Jason Neidell was named the first-ever head coach of the WKU women's soccer program on Oct. 16, 2000, and the Tulsa, Oklahoma, native began his duties on Nov. 6 of that same year.
Getting to work immediately was a requirement, not an option, because Neidell needed to build an entire roster from scratch before the program opened play in August 2001.
Although time was of the essence for the first-time head coach, his resources were severely limited in those early days — shortly after Neidell began working at WKU on a full-time basis in the winter of 2000, he realized he didn’t have an on-campus office to call his own.
That quickly became an issue, especially during December when most spaces on the Hill are shut down for winter break. Neidell, who was just 28 at the time, had to get creative.
Diddle Arena is usually bright and loud, filled to the brim with raucous fans cheering on the Hilltoppers or Lady Toppers. But all of the lights were turned off when Neidell did his work.
“Before that place was renovated, it was like a haunted arena,” Neidell said. “I was up there in the arena in somebody else’s office making phone calls, writing letters and doing all kinds of stuff basically in the dark during Christmas when nobody else was here that first year.”
Nineteen seasons, 202 wins and 16 winning seasons later, the WKU women’s soccer program has offices spanning an entire floor in Houchens-Smith Stadium, including a lounge area for the team’s current players and a dedicated space for Neidell to conduct his daily business.
While sitting in his office, which is decorated with photos of past teams and shelves filled with memorabilia from a long tenure at WKU, Neidell reflected on how the game he picked up as an infant has given him a career he never envisioned for himself.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Neidell said about being the first and only WKU women’s soccer head coach. “A lot of credit goes to the players that I’ve coached and who have believed in us, believed in the program and trusted the process.”
How it all began
Neidell spent four seasons playing for the men’s soccer program at Yale University, but the 1994 graduate thought he’d likely follow in his parents’ footsteps by becoming an educator.
A three-year professional soccer career delayed those plans, but Neidell said he knew a backup career would be necessary even before an injury officially ended his playing days in 1996.
“I always joked that I played center midfield, center back, left side and then left out,” Neidell said while cracking a smile.
Even though he’d never previously thought about coaching as a career path, Neidell picked up a graduate assistant spot at the University of Tulsa in 1996.
Still, he wasn’t convinced that being a full-time Division I head coach was in his future. A lot of soccer coaches in the 1990s worked on a part-time basis, often doubling as teachers, and Neidell said he worried about being a “Yale-educated guy” going down such an uncertain road.
“My brother is one of my best friends, and I remember a conversation we had,” Neidell said. “He said, ‘Do you love doing it?’ I said, ‘Yes, I love doing it.’ He was like, ‘What does it matter what other people think? If that’s what you want to do, then do it.’”
Neidell said that conversation with his brother, David, helped him decide coaching was something he had a deep passion for pursuing. But his relationship with legendary women’s soccer coach Randy Waldrum is what helped the budding coach secure a career in 2000.
Waldrum, who once recruited Neidell to Tulsa as a player, made sure Neidell was mentioned as a candidate to lead the new women’s soccer program that former WKU athletic director Wood Selig was looking to field beginning with the 2001 season.
Neidell was always “very passionate about the sport,” and Waldrum said it was easy for him to tell that Neidell “had the leadership qualities to become a coach someday.” So, when an opportunity arose to help Neidell get a job, Waldrum was “happy to help support” him.
“However much or little that I helped with that job, the credit goes to Jason,” Waldrum, now the head coach of the women’s soccer team at the University of Pittsburgh, said. “He is the one that impressed the administration and made them believe in his vision for the women’s program.
“It was an easy recommendation to make on my part,” Waldrum continued. “Jason has a tremendous work ethic, he’s very intelligent, he has high standards and expectations — all of which help mold a program into the one he has today.”
Selig sent letters to the head coach of each Top 25 program, including Waldrum, asking for recommendations on who to hire, but Selig knew he’d found the coach he was looking for after Neidell flew to Bowling Green for his interview.
