Underdog

On April 6, I will go back to Doane University for their annual Sports Hall of Fame banquet.  I will proudly introduce three Doane Tiger women’s basketball teams that  advanced to the NAIA II Final Four in three straight years.

In 1995, the Tigers lost on a buzzer beater after rallying from a 15-point deficit in the final nine minutes.  The 1996 Final Four was the most unexpected since we had to beat the number one team in the nation in the Elite Eight.  A more talented Northwest Nazarene beat Doane in the Final Four in a close game.

The 1997 Final Four team is the one I continually kick myself about our loss.  In the first two Final Fours, I had my players lay low and rest on our Sunday day off.  Since we lost both of those games, I decided to change tactics and get them active on Sunday.

We took the players to church, helped run a youth clinic, took them to the mall, went to a movie and went out to eat.  The next day we laid a giant egg against Walsh College.  That’s the real story of that last Final Fours.

At the end of the 1996 season, the long-time Walsh coach chose to leave.  She wasn’t fired or pressured to resign.  After over 200 games, she just left the coaching profession.  That year, she had hired a graduate assistant by the name of Karl Smesko.

Karl’s dad was a basketball coach.  Karl was a close follower of Bob Knight’s philosophies but had only been able to use any coaching strategies on a junior high team.  At Walsh, his duties had been pretty much been on the perimeter.  He had the weight room supervision and oversaw film break-down.  He did help with the team’s practices.

After the head coach’s resignation, the athletic director was about to start a search for a new coach.  I don’t think finding a great hire was a top priority of the athletic director.  When a group of players came to him in support of hiring Karl, the athletic director didn’t hesitate to hire the first-year coach.

Basketball was definitely in Karl’s blood, but one year as a graduate assistant is hardly the experience most athletic directors look for when hiring a new head coach.  I don’t know why Karl was hired, but it made the athletic director look like a genius.

His Walsh team was pre-season selected to finish sixth in their conference.  Despite an impressive and surprising 24 – 5 record, the Walsh team never was ranked in the NAIA II top 20 nationally.

When highly ranked Shawnee State beat Walsh in the finals of their conference tournament, Karl sent his players home for spring break.  A non-ranked team had never qualified as an at-large in the national tournament.  It was a great season for Karl’s first year coaching college women’s basketball.  If it had ended right there, it would have been a remarkable season.

It didn’t end there, though.  Karl was informed that his team had been the last team selected to participate in the 32-game national tournament in Sioux City, IA.  He quickly called his girls back from break for what most people assumed would be a one-game appearance.

Karl’s Walsh team again proved people wrong.  They won on Thursday, Friday and Saturday to reach the Final Four.  It was a strange year in the NAIA National Tournament.  All the highly ranked teams had gone down to defeat.

Waiting for the Walsh team was my Doane College Tigers.  Everyone, including me, thought this would be our big break.  Surely the undersized Cinderella team couldn’t beat a team that had experienced the Final Four the past two seasons.

I did a terrible job with the Sunday activity schedule, but the one good thing that happened is Karl’s Walsh team helped with the youth clinic.  I got to know Karl and was immediately impressed with him.  Not impressed enough to think he could pull off another upset.

The Tigers immediately got in a first half hole when one of Karl’s starters had five three-point field goals.  She only had nine of them the entire year before that Final Four game.  We came out flat, started the second half flat and Karl’s Walsh team had a 13-point victory.

Not only did he advance to the championship game, but his unranked team ended up winning the national championship.  Talk about ultimate under-dog.  Walsh College had come from spring break to national champions.

Karl left that year to assist at Maryland for one year.  I kept in some small type of contact with Karl.  He became the head coach at Purdue-Fort Wayne, a NCAA II team.  That first year at IPFW, he had his only losing season, going 13 – 14.  After his second year, he left the university.  He told me they were going to division one.  Karl didn’t think the school could finance a winning NCAA I program.  He was right.

Karl was smart.  He didn’t stick around to take those lumps.  He took the Florida Gulf Coast women’s job for the 2001-2002 season.  They were an NAIA II school.  Once he got back to the Final Four and once he lost in the championship game.  Then Florida Gulf Coast announced their decision to play in NCAA I.  Just like a IPFW, Karl was skeptical of the school’s commitment to win at the division one level.

Here’s where locally Karl Smesko comes on the scene.  Missouri Western had a women’s basketball opening.  Karl was interested.  He liked the Midwest having grown up in Ohio.  He called me as I was completing my eighth year at Northwest.  Other coaches had won at Missouri Western and I thought he would be a slam dunk hire.  I told him I would make calls for him if he wanted.

I’m not sure how a call from a Northwest coach would be accepted at Western, but Karl would be a great hire.  What stopped the hiring from going any farther was the pay a NCAA II school could offer in comparison with a division one school, even a lower level school, wasn’t close.

Karl stayed at Florida Gulf Coast and it paid off for the Ft. Meyer school.  In the 11 years, Florida Gulf Coast has been in NCAA I, Karl’s teams have won an incredible 302 games.  It was this March that Karl showed up in our area once again.

After winning 30 games this season, his team automatically qualified by winning their conference tournament.  They were seeded very low and their first-round opponent was Missouri.  Missouri had impressed everyone with a strong year in the powerful SEC Conference.

Just like back in 1997, being the under-dog didn’t bother Karl or his team at all.  I watched as Karl, with the same open collar shirt on the sideline, beat the Tigers by about the same margin as way back 22 years ago against another Tiger team.  Karl is the ultimate under-dog success story.

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