TAMPA — No nook or crevice is wasted in USF softball coach Ken Eriksen’s cozy second-floor office, where a hearty assortment of mementos, knickknacks and photos have come to roost.
Hats and helmets abound, as do plaques and trophies and trinkets. Hanging stately on one wall is a framed USF jersey bearing Eriksen’s name and No. 732, presented after a 2013 triumph against Seton Hall, when he became the school’s winningest coach in any sport.
Perched on a nearby brown shelf are a collection of yellow-green softballs commemorating career wins 500, 600, 700, 800 and 900. Tucked in the back of an armoire is a photo of the 1982 USF baseball team on which he played, the first in school history to reach the NCAA Tournament.
On this bright February morning, the curator of this cozy archive is juggling three chores at once: checking the weather in Arizona (where USF will play in a few days), finalizing details for this evening’s home exhibition against Japan’s national team, and meticulously entering figures into an NCAA database on his desktop.
NCAA rules limit student-athletes to 20 hours of activity per week in their respective sport. Eriksen likes to plan his team’s 20-hour weeks 90 days ― ninety ― in advance.
“You have to micro-manage,” says Eriksen, who never has shaken the Long Island out of his accent, “without making it look like you’re micro-managing.”
After immersing his entire adult life in fastpitch softball, including a seven-year playing hitch with the famed Clearwater Bombers and nearly 1,450 games as Bulls coach, Eriksen has figured out a few things.
Among them are to leave nothing to chance (hence the micro-management). Another is to earn the trust of your players, and make darn sure they know you care.
“There’s this unwritten thing in the locker room, that what they all talk about in there stays in there,” said Debra Eriksen, his wife of nearly 34 years.
“He’ll come home and I’ll be like, is everything okay? ‘No.’ Okay, wanna talk about it? ‘Can’t.’ I respect that privacy that they have. ... I think that’s the big key that he has with these kids.”
Then there’s the overriding principle, the essence of the Eriksen philosophy, as paradoxical as it is plain. Though universally considered a softball savant with a steel-trap memory, Eriksen thrives on whittling the game’s nuances, all the mechanics and minutiae, into fundamental form.
“He keeps everything simple,” said former Bulls stolen-base extraordinaire Kristen Wyckoff, a Plant City High alumnus. “He’s just a simple man.”
That approach, coupled with an endearing propensity for wisecracks and one-liners, has served him well for 957 victories as USF coach, and several significant triumphs on the international stage.
It also just might land him the head coaching gig for the U.S. Olympic team in 2020. Eriksen, currently coach of the women’s national team (presently No. 1 in the World Baseball Softball Confederation rankings), is widely considered the front-runner.
“Your body is kinetically engineered to do the right things sequentially,” Eriksen said. “When you let your brain get in the way, you get in trouble.”
Which leads to the first of what will be a string of Robin Roberts anecdotes that Eriksen, 58, will share over the course of this 15-hour day.
Roberts’ rules of order
Eriksen graduated from Ward Melville High in Stony Brook, N.Y., where his pals included The King of Queens star Kevin James. He said he discovered USF when the school ― like many other Florida baseball programs ― made a concerted recruiting effort in the Northeast.
“My deal was, I wanted to get involved in pre-law,” he said. “And USF had a political science department that was geared toward pre-law stuff. I found out that they also had a baseball program, and found out Robin Roberts was the head coach.”
A Hall of Fame pitcher who won 286 big-league games, Roberts became a second father of sorts to Eriksen, whose own dad had lived in Tampa while stationed at MacDill while in the Air Force. Initially, Roberts had no scholarship money for Eriksen, who walked on at 5-foot-8, 168 pounds.
“I went through the year and redshirted, and then came back at 6-foot, 188, and that was it,” he said.
Classic rock ― Foghat, Deep Purple, the Doobie Brothers ― emanates at a low volume from a desk speaker as Eriksen recalls his transition from third base to outfield as a Bull. At that time, the left field of USF’s old ball park, Red McEwen Field, faced the Yuengling Center (then known as the Sun Dome).
The first groundball Eriksen took as a leftfielder, he flung it right into the parking lot. The next day, same thing.
“(Roberts) throws his bat up in the air and goes, ‘Get outta here!’ And he leaves,” Eriksen recalled.
“Here I am, I’m a sophomore and I’m like, ‘My God, what did I do?’ I had a good freshman year playing infield, but now he wants me to go to the outfield. So I stay after (practice) again. The next day he comes out, it’s the first thing we do again. I threw a 32-hopper to home plate, it was all good.”
Eriksen had 10 assists in the outfield that year. More important, his first coaching lesson had been committed to memory.
“The game is a simple game,” he said. “Play catch and throw, put your ego in your back pocket and develop, develop, develop.”
Lesson No. 2 occurred right around the same time, when Roberts suspended arguably the team’s best pitcher for slacking off academically.
“I’ll never forget the first thing (Roberts) said when we got together in my first year as a player,” Eriksen recalled. “He said, ‘Y’all want to be treated like professionals? You act like professionals. If you act like idiots, I’m gonna treat you like an idiot.’ That’s all he ever had to say.”
In accordance with his keep-it-simple conviction, Eriksen has pared down his team guidelines to three basics: 1) players who don’t attend class don’t practice, 2) keep the locker room pristine, and 3) don’t do anything stupid.
