Feature Friday: Caryl Smith Gilbert Leads By Example

If Caryl Smith Gilbert could describe her coaching career with one word, she’d say blessed. 

“I get to help people,” Smith Gilbert said. “It’s really important to me… more than the awards and the championships. I help change people’s lives in a positive way.”

Every program she coached and every athlete she mentored can say they’ve been blessed to have her. From assistant coaching stints at Tennessee, Alabama, and Penn State, to her time as the women’s coach at the University of Central Florida to becoming the Director of Track & Field at both the University of Southern California and the University of Georgia, Smith Gilbert left her mark across the country from coast to coast.

Smith Gilbert has also been making history. Most recently, Smith Gilbert is not only the first female head coach for the men’s track & field team at Georgia; she is the first female head coach of a male sports team in the long, storied history of Georgia athletics. Smith Gilbert says taking that position paves the way for women – and minorities – to follow in her footsteps.

“It’s important for women to see black women in leadership roles,” Smith Gilbert said. “But it’s also important for men to see us in leadership roles, too. They’ll have faith and confidence that women and people of color can lead in these leadership positions. [Men] will not be afraid to hire people that look different than they do.”

Well, results speak for themselves: Smith Gilbert’s are yelling.

Before Georgia, Smith Gilbert led the USC women to national outdoor team titles in 2019 and 2021 and the men to multiple top-5 finishes, highlighted by a close runner-up effort indoors five years ago. Smith Gilbert previously coached collegiate greats and record-holders, who later won global medals, like Rai Benjamin and Michael Norman (Benjamin and Norman were both finalists for The Bowerman in 2018 after record-breaking seasons, with Norman eventually winning collegiate track & field’s highest individual honor).

Now, in her second year at Georgia, Smith Gilbert has the Bulldogs barking.

Georgia’s men recently finished runner-up at the 2023 NCAA DI Indoor Championships thanks to a trio of individual national champions who set all-time marks: Kyle Garland won the heptathlon with a collegiate record-setting – and near world record-breaking – total of 6639 points; Matthew Boling captured the 200-meter crown in 20.12 to become the fifth-fastest athlete in collegiate history; Elija Godwin topped the 400-meter podium with the same 44.75 mark that he ran to win the SEC title – both of which cement him at No. 5 on the all-time chart. The women, who were led by the dynamic freshman duo of Kaila Jackson and Autumn Wilson, ended up fifth in the team standings.

“We have a saying around here: ‘Effort and execution’,” Smith Gilbert said. “I would like everybody to execute at one hundred percent and give one hundred percent. But control the controllable things. You can’t control if you’re going to win or lose, or what the next person may do, all you can control is yourself.”

Smith Gilbert developed her coaching style through her own personal experiences. She ran for UCLA, becoming a multi-time All-American and winning Pac-10 Conference titles in the 100 and both the 4×100 and 4×400 relays.

“Sometimes I know the mindset of what a kid might be thinking, because I experienced it first-hand,” Smith Gilbert said. “I always say, ‘If they don’t come to you about something personal, they don’t really trust you to coach them fully.’ And then there’s a fine line you can’t get in their full personal business, right? But whatever they want to share with you, you need to help them through that, and those are the times that you’re really coaching.”      

Smith Gilbert has also taken on a more recent leadership role. Just this past January, Smith Gilbert became president of the USTFCCCA’s Board of Directors. With this position, she’s hoping to bridge the gap between the NCAA and World Athletics. From her perspective, the college athlete is a crucial part of the track & field, and they deserve a shot to qualify for international competition through collegiate competition.

There are big things on the horizon for both Georgia’s programs and the USTFCCCA. Anything is destined for success with Caryl Smith Gilbert at the helm.

Taylor Mascetta is a senior at Fordham University. Mascetta is a member of the Rams’ cross country and track & field teams and is an announcer at the Nike Track & Field Center at The Armory.