Hector Gutierrez sat outside of his home in Fort Worth, Texas, a purple TCU sweatshirt protecting him from a cool breeze, and hat shading him from the sun.
“You never know,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, “what life can bring you, right?”
Currently, everyone in the world, no matter location or industry or title, can empathize. This time of year is typically a critical period for Gutierrez at TCU, a burgeoning college beach program that was 11-4 and ranked No. 15 in the country when the season was cancelled due to COVID-19. Odd as these times are for the world, it is almost more confounding to Gutierrez that he is here at all, in Fort Worth, Texas, coaching a college beach volleyball team.
A native of the Canary Islands, Gutierrez was raised primarily in Tenerife, Spain, which has become one of the most popular off-season training sites in the world for European beach volleyball teams. Gutierrez’s own professional journey was a precocious one. Debuting on the professional scene at the age of 17, Gutierrez competed for the C.V Orotava team that, in 2004, finished second in the FEV Spanish Volleyball League. He played indoors all over Europe, and in the summer, he’d return to the island and play beach. Fun as it was to be a professional athlete, getting paid to travel, compete, play volleyball all day long, Guitierrez knew his own limits.
“When I was playing, around 27 or 28, it was an ‘I’m kind of done’ type of thing,” he said with a laugh. For some players, the transition to coaching is an arduous one. Jose Loiola, a member of the Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame and winner of 55 events in his career, struggled mightily, saying that “you have to kill the player inside.”
Gutierrez chuckled at that notion.
“I was a good player,” he said, “but I wasn’t at the level of Jose Loiola.”
The coach in him was already more alive than the player.
He volunteered to help a few indoor players competing in Switzerland transition to the beach, building from there. He coached indoor in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Germany, which led to an up-and-coming German beach team, Karla Borger and Britta Buthe, taking him on as their coach. In 2012, they’d take a silver medal at the World Championships, finishing the season ranked No. 11 in the world.
National teams took note. Slovakia hired Guitierrez, who helped Dominika Nestracova and Natalia Dubovcova to a bronze at the Stavanger Grand Slam. The U.S., too, brought Gutierrez on board, where he oversaw Brittany Hochevar and Heather McGuire and Hochevar and Jen Fopma.
By then, the college game had begun building momentum, and Gutierrez accepted an offer to assist Florida State, a rising power in the southeast. But the Seminoles had already proven themselves. While Gutierrez certainly helped a great deal as they took second at the 2016 NCAA Championship, “it was already an established program,” Gutierrez said. “You’re going to nationals all the time. You’re trying to win a national championship.”
TCU was not Florida State. Not yet, anyway.
When Gutierrez received word, on Nov. 9, 2016, that he had been hired as the head coach of the beach volleyball program, it had only been in existence for one year. The Frogs hadn’t won a single match.
“It’s a challenge but there’s a side of it that it belongs to me and my staff: We built this,” Gutierrez said. “We’re moving this train in the right direction.”
There is no arguing that. The next season, Gutierrez’s first, the Frogs finished 18-7. In two of the next three, TCU produced 18 victories. Midway through the 2020 season, TCU, with quality wins over South Carolina and Arizona, was making a case — still an outside case, but a case nonetheless — for an East Region bid to the NCAA Championships, which would have been the first in school history.
“We’re in a good situation but we need to catch up soon because we don’t want to be at the back of the train,” he said. “You need to be realistic with what we have and what we can build. I’m a really competitive coach and I want to build up quick. We’re accomplishing that right now.”
Gutierrez will get two of his seniors back for one more year. He’ll also return 11 others from the 2020 team, including freshman Daniela Alvarez, who had made an immediate presence at No. 1 partnered with LSU transfer Olivia Beyer.
The Frogs have come a long way from 0-11 five years ago, just as Gutierrez has come a long way from the Canary Islands and much of Europe.
“There’s a special moment in coaching where they players begin to trust what I see,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal as a coach: If I can get you to trust me, we’re going to do great things.”