By Jean Frierson
Caryl SmithGilbert is a motivated worker determined to make the most of every day. She knows it, and she knows that others know it too.
“I get a lot of gifts from people who have something to do with relaxation,” she laughed. “I get a lot of lavender oil, bubble bath, and relaxing balms. I get a lot of those. I think that tells me I’m probably not too relaxed of a person.”
Does she ever use them?
“No, not really,” she joked.
On June 13, 2021, Smith Gilbert was named director of men’s and women’s athletics for Georgia. She is the first woman to be in charge of a men’s program in Georgia. Smith Gilbert came to Athens from USC, where she spent eight seasons (2014-21) leading the men’s and women’s programs to huge success.
In 2018, the USC women’s team edged out Georgia for the NCAA Outdoor National Championship, winning the title by one point over the Bulldogs in a meeting that ended in the final race. Last June, Smith Gilbert once again led the USC women to the NCAA Outdoor title, while the men finished in the top five for the fourth time in the last seven championships.
When Smith Gilbert was announced as Georgia’s director of athletics, J. Reid Parker, director of athletics Josh Brooks said she was “a phenomenal coach, skilled motivator and strong leader who will enhance our entire program.” The mission to improve the program, to improve ourselves and to improve everyone, drives Smith Gilbert every day.
“I don’t sleep much. My mind is always working, I’m always thinking about the future – I have to figure out how I can improve, what I can do to improve. Even if we win something, it doesn’t is not good enough because there is something I could have done better I just believe in taking responsibility because I would not impose this on my student-athletes or my own children in my house if I didn’t believe in doing it myself.
As an African-American woman leading a major program, Smith Gilbert said there was “a weight in terms of, I have a responsibility to help as many people as possible, but also, to succeed so that more people like me, than look like me, have the opportunity to do what I do.”
Such a person is Deanna Hill, one of Smith Gilbert’s assistant coaches. In 2018, Hill was part of the 4×400 relay team that won the 2018 national title for USC. Now, she is a young African-American woman starting her coaching career.
“For me to have seen someone like me who is in charge of a program and coaches both women and men, and does so with such power and grace, it empowers me as a new coach coming into the game of knowing how to walk in excellence,” said Hill.
There is a connection between Athens and another pioneer in athletic training. Born in Athens in 1929, Dr. Nell Jackson grew up in Alabama, attended the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), competed in the 1948 London Olympics, then got into coaching . In 1956, she became the first black coach to serve as head coach of a US Olympic team, coaching US women at the Melbourne Games and again at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Smith Gilbert said she often thinks of those who came before her. That’s part of the reason she works so hard, to honor their struggle and determination in all facets of life.
“I push myself for excellence because I never want to disappoint anyone. That is, my family, God, the people who helped me get to where I am, my ancestors, the people who had to fight so hard for so much less,” she said. “I think it’s important that I have some pressure on myself to do what’s right and what’s right and the best I can.”
Said Hill: “You don’t see a lot of African American women getting the opportunities that she was able to get. She’s blessed for that, she’s humble, and that’s always the most important thing to me, that she do so with such humility.”
Championships are great, the result of all that hard work, but they’re not Smith Gilbert’s top priority. Above all, she wants every Georgia Bulldog to leave here a better person than they were when they arrived. If they do, the rest takes care of itself.
“During meetings with her, seeing what she wants and the goals and expectations she has for her athletes, it’s always about creating a better person,” Hill said. “I think most of the time a lot of coaches can focus on being the best athlete, but I think her focus is on being the best person she can be.”
“It was instilled in me by my club coach, Tony Wells, who was a Colorado Flyers coach,” said Smith Gilbert, a Denver native who became an All-American sprinter at UCLA. “That’s what I was taught and it’s also what my dad taught. Integrity, character – you can’t be a champion if you don’t have integrity and character.
“Those are the things that make champions. Because if you’re not honest with yourself, you can’t fix your flaws. And if you can’t look in the mirror, you’ll never admit the flaws. things you need to do to improve.
“I just think being a good person is the start of everything, and everything else starts from there.”
Deputy director of sports communication Jean Frierson is the UGA Sports Team Writer and Curator of the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame. You can find his work at: Frierson Files. He is also on Twitter: @FrersonFiles and @ITAHallofFame.