History, ‘multiple championships’ among mission for new UGA track coach

Southern California Trojans coach Caryl Smith Gilbert reacts during a dual meet against the UCLA Bruins at Drake Stadium, Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. Gilbert is now the Georgia track coach. (Kirby Lee/AP)
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Southern California Trojans coach Caryl Smith Gilbert reacts during a dual meet against the UCLA Bruins at Drake Stadium, Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. Gilbert is now the Georgia track coach. (Kirby Lee/AP)

Credit: AP

New Georgia track and field director Caryl Smith Gilbert was introduced Monday, a hiring that arrived with no shortage of meaning.

Smith Gilbert, fresh off leading the USC women’s team to its second NCAA outdoor championship in three years, will also be the first female head coach of a Bulldogs men’s program in school history.

She is the first head-coaching hire of UGA athletic director Josh Brooks.

“I think it’s an opportunity to open more doors, so athletic directors and staffs and schools and universities can see the success that we can have,” Smith Gilbert said Monday on a videoconference. “I never want to be termed as the best female coach or the best Black female coach. I just want to be the best coach. I want to be the greatest coach of all-time.”

For Brooks, installed in the job in January following the retirement of AD Greg McGarity, it’s a hire that he called extremely important in its significance as his first.

“That’s why we went all in and we shot for the moon,” Brooks said. “We went all in for the best coach we could have in the country and there weren’t going to be any excuses about settling for anything less than that.”

Brooks, who said that track and field is a special sport to him, made Smith Gilbert’s status as his first hire part of his pitch.

“You’re my first hire, there’s no way I’m not going to let you be successful,” Brooks said, paraphrasing his comments to Smith Gilbert.

At USC, beyond the women’s two national titles, the men’s team finished in the top five four times in her eight years at the school.

Still, her predecessor, Petros Kyprianou, has set a high bar. He led the Bulldogs to two national titles, a women’s indoor championship and a men’s outdoor title, both in 2018. However, with a long-term dispute over facilities between the coach and administration over facilities unable to be resolved, Kyprianou and UGA parted ways after the conclusion of the NCAA championships this past weekend.

“We know that under her leadership, we can multiple championships,” Brooks said. “Not just NCAA championships, but SEC championships, as well. So we’re excited. I can’t think of a better day to be a Georgia Bulldog than (Monday).”

The hire was weeks in the making. Smith Gilbert said that USC athletic director Mike Bohn informed her of Brooks’ interest in speaking with her after the Pac-12 championship — won by the USC women for the third year in a row — which took place May 14-16.

Smith Gilbert was not able to visit to Athens but began doing her own research and spoke with Brooks after the NCAA west regionals May 26-29. Brooks said that “I had an idea earlier this spring” that there would be a change with Kyprianou.

His expected departure was announced Sunday, with the announcement of Smith Gilbert’s hire coming minutes later.

Smith Gilbert said she loves USC, but wanted to be in a more competitive conference and, having been an assistant coach at Alabama and Tennessee, had always wanted to be in the SEC. Further, she recruits in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.

Smith Gilbert said she did not make a final decision on leaving until after the NCAA meet ended on Saturday. Nothing was wrong at USC, she said, “but I just felt like the opportunity to win championships is going to be more advantageous at UGA.”

Smith Gilbert said that the matter of facilities was raised. While Brooks made a point to note that upgrades are on the way for the track and field program, such as a new locker room to be built in the Butts-Mehre complex, Smith Gilbert arrives not expecting the sort of facilities that Kyprianou sought. She said it wasn’t a sticking point.

“If you know what I know, you come from L.A., there is no land,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s a problem for me, let’s say that. Because we’ve been very landlocked at USC.”

As for Smith Gilbert’s status as the first woman to coach a men’s team at UGA, Brooks likewise acknowledged her role as a trailblazer.

“I don’t think it was intentional to check any boxes or anything like that, but I think when you have an open mind, and you really seek after the best people, and you don’t just think in one small category, you see that there are a bunch of talented females and females of color, and I’m proud of that,” Brooks said. “And I do hope we are opening doors, because I want young girls and young women in this community to understand that they can be coach Caryl Smith Gilbert one day.”