Florida Gulf Coast head coach Karl Smesko shouts at his team during the first half of a women's college basketball game in the second round of the NCAA tournament against Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday March 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheis
Mark Wallheiser
January 27, 2017

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) There are two noteworthy differences between Florida Gulf Coast women's basketball coach Karl Smesko and the five people on his staff.

He's the only male.

And he's the only one who didn't attend FGCU.

Associate head coach Chelsea Banbury, assistant coaches Chelsea Lyles and Jenna Cobb, video coordinator Stephanie Haas and director of operations Amanda Pierce were coached by Smesko and graduated from FGCU. And together, they've helped the Eagles go 14-1 since a tough 2-5 start to the season.

It's most unusual, and maybe even unprecedented. No other Division I women's team in the nation currently has a staff entirely composed of alums.

''I feel very fortunate that I have the assistant coaches that I have,'' said Smesko, who has led the Eagles to either the NCAAs or the WNIT in all nine of their Division I seasons. ''Part of it is that have such a good relationship. Another part of it is they love FGCU and this area. And fortunately for me, they just haven't pursued a lot of other opportunities. Apparently, they're pretty happy.''

That seems to be the case.

Banbury, Lyles, Cobb and Haas all found jobs with FGCU immediately after their playing days were done. Only Pierce, who is new this season, had a break between playing for Smesko and working for him.

Smesko knows it's not realistic to think that the whole staff will stay together indefinitely - but there doesn't seem like any real urgency on anyone's part to leave, either.

''I wanted to stay,'' said Cobb, who once was teammates with some members on the current FGCU roster. ''I transferred in as a player, and both Chelseas did, too, but right after getting here I was learning so much right away in this program. I knew it was a special place and knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.''

With eight new players this season, the Eagles expected to struggle early.

This is where having people who understand the FGCU way came in quite handy.

Having a staff fluent in Smesko-speak and how he wants things run has helped turn things around, and come Atlantic Sun tournament time the Eagles look certain to be one of the biggest favorites to secure the league's automatic berth to the NCAAs.

''I think we're very family-oriented, all very close and I think that helps,'' Cobb said. ''We all know the system so well because we played in it. It's not your normal system. It's very hard to learn and we have a lot of new players this year - so since we were all new once, too, I think that really helps.''

Some of FGCU's opponents knew it was only a matter of time.

The Eagles are carrying a 10-game winning streak into this weekend, all of the victories by double figures and with an average margin of 24 points. Put another way, FGCU is starting to look like the teams that Banbury, Lyles, Cobb, Haas and Pierce all played for when they were students.

''I think it's especially useful in a year like this when he's got so many new players and he's trying to teach a system,'' said Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff, whose team faced the Eagles back in November. ''To have everyone on your staff be so adept in helping them learn that, it's going to accelerate their learning curve. They're already good and they're going to get better and better and better.''

Even with the way the Eagles have been rolling of late, it could still be argued that the five best players on the roster might be the ones in dress clothes and holding clipboards during games.

Combined, the five staff members scored 3,729 points for the Eagles. The entire current roster, entering this weekend, has 2,668.

''Continuity helps,'' Smesko said. ''We're all saying the same things. We're all on the same page.''

Here's another example of that continuity: Smesko is still teaching his assistants, the same way he did when they were players.

He studies the game constantly, and often leaves articles for his coaches to study as well. Staff meetings sometimes start with him giving his coaches a scenario to work through and drawing up a play that they think might work. And yes, from time to time, they will argue.

His staff wouldn't have it any other way.

''Oh, he's still coaching us,'' Cobb said. ''It's a classroom for him. It was as a player, and even more as a coach. He does it for the girls, and he still does it for us. So what better opportunity do I have than to stay here and keep learning from coach Smesko?''

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