In Ken Eriksen’s own words, softball was “dead in the water as a sport.”
After it and its sibling sport baseball were cut from both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, the USF softball coach’s opinion wasn’t unreasonable — it seemed unlikely that either sport would ever find their way back into the Summer Games.
That is, until Aug. 3, 2016, when the IOC voted to reinstate baseball and softball for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“I remember sitting in front of the computer at my house when they had the vote,” Eriksen said. “My daughter videotaped it and you could hear me yelling and screaming that we got back in, and I’m sure all the players in the world … they all were going crazy too … and even the baseball guys — that both sports were back in the Olympics. That was a special day.”
Perhaps it’s only fitting that Eriksen, who was emotional just recounting that story from almost three years ago, was named head coach of Team USA for the 2020 Olympics, USA Softball announced Tuesday.
Eriksen, head coach of Team USA since 2011, will be the first USF coach to lead an Olympic team. In his time in charge, the U.S. has recorded a 52-4 record, second most in program history, behind Hall of Fame coach Ralph Raymond. Eriksen led the U.S. to a championship at the 2018 World Baseball Softball Confederation World Championship in Chiba, Japan, which resulted in Team USA’s qualification for the Tokyo Games.
“Ken Eriksen has a proven track record in not only leading our Women’s National Team program to the top of the podium but also maintaining that success and developing world-class athletes,” USA Softball Chief Executive Officer Craig Cress said in a news release. “His accolades speak volumes and in the 11 years that softball has been off the Olympic program, he has been a constant for our Women’s National Team. He has built upon the legacy established before him, and we are confident that he will guide the team to the Gold in 2020.”
Eriksen also served as an assistant coach in 2004, the last time the U.S. won an Olympic gold medal.
“Pretty exciting day — and humbling,” Eriksen said. “It’s been a pretty good process and a lot of people involved and a lot of people to thank, including not just the national team office in Oklahoma City, and not just our university here, with a great president and great athletic directors that have allowed me to do this type of stuff, but the selection committee — has the faith and the trust that the program will continue successfully.
“And also, about all the players that once the United States National Team did not have an opportunity to participate in the Olympics after 2008, all the players that kept the program alive in that time will never be forgotten.”
His involvement with USA Softball dates back almost two decades — which is nearly his entire tenure as coach at USF — so, balancing the two jobs has been a consideration for Eriksen for quite some time already.
But being in charge of an Olympic team is a new beast for the 58-year-old USF baseball alumnus, so, even though it’s not clear exactly what it will be right now, there will definitely be a plan on how to balance Team USA with USF.
“It’s going to be really important for myself and [USF Vice President of Athletics] Michael Kelly to sit down and map out a game plan for my two assistants in Jess Moore and Laura Ricciardone and then our support cast to see how we’re going to handle this going forward,” Eriksen said. “I think we’ve got some pretty good plans. … So, there’s going to be a lot of table talk over the next couple of weeks, and then have a plan in place for sure by July 1.”
No matter what that plan may entail, Eriksen will have full support from both USF and Kelly.
“Ken knows that he has my full support as we look into the next year together in terms of how it’ll impact his availability, how it’ll impact his staff who I have tremendous faith and confidence in,” Kelly said. “All in all, I just know it’s a tremendous opportunity for USF, for Ken and for the Tampa Bay community and we just couldn’t be more proud and excited for him.”
Tuesday’s announcement was another in a long list of accomplishments for USF’s winningest coach in any sport. Eriksen’s USF accomplishments include 14 NCAA regionals, two super regionals and one Women’s College World Series appearance.
But, rather than get caught up in the moment, Eriksen kept things in perspective.
“I’m sure one day I’ll be sitting on a beach and have a pineapple drink with an umbrella in it going, ‘Wow. What a journey,’” Eriksen said. “But right now, there’s too much going on to do that.”