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Caryl Smith Gilbert Wants USC to be the Best Running Program in History

The director of track and field and cross-country at University of Southern California has won big—but won’t rest on her accomplishments.

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Caryl Smith Gilbert’s first collegiate coaching job, at Pennsylvania State University in 1998 and 1999, came with its share of challenges.

It was her first time on the East Coast after growing up in Colorado and going to school in California, so “it was cold,” she laughs. She had to learn not only how to coach college athletes but also how to be a professor; the role required teaching strength training and jogging in the school’s exercise science department.

And then there was recruiting. While luring distance runners to State College came relatively easily, the school wasn’t known for sprinting. “I got a few good kids,” she says. However, that wasn’t her sole strategy: “What I did was I got the kids already on the team to improve and to buy in. And I was able to change the way they thought about themselves.”

Smith Gilbert finds it hard to put her methods for instilling confidence and excellence into words: “I just go to work, and I’m just me. I try to just do it by example, day to day,” she says.

Evidence suggests her methods work. In just two years at Penn State, she coached those athletes to four All-America honors, nine school records, and 10 appearances in the finals at the Big Ten Championships. Now, she’s at the helm of one of the most prominent track and field programs in the country, with one NCAA Championship under her belt—and more in her sights.

“Coaching Chose Me”

Smith Gilbert started running at age 12. The local YMCA in Denver had a track team that met across the street from her grandmother’s house. Watching the athletes lining up in blocks mesmerized her; she signed up right away.

“I was good at it from the very first day,” she says. In that talent, she saw a path to the future. Her dad had told her she had to find her own way to pay for college. Track, she realized, just might hold the key.

After setting state records in the 200-meter dash, long jump, and 100-meter dash, Smith Gilbert did indeed land a scholarship to UCLA. There, she earned a film degree, but focused most of her effort on athletics. She won the Pac-10 championship in three events—the 100-meter dash, 4×100-meter relay, and 4×400-meter relay—and was a three-time All-American.

From there, she’d planned on becoming an Olympic athlete. Injury kept her from that dream. “I was kind of lost after I graduated,” she says. “My track wasn’t right. I didn’t have any connections in the film industry. I’d just kind of gone through the motions.”

So while she’d never considered coaching, she was hard-pressed to say no when the coach at her alma mater, George Washington High, told her he had a coaching spot for her. “Coaching chose me,” she says.

At first, she resisted; for one thing, she didn’t like kids. But with each practice and meet, the role began growing on her. She was happier on the track than off it, and she began to show another talent, for getting the best out of others. “It hit me: ‘I kind of like it out here. It’s helping people and I’m making a difference,’” she says. “I wanted to try it a bigger level.”

Caryl Smith Gilbert high fives one of her runners
Photo: Kirby Lee via AP

Persistence Pays Off

Getting the job at Penn State took a few years, she says, and a bit of luck. Her predecessor had quit unexpectedly in November, and she was one of the few applicants willing to move cross-country immediately before the holidays to start the role.

Her early success there made getting the next few jobs easier. From there, she moved on the University of Alabama, then the University of Tennessee. She gained experience recruiting athletes to the South—“kids liked it, parents didn’t,” she says—and in the competitive Southeastern Conference. “That taught me how to win.”

While at Tennessee, she also earned two master’s degrees, in sport management and sport psychology, which she knew would help her ascend to what she calls “a big-time job.”

She was hired for the head role at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where she learned to manage people and instill excellence in a program that didn’t have as much of a big name. “My husband said, ‘You can take a number four program to number two and that’s great. Well, what if you could take a number 150 program to number five? Which one shows what you could really do?’”

As if to prove his point, she guided the UCF Knights to fifth-place finishes in both indoor and outdoor NCAA track championships in 2013; produced the first NCAA champion in the school’s history (Aurieyall Scott, in the 60-meter dash in 2013); and even coached both Olympic Trials qualifiers and an Olympic medalist (DeeDee Trotter, who won a bronze and a silver in London in 2012).

With all that, it wasn’t entirely surprising when she wound up with more than one offer for that “big-time job.” She asked her husband, former NFL linebacker Greg Gilbert, whether he wanted to stay in Orlando, head to Clemson University in South Carolina, or move to Los Angeles, where she’d take the helm at USC.

“He chose,” she says, crediting his support and that of her sons Alex, Spencer, and Osiris. “I think it’s very important that my family believes in what we’re doing as a unit, that everybody in my house is going in the same direction as well,” she says.

Her husband, she says, is her top supporter and advocate, bringing her up when she’s low and back to reality if she’s too far up. “He keeps me level. If he’s not happy, I can’t coach.”

Ongoing Progress

Since her 2013 arrival at USC, Smith Gilbert’s winning record has continued. In her first season, the men’s team tied for fourth and the women’s for 16th at the NCAAs. In 2018, the women staged a stunning comeback victory in the 4x400m relay to win the national outdoor championships.

While victory tastes sweet, winning comes with its own challenges, Smith Gilbert says. “In order to keep winning, you have to keep climbing and you have to work even harder,” she says. “A lot of people view it as, ‘We won, we can relax.’ But you really can’t relax because now you’re the target.”

Even a first-place finish or a championship was unlikely to be flawlessly executed, she says. So even as she celebrates their achievements, she encourages athletes to critically evaluate the wins as well as their setbacks.

“What we try to do is look at film and see if they raced the way they were supposed to,” she says. “Let’s say you’re running a 200. At 50, 100, 150 meters—did you make your time there? If you didn’t but you still won, you can still get better.”

Sure, she’s a perfectionist, she admits. But in order to reach her goals (including to be the first female coach to win a men’s national championship) she has to be. “I want to be the best program in history,” she says. “You can’t do that with just one win. If I get complacent because we won one women’s national championship, we’ll never get to the goal of the rest.”

This story is part of a series on women in coaching, where we highlight female running coaches and their individual paths to success. Find more here, and discover tips from these women to improve your own running here. Feeling inspired? Check out our in-depth look at how to become a college running coach with advice from the coaches featured in this series.