Walsh University, a D-II school in North Canton, Ohio, there was little to base his philosophy on other than what he thought made sense mathematically: Three is better than two, but if you’re going to try for two, you’d better be close to the rim.
“He was doing it before the Houston Rockets were,” says Collen, now the head coach at Baylor University. “He’s really, really intelligent.”
And without a model like the Rockets to point to as proof that his methods would work, it was up to him to give it a shot. It worked out pretty well – Walsh won the 1998 NAIA national championship.
Now in his 21st season in Fort Myers, the success speaks for itself. But it’s also important to consider why Smesko thinks about the game the way he does. It’s almost out of necessity. He could never recruit at the same level as a South Carolina or a Stanford; his teams need to exploit advantages on the margins.
Back in late November, the Eagles faced the Cardinal. Through three quarters, FGCU trailed by just eight, 61-53, to the second-best team in the nation. Though Stanford ultimately pulled away, outscoring the Eagles by 16 in the final quarter, the game flow captured what Smesko wanted to do.
“When you’re in the fourth quarter, you’ve got at least a puncher’s chance,” he says. “One great quarter where you get hot, you could do something special.”
A big reason why the threes and layups approach works is that no one else does it to this extreme. Certainly, three-point shooting has increased across women’s college basketball since Smesko started coaching, but not quite as much as it has at FGCU.
If Stanford (or another top school like South Carolina) had a few more players that shot more threes, would the team be better offensively? Likely, yes. But they don’t have to do that. FGCU does.
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“I definitely think it would be wrong with Stanford’s personnel or South Carolina’s personnel to try to do what we do,” Smesko says. “Those coaches are obviously two of the best in the game, and they know the way to win is to utilize your talent and maximize your talent, and that’s what they do. For us, it’s hard to get somebody like a Haley Jones or a Cameron Brink or someone like that, so we need to have an alternative that can be successful.”
That alternative certainly makes FGCU an attractive place for certain players, like Kaela Webb, who transferred to Fort Myers after stints at Providence and Detroit Mercy.
“When I finally got to talk to him, and he was saying, ‘All we do is threes and layups,’ I’m like, ‘Coach, this is definitely the place for me. You don’t have to tell me twice because I’m fine with shooting threes or just getting a layup,’” says Webb.
Since joining the Eagles before the 2021-22 season, she’s taken 155 shots; 117 have been threes.
“I grew up playing in a motion offense, playing five-out, so coming here, it was second nature to me,” she says. “I just think he does it in such a good way that helps utilize everyone’s strengths.”
Start with why
In one of the most-watched TED Talks of all time, author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek highlights how great leaders inspire action and focuses on what he calls the Golden Circle, a circle with three rings: what, how and why.
“Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do,” Sinek says in the talk. “Some know how they do it. … But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do.”
Smesko is one of those very, very few.
“The biggest thing is, we want each player to feel like when they’re done playing for us that they couldn’t have gone somewhere else and learned more about basketball,” he says.
Yes, the three-point shot is a big part of that, but he wants the players to understand why.
This often involves handing out excerpts from books and articles that explain why three-pointers and layups are the smartest shots to take. And beyond just shot selection, he also loves showing film of different teams, especially from the NBA and WNBA.
“This is such a long season, and sometimes, they hear it so much from us or Coach Smesko that it kind of goes in one ear and out the other,” says associate head coach Chelsea Lyles, who’s been at FGCU for 15 years, both as a player and coach. “But then once they see, ‘Oh, Steve Kerr teaches it the same way,’ or, ‘Becky Hammon’s doing it this way,’ then they are like, ‘Oh, OK. Now it’s validated.’”
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Adds Smesko: “We definitely try to make learning interesting. … It’s another layer of credibility for what you’re going over.”
Another layer of credibility.
He sounds more like a lawyer prosecuting a case or a Ph.D. student defending their dissertation.
At this point in his career, he could just tell his players to look at the previous success he’s had when they ask why they should trust his approach. But he doesn’t do that. He’s always working to win them over, and he teaches them quite a bit along the way.
“As a player, we should be wanting to learn more, wanting to be pushed more,” says Tishara Morehouse, this year’s leading scorer averaging 16.2 points per game. “It’s a great feeling to have a coach that cares for you and knows your potential and even sees potential that you didn’t even see.”
An economy of words
Collen has spent over 20 years in coaching, including a stint with the Atlanta Dream before taking the head coaching job at Baylor. She only worked in Fort Myers for one season, but she saw something distinctly different in how Smesko ran things.
“One of the things that I think separates him in general is just his hands-on approach with the players,” she says. “I have worked for coaches who very much turn player development, things like that, over to assistants, and he’s not like that. Whether it’s an individual or it’s a group setting, he’s really, really involved in the art of teaching players to shoot.”
