UCF women’s track & field head coach says program is just getting started
Published: Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Updated: Thursday, April 5, 2012 12:04
When Caryl Smith Gilbert took over the UCF women’s track & field program and was on the recruiting trails, she ran into a problem of identity. Not her own, but rather that of the program she was trying to sell to recruits.
“The hardest thing is the mentality of the recruits,” Smith Gilbert said. “They always look at the ‘bigger programs,’ and some of them have trouble buying into UCF because they don’t even know where it is.”
Coming off of an eighth-place finish at the NCAA Indoor National Championships meet at Boise State University, the Knights have burst into the scene as a regular contender.
Rolling along so far in the outdoor season, UCF has ascended the rankings and is currently No. 13 in the nation.
It would be hard not to trace this meteoric rise back to Smith Gilbert. The truth is in the facts; prior to Smith Gilbert taking over, the Knights never had an All-American or a No. 1 recruit. Now, they’ve got three.
Smith Gilbert has been systematically changing the culture within the program not solely by pursuing top athletes, but top athletes with the right mentality.
“I just don’t try and recruit fast times; I am looking for a certain type of person,” Smith Gilbert said. “If you don’t want to work hard and can’t take criticism, you shouldn’t come here.”
To be perfectly honest
Now, with her program considered a contender on a national scale, it’s Smith Gilbert’s honest, no-nonsense approach that has her athletes onboard.
“It is an adjustment, but she is straight to the point and doesn’t sugar coat anything,” freshman sprinter Octavious Freeman said. “So that is different [from a lot of coaches]. She is going to tell you whether you are doing good or not.”
Smith Gilbert draws a direct correlation between that unapologetic honesty and trust within her program.
“When they trust me they are comfortable telling [visiting] recruits the truth,” Smith Gilbert said. “When recruits come, I like to leave them alone with my team because I am not ashamed or afraid of what might be said because I am very honest.”
Freeman is the latest of example of Smith Gilbert’s recruiting abilities. Freeman was the top recruit in the country coming out of high school and has already made a huge splash on the collegiate level, dominating during the indoor season despite being unfamiliar with the steep banks found on most indoor tracks.
During the recruiting process the freshman standout said she found common ground with her coach-to be.
“Coach Caryl was a big factor [in signing] because of the fact that we did the same type of workouts,” Freeman said.
Freeman may be the most recent top recruit to settle on Orlando as a destination, but she is not the only one.
Aurieyall Scott, now a sophomore, was also considered one of the top recruits in the country.
It started with Jackie
And then there’s senior Jackie Coward, the original All-American to come to UCF.
Smith Gilbert’s first major victory on the recruiting trail came in the form of Coward. In Coward’s four years as a Knight, she became the face of the program and likely will participate in Olympic Trials this summer.
“It has gone from nothing to something,” Coward said. “It’s just a blessing to see how it first started and to see where it has grown now.”
The process of change was rooted in Smith Gilbert convincing her athletes to buy into what the program could be, not what it had been.
“I guess the hardest part is overcoming the culture and the mindsets of what people think UCF is,” Smith Gilbert said.
The Knights’ fifth-year coach was widely regarded as one the top assistant coaches in the nation during her tenure at Tennessee. She specialized in sprints, hurdles and jumps for five seasons in Knoxville.
Her athletes at UCF have experienced similar gains in terms of performance, but to their coach, what matters more is their growth as individuals.
“The most important thing I learned at Tennessee is that my No. 1 priority has to be the positive welfare of the student athletes,” Smith Gilbert said. “I am here to help them not just run fast but be the best they can be in life.”
The gap between what the program can one day be and what it currently is is growing smaller by the minute. For a school where football reigns supreme and basketball and baseball fall in line after, Smith Gilbert’s track program is quietly asserting itself as the most successful program on campus.
But if you think that an eighth-place finish at nationals is enough to satisfy her, you’d be wrong.
“Well, on the outside it’s a great thing because it’s great for UCF, it’s great for the state, it’s great for Orlando and it’s great for the team,” Smith Gilbert said. “But just me being the person that I am, I’m disappointed. I think I would be disappointed after we win a national championship just because I can’t help it.”
High expectations are what have made Smith Gilbert’s tenure successful to this point. If the Knights want to become a mainstay at the top of the national rankings, then these expectations are the beginning.
“There has to be a change in what we expect and what we believe,” Smith Gilbert said. “This is only the beginning. I believe that we can be a national powerhouse year in and year out.
“As soon as people understand who we are fully, this is only the beginning; we can really be great.”