“If you think I think it’s gonna be stupid, if you think your parents think it’s gonna be stupid, don’t do it,” says Eriksen, who earned a degree in political science with emphasis on Latin-American politics. “You’ve got all the policies by the university, but I’ve got one rule, and it covers everything.”
Last fall, 23 softball players made the university honor roll. Moreover, in each of the last seven years, the softball program has maintained a graduation success rate (GSR) of 100 percent.
The Bulls made the postseason five of those seven years.
“He will never tell you you can’t do something (academically) because it interferes with softball,” former Bulls left-handed pitcher Erica Nunn said.
“My major (statistics) wasn’t rare, but not a lot of people did it, and certain classes were only offered at certain times. But it was never, ‘You can’t take this class because it interferes with practice.’ It was like, ‘Okay, go to class. Get to practice late and we’ll stay late after.’”
Ken and Debra ― a Pittsburgh native ― became acquainted through USF’s intramural program, where Debra was an athletic trainer and Ken was a ref. Their first date resulted from a wager; a buddy of Ken’s said he’d give him tickets to the Bucs-Giants game if he asked Debra out and she said yes.
“We went, and we talked the whole time,” Ken recalled. “I think I saw one play. We just talked and talked and talked.”
The next morning, Ken stepped out of his dorm room to find a plate of oatmeal-raisin cookies ― the kind he had told Debra he loved ― at his front door. They married on July 14, 1985 and had two girls now in college (ages 22 and 18).
World travel followed the wedding. Ken’s performance with the Bombers earned him a spot on a U.S. men’s fastpitch select team that in 1988 became the first American sports team to compete in Cuba in more than 30 years. Three years later, he earned a silver medal with the U.S. in the Pan American Games in Cuba.
He was an assistant on the Olympic gold medal-winning U.S. women’s team in 2004, and first took over the women’s national team in 2011.
To this day, Debra finds softball lineups ― scribbled on everything from index cards to receipts ― all over their riverside Temple Terrace house.
“First, I used to pick 'em up and toss 'em,” said Debra, a doctor of osteopathy with her own wellness practice. “Finally, I was like, ‘I’m just gonna have to leave this here because I don’t know, this could be the lineup.’”
Therein likes the paradox: For all of Eriksen’s concerted efforts at keeping the game simple, he remains a softball sage who can’t help but indulge some eccentricities.
He’s well known for substituting a pitcher in mid-batter, and he’s believed to be a pioneer at inserting two pitchers in the lineup for the purpose of swapping them in and out of the circle.
“If I looked at his lineup card, he’d have me at left field and I’m like, ‘What? I’m not playing left field,'" said former Bulls ace hurler Mo Triner, a USF Hall of Famer who later became an Eriksen assistant. "And he’d turn his lineup card in, and as soon as he turned it in, he shook hands and would be like, ‘I’m making a switch.’
“It used to be called the ‘South Florida Switch.’ Back in the day, nobody did it, but now everybody does it.”
Observe him overseeing a batting practice, and the conversation touches on mathematics, angles, depths and dimensions. He insists great hitters see the middle of the ball and what the spin’s doing around it. Then, they react to it with their eyes.
Finally, as if to condense it all, he says only two things should be on a batter’s mind when they go to the plate: finding the ball, and getting the barrel to it.
“I think he knows the game better than anyone,” said Val Arioto, USF’s director of tournaments and operations, and a member of Team USA. “Literally, if you ask him a question, he knows the rule book word for word.”
And he just might be peerless when it comes to keeping his players loose. Stephanie Medina, a first baseman on Eriksen’s only team to reach the College World Series (in 2012), said it wasn’t out of the ordinary for Eriksen to call timeout in intense situations, summon his infielders to the circle, then crack a joke.
“Then you could just kind of see the stress almost be relieved from everybody’s shoulders,” she said.
“Our guys played in the first game of the World Series in 2012 against the University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma, with 17,000 people in the stands, and our guys were playing like there was nobody at the ball park and it was practice,” Eriksen said.
“That’s cool. That’s when you know that they know that this is a game, and people are watching us play a game.”
Loose is the approach du jour on this mild evening as the Bulls face Japan before an audience of more than 1,000. For six innings, the Bulls essentially stand toe to toe with the world’s No. 2-ranked team, trailing only 1-0 as pitchers Georgina Corrick and Nicole Doyle scatter five hits.
When center fielder AnaMarie Bruni makes two dazzling catches, including one at the fence that makes the SportsCenter top 10, Eriksen lauds her for “leaving your head, shoulders and butt on the field.”
Later, when right fielder Meghan Sheehan is playing too far over, he chirps, “Get off the line. You’re hugging it like a coke addict.”
“He’s always like, ‘This is a game, why are you getting freaked out?’” Arioto says. “Which I really enjoy, because I wouldn’t be playing this long if that wasn’t the case.”
Japan explodes for nine runs in the seventh en route to a 10-2 triumph. After the postgame handshakes, Eriksen gathers his players in shallow right field and reminds them they gave the world’s No. 2 team all it wanted for six innings.
“They have a Maserati, and we’re still driving a Nova right now,” Eriksen tells reporters afterward. “But if you aspire to be at that level, the game is played really, really quick.”
But the Bulls still have time to get up to speed, their coach insists. Just play against the game, one pitch at a time. Put the barrel to the ball, keep things in perspective.
Simple as that.
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.