When List transferred to FGCU after one year at the University at Albany, Smesko spent hours in the gym with her, fine-tuning her shot. She had never been a three-point shooter and was even discouraged from trying to become one when she played at Albany. Of course, Smesko being Smesko, he told her she was going to learn.
So far this season, she’s shooting nearly 31 percent from beyond the arc, which isn’t great, but it’s good enough that opposing defenses have to guard her.
In addition to players learning how to become three-point shooters, Smesko also has his own basketball vocabulary that they have to pick up. When you grab a steal and run back the other way, you’re not in transition, you’re in conversion; icing a ball screen is called “down” (FGCU was icing ball screens before it was popular, too). He also loves his acronyms. MBD: move before dribble. OPY: open person yell. Or, as Webb remembered, EW: empty words.
“When we say that we’re gonna do something and we don’t do it, (like) saying we’re gonna box out and we don’t box out, he would just say, ‘EW!’” she says.
One of the reasons for the unique terminology? Smesko never played for the same coach for two years in a row, so he picked up a wide range of words. The other? Keep things easy for his players to understand.
“It’s more just creating terms for things that we want to see happen,” he says.
He calls it an economy of words and thinks about it like a hierarchy.
At first, it’s enough to make your head spin.
“It was a lot of words given out at once,” Morehouse recalls. “I really had to take my time and put together, ‘OK, this means this.’ A lot of words are made up, but we understand them. It did take time, but as you play in the program, and as he continued to add on new words and new sayings, you just kinda get used to it.”
Open to something different
While Smesko has his overall philosophy and word taxonomy, he’s also shown no hesitation to evolve his style year-to-year based on his roster.
Take 2020-21 for instance, when Kierstan Bell transferred to FGCU from Ohio State.
“When we had Kierstan Bell, she was really good in a ball screen,” says Lyles. “Prior to Kierstan, we didn’t really set that many ball screens, and when she came in, we had so many plays for her to come off of ball screens.”
The tweaks are consistent with Collen’s observations, now noticed from afar.
“Every year I watch him, and they’re a little bit different,” she says. “When I was there, we wanted to be unbalanced most of the time. Now I watch him, and they tend to be balanced offensively in their five-out. From team to team, it’s, ‘Are we gonna score off cuts, or are we gonna be a team that scores because we’re actually more athletic in space?’”
Even in game prep, Smesko has always been open to different suggestions. When Collen coached with him in 2014-15, they knew they’d likely need to beat Stetson in mid-January if they wanted to go to the NCAA tournament.
They started preparing for how to defend Stetson’s Princeton offense in September. The day before the game, about four months after they first started their prep work, Smesko asked if any of the coaches had any final thoughts on things they may have missed.
“I just said, ‘Coach, when they run that dribble exchange, why do we switch it? We really like the matchups that we’ve got, and that’s not an action that is a scoring action. It’s just an exchange action. Why don’t we keep the matchups?’” Collen recalls saying. “And in shootaround the next day, he changed (it), and we didn’t switch the dribble exchange in the Princeton action and kept our matchup.
“So here we were for like three months on and off working on switch, switch, all this action, and he was open to something different and heard what I said and thought it had value. Those are the people you wanna work with.”
FGCU did, in fact, beat Stetson, 57-55.
That next advantage
Amid all the reading and analyzing film and practicing three-point shots, something else has also shone through over the years: Smesko’s humor.
“He’s a really goofy guy,” says Morehouse. “He’s always cracking jokes, or he’s always making up some type of joke. … I would just all-around put him as a lively and funny guy.”
Lyles points to some of the conference championship celebrations they’ve had as an example.
“He talks all year about how he’s the best dancer on the team,” she says. “Just seeing (the players) with that much joy and laughter once he gets his music going and starts dancing, those are probably my favorite memories.”
Is he actually the best dancer on the team?
“Oh God, no,” she says, without an ounce of hesitation.
But while the dance moves could use some work (Smesko would disagree), he’s still the coach that hundreds of players have looked to for guidance over the last two decades, with his trove of knowledge and philosophical thinking about the game of basketball.
Whether you’re around him for one season or five or 15, there’s always something new about basketball that Smesko can teach you.
“He’s opened my eyes completely to a new level of basketball,” Webb says. “He just helps you see things that you wouldn’t even notice. I think that just boosts our IQ.”
Through 17 games in the 2022-23 season, FGCU is once again continuing to find the success that it has had every year since the start of its women’s basketball program 21 years ago. Now 15-2, the Eagles’ only losses are the aforementioned one to No. 2 Stanford and against Duke, now ranked 16th in the AP Poll.
And as teams across the country continue to learn the value of FGCU’s style, there’s always more tinkering for Smesko to do to keep his competitive edges.
“You’re always trying to find that next advantage,” Smesko says. “How can we teach shooting a little better? How can we get our pace on offense a little bit better? Are there some strategies we could use that could force a couple more turnovers a game and get into transition more?
“You just keep working on getting better, the same thing you want your players to do.”
Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel
Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.