Caryl Smith Gilbert already had a decorated career before the 2015 University of Southern California men’s and women’s track and field season. During just her second year at the helm of USC track and field, Smith Gilbert won both men’s and women’s PAC-12 Coach of the Year honors. Her PAC-12 Men’s Coach of the Year title made her the first woman to win the award in conference history.
“I think I’m a teacher and a leader,” she said in an interview with the Orange County Register. “And a friend. But track comes second for sure. Maybe a life coach. And if I can get you to have a happy life then everything should fall into place.”
Smith Gilbert’s first head coach position at the collegiate level was at the University of Central Florida. Under her leadership as the coach of track and field and cross country, the Knights won six Conference USA track and field indoor and outdoor titles. Her players had more than 100 All-American nominations and set more than 100 school records.
The biggest year for the Knights was the 2013 season when UCF won its fourth straight C-USA title. No other track and field program has accomplished this feat in conference history. In addition, Smith Gilbert’s team had its first-ever outdoor national Top 10 ranking and broke 12 school records. One of the standout athletes that year, Aurieyall Scott, became the school’s first NCAA champion in any sport when she won the 60-meter dash at the NCAA indoor meet.
After her success leading the Knights, USC hired her as the school’s director of track and field. At USC, she oversees the men’s and women’s track and field teams. In her first year as director she won the NCAA West Region Women’s Head Coach of the Year award and the MPSFC (Indoor) Women’s Head Coach of the Year title. That year her players accomplished 22 all-time Top 10 school marks and Aleec Harris set the school hurdles record.
Along the way she added numerous awards to her successful coaching career. After the women’s track and field team scored the most points (57) at the NCAA outdoor championship since 2002, she was awarded the 2019 USTFCCA Women’s Indoor and Outdoor Women’s Coach of the Year and Pac-12 Women’s Coach of the Year.
In 2018, Smith Gilbert attained something only one other USC track and field team had done before. She led the women to win the 2018 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship. It was her first national title, which led to Smith Gilbert winning the 2018 Nike Coach of the Year Award.
“This award is not about me, it’s about allowing the world to have a preview of what women can do,” said Smith Gilbert in an interview with USC Athletics. “This is a testament to all the years of hard work, but most importantly, it’s about changing lives and helping people along the way. I’ve been fortunate to do that in my career.”
Before her triumphant coaching career, Gilbert Smith was a highly regarded track and field athlete. She attended UCLA where she received her Bachelor’s degree in film and television production and was a student-athlete on the women’s track and field team. Despite facing injuries she was a Pac-10 champ in the 100-meter dash, 4×100-meter relay and 4×400-meter relay. Along the way she was a two-time Colorado State champion in the 200-meter dash and long jump. At UCLA, she was a three time All-American.
“I was a pretty high-caliber athlete,” Smith Gilbert told the Orange County Register. “I identified myself through the sport instead of other things. So it was just a really big disappointment. I stayed injured a lot. It was a big disappointment, college was, and it didn’t go the way I predicted it to go, and like most young people you think you’ve got your whole life planned out, and if it doesn’t go exactly according to that plan you don’t know what to do.”
Before the global pandemic, Smith Gilbert was entering her seventh season with USC. Outside of her head coach positions she also was an assistant coach for Tennessee (where she earned two master’s degrees in sport management and sport psychology), Alabama and Penn State. Outside of her collegiate coaching experience she was an assistant with Team USA during the NACAC and selected as an assistant coach for the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan.
“I think that champions are made through character,” Smith Gilbert said in an interview with 1080 Motion. “You can’t have a championship mentality and not tell the truth, not be on time, not dress appropriately, not have integrity. Champions are on time. Champions are honest, because you have to be honest with what your weaknesses are in order to improve them, right?”