When he was trying to hire Eric Bell five years ago to coach women’s soccer, TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte pulled no punches.
The job was going to be a challenge.
“We gave him a daunting task,” Del Conte said. “Can you take this program, that has never been to an NCAA tournament, and build a perennial tournament team?”
Bell, looking for a challenge, accepted.
Five years into his five-year plan, he has pulled off Step 1 — the Horned Frogs earned their first NCAA tournament bid this week and will host an opening-round match at 7 p.m. Saturday against Texas A&M (11-8-1) at Garvey-Rosenthal Soccer Stadium.
“That’s why I came here, to have an opportunity to compete for a national championship,” he said. “Hopefully we’re at the beginnings of the ground floor of trying to do that.”
TCU (12-6-2) qualified after reaching the Big 12 championship game last week in Kansas City, Mo., falling 3-2 in overtime to national No. 1 West Virginia after leading 2-0 in the first half. West Virginia hadn’t allowed a goal to a Big 12 team this season.
The Frogs’ conference tournament run began with victories against No. 24 Kansas and Baylor. A week earlier, the Frogs had broken a five-game winless streak with home victories against Texas Tech and Texas.
If not for those four straight victories, TCU’s streak of consecutive years out of the dance would probably have reached 31.
“Do I wish it would have happened earlier? For sure,” said senior forward Michelle Prokof, who will play her 74th game at TCU on Saturday and is tied for second all-time in goals at the school. “But I didn’t think I would leave without an NCAA tournament appearance.”
The Frogs had not won more than eight games in Bell’s first four seasons, and they finished higher than eighth in the conference only once. They reached the Big 12 final as a No. 8 seed in 2012, Bell’s first season, but their 7-10-4 record gave them no shot at an NCAA berth.
Last season, after closing with four consecutive ties, TCU finished above .500 for the first time under Bell at 8-7-4.
“Five-year plan for sure,” Bell said. “I thought hopefully by Year 4 or 5 we’d be in this situation, where we’re in the NCAA tournament, so it’s nice to see the plan come to fruition.”
With only seven winning seasons from its founding in 1986 to 2011, when Dan Abdalla resigned, TCU soccer had no reputation to sell when it went looking for a new coach upon its entrance to the Big 12.
Bell didn’t mind.
“The quality of education as well as trying to create a nationally competitive soccer program was intriguing to me, and I felt as though I could do it here,” Bell said. “And so when I had a chance to visit the university, I thought it was a no-brainer to pack and move and see if I could do it.”
Del Conte said he knew what he was getting when he hired Bell out of his assistant’s position at Florida State, where he was the lead recruiter. The coach’s name had kept coming up.
“People that want to compete against the best, that energizes them,” Del Conte said. “He competed in the ACC. He was not deterred, because he was already competing in a great conference and having great success. And this was his opportunity to be a head coach at an elite private institution he knew he could recruit to. We had just opened a new facility when he was hired, so all the pieces were in place. All that was left to do was to recruit student-athletes that would fit his style of soccer, and we’re here.”
At the next stage.
TCU soccer vs. Texas A&M
7 p.m. Saturday, Fort Worth