“Last November, we hired one of the best young coaches in America to start and direct our program,” Selig said in a June 2001 Q&A session. “Jason Neidell, whom we lured away from the highly-successful women's program at the University of Tulsa after he had concluded a fantastic professional soccer career upon his graduation from Yale, is the ultimate player's coach and one of the nation's best recruiters.”
Selig felt comfortable enough with Neidell that he gave him a chance to build a DI women’s soccer program at a young age, which “was pretty attractive” at the time.
“I’m pretty wowed by the whole process and experience,” Neidell said. “At the time, I didn’t feel overwhelmed because I felt like that’s what I’m supposed to do. But now I look back on it and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that kid should have felt really overwhelmed.’”
A rocky start
The inaugural WKU women’s soccer team started with several disadvantages, including a lack of collegiate experience since no players were transfers from another institution.
Neidell wanted his initial group to get a good feel for winning early on, so he devised “a creative schedule” that featured multiple games against non-DI opponents in 2001.
After a three-game exhibition slate and the program’s first-ever regular season match at Morehead State, the 2001 Lady Toppers were scheduled to meet Indiana-Purdue University Fort Wayne in their home opener at the WKU Soccer Complex on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2001.
Although the game was originally slated to begin at 2 p.m., the match was delayed for almost 40 minutes after then-IPFW head coach Terry Stefankiewicz approached Neidell with an issue.
“We were warming up and their coach came over and said, ‘We’re not going to play on your field. We’re not going to play the game,’” Neidell said.
A baffled Neidell asked Stefankiewicz what the issue was, and the IPFW coach said the goals at the WKU Soccer Complex didn’t meet NCAA regulations because they were too tall.
After originally telling Neidell that WKU would have to forfeit the game, Stefankiewicz agreed to play despite one proper goal and one goal that was “an inch off regulation.” About 500 fans witnessed the Lady Toppers go on to defeat the Mastodons, 8-2.
“We felt pretty good about dropping eight goals in that day,” Neidell said with a laugh.
Commitment to excellence
WKU posted a 14-5 overall record in the opening season of women’s soccer on the Hill, but its most memorable win that year was a 1-0 overtime victory over defending Sun Belt Conference champion Florida International on Sept. 30, 2001.
Eighteen meetings later, Neidell and the Lady Toppers defeated the Panthers 3-1 in FIU Soccer Stadium for Neidell's and the program's 200th all-time victory on Oct. 13, 2019.
Despite the obvious connection between the two major wins, Neidell said he viewed win No. 200 as a huge step for the WKU women’s soccer program, not his own coaching career.
“It means I’m old,” Neidell said about reaching the benchmark. “I never thought of it as a milestone. I’m just coaching. What’s the difference between 199 and 200?”
More importantly to Neidell, the Ivy League graduate has helped the Lady Topper soccer team become a premier academic program, most recently posting a 3.66 fall semester GPA as a team, including 12 Lady Toppers who earned a 4.0 GPA during the 2019 season.
“They’re here to play soccer, but they’re here to get an education,” Neidell said. “I’m probably a disciplinarian when it comes to academics.”
Neidell said “working with 18- to 22-year-olds” is both the best and worst part of his job, but it’s kept him young and allowed him to have an impact in the lives of many young women.
“My biggest accomplishment that gives me the most satisfaction is seeing our alumni bring their families back,” Neidell said. “Seeing what small part we played in their lives, their careers, who they are now and then coming back to the program, meeting their kids.”
Neidell has been at WKU longer than any place he’s ever lived, and he said a debt of gratitude is owed to the athletic administration and each player that’s “invested” into the program.
Although Neidell could’ve used the Hill as a stepping stone to another head coaching job at another university, he chose to stay. He’s led the WKU women’s soccer team during every season since its inception in 2001, an opportunity he feels “fortunate” to have received.
“I think it’s a rarity to be 20 years in a coaching job in any college sport, at any level,” Neidell said. “But this is home for me now, and I have a huge sentimental attachment to the program because I started it.
“There are very few people that get to say they’ve started their own soccer program,” Neidell continued. “It’s been a pretty cool and fun process.”