John Denton's Knights Insider: Tough Loves Brings Success

June 9, 2010 ="" alt="Twitter Logo" border="0" class="imported">Follow us on Twitter | ="" alt="Facebook Logo" border="0" class="imported"> Get social with the Knights on Facebook

By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF's women's track and field team was going through its final workout last week before heading off to the NCAA Track and Field Championships, and this time - for a dramatic change - it was the athletes who were doing the yelling and not the coach.

Jackie Coward was mockingly screaming out orders and Sheila Paul was wildly waving her arms and had a faked stern look on her face. Meanwhile, UCF head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert was doubled over in laughter, amused wholeheartedly by the stunt.

Smith Gilbert, of course, is usually the one doing the barking and waving. Her coaching style is one full of tough love, blunt truthfulness and a lack of forgiveness for those that don't believe UCF can achieve greatness. That her athletes could openly mock her during a practice session showed both the respect and love that they have for the no-nonsense coach.

Smith Gilbert has guided UCF to greatness in just three years of running the track and field program, leading the Knights to their first C-USA title last month. And this week she will be taking Coward (100-meter hurdles), Paul (100-meter dash) and Sonnisha Williams (long jump) to the NCAA Nationals in Eugene, Ore.

Smith Gilbert sees the accomplishments as a first step in all that is possible at UCF. And she makes no excuses for her demanding style of coaching, insisting that it's her job to take athletes out of their comfort zones and push them to achieve more than they think is possible.

"One of my mentors was retiring and I asked him what was the most important thing that I should know as a coach," Smith Gilbert said. "He said that if your athletes love you every day then you are not doing your job and if they hate you every day then you're not doing your job. So they have to love me sometimes, respect me and have fun.

"But if they're not doing what they're supposed to do or getting to the level that they could reach, then it's my job to tell them," Smith Gilbert continued. "On those occasions, I push them and I tell them the truth and they get angry with me, but they get to where they need to be. I've found that when I back off and I'm just nice, they don't run as well. So I just have to be me and if they are mad along the way, that's OK because at least they will be winning."

Smith Gilbert has done plenty of winning in her track career as an athlete and coach, allowing her to command respect from her athletes. She was a three-time All-American at UCLA and still talks to legendary coach Bob Kersee from time to time for advice. She won two state titles and produced three All-Americans as a prep coach in Denver.

And from there, she had tremendous success as an assistant coach at Penn State, Alabama and Tennessee. At Tennessee, she played a pivotal role in the Lady Vols winning the school's first NCAA Indoor Championship. That squad produced 24 All-Americans and broke seven school records.

She made the jump to UCF in 2007, becoming a college head coach for the first time. Her time in Knoxville helped her lure Coward, one of the most decorated recruits ever to end up at UCF. Coward came to UCF after being voted to ESPN's Track and Field All-Decade team following her spectacular prep career at Knoxville West High School.

She followed Smith Gilbert to Orlando because she believed the coach's determination and truthfulness. NCAA rules limited how much contact Smith Gilbert could have with Coward during recruiting, but ultimately she swayed her into picked UCF with her persuasive measures.

"Coach would always be like, 'Hey Jackie!' She kept trying and trying," said Coward, who ultimately turned down offers from SEC, ACC and Big 12 schools to attend UCF. "(Smith Gilbert) called me up and said, 'I know you probably don't want to hear what I have to say,' but I listened. Every school has weights and a coach, but my spirit felt right with Coach."

And Coward said she wouldn't be the runner she is now without Smith Gilbert's tough, but loving ways.

"She rides us hard, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Matter of fact, if she's being too lenient on me, I tell her to chew me out because that will make me run fast," Coward said. "She's a mom, a coach and a friend. She's everything that I could ask for. That was another thing about picking this school for me. All these schools have good coaches, but you need a friend, a mentor and somebody to advise you about getting out in that real world. She's another example of being a black woman being successful in this world and serving as a great example for us."

One strong example set by Smith Gilbert was the belief that a C-USA title was well within reach. She laid the ground work for that future success by winning recruiting battles in Knoxville (Coward), South Florida (Paul, Tiki James and Micaela Wimberly) and Atlanta (Aisha-Marie Frazier).

The Knights finished second in the Outdoor Championships in 2009 and third in the Indoor Championships, the program's highest finishes in either competition. She had big dreams for the 2010 Indoor Championships, but the squad slumped to a disappointing fifth. She ratcheted up the intensity heading into the 2010 C-USA Championships on UCF's campus, feeling it was time for the Knights to reach their vast potential.

The result was the program making a furious charge to rally past UTEP and three-time defending champion Rice for the school's first C-USA track title.

"I've always known it. I always felt we could have done that in the Indoors, but nobody believed it but me. I was like Tom Hanks on Castaway on a deserted island," Smith Gilbert said. "They sometimes think I'm crazy. But if you don't have an insane mentality and believe it when it doesn't look right, then how are you going to make anybody else to believe it? If I say let's get third, then we'll always be going for third. But I know we have the talent, the facilities and the support staff to get this done and there's no turning back now."

And there's no turning back on Smith Gilbert's style of coaching. She vows that success not only won't soften her stance, but instead make her push even harder - even if that means ruffling a few feather along the way. "Most of time if you don't tell people the truth, they're not going to get better," she said. "In telling young people the truth, they don't always believe you, see it or even want to hear it all the time, but it still makes them better. And later on, we develop that bond because they know I will be blunt and tell them the truth."

John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.