Ken Eriksen is in his 22nd year as head coach of USF Softball, but his roots with the Bulls run deeper — all the way to 1979.
Back then, he was just a freshman on USF’s baseball team.
This summer, the USF product enters his eighth season as coach of the U.S. Softball Women’s National Team.
Eriksen will have the opportunity to qualify Team USA for the 2020 Olympics, the first time since 2008 the sport will be included in the international event.
Before he was a renowned coach, however, Eriksen was playing minor-league baseball, living on $400 a month and a meal plan consisting of wax-paper bag sandwiches when he was faced with an ultimatum from his future wife: get married or continue his minor-league career the rest of his life.
“It wasn’t a hard decision,” Eriksen said.
What was an equally easy decision for Eriksen was accepting the head coaching position of Team USA.
“This goes back to 2011 when we made a coaching change,” Chris Sebren, director of National Teams for Team USA, said. “Ken had been involved with the program way back when and his experience has afforded him that opportunity to be selected.”
Team USA offered Eriksen the head coaching position in 2011. He was a top candidate due to his experience as a player and assistant coach within the organization. He was an assistant when the U.S. won its Olympic Gold Medal in 2004.
“His understanding of the international program, his experience as an assistant coach back then, his experience as a player in the men’s game at that point probably set him apart,” Sebren said. “I’m in committee meetings now. Those are things we look for and we talk about in our coaches.”
Eriksen said being asked to coach Team USA was never a big deal to him.
“It wasn’t like you got handed keys to a new car,” he said. “It was more like, ‘Here’s a task, let’s see how we can elevate the task, make it better and leave it in good shape.’”
Eriksen’s spot on the National Team overlaps with his responsibilities for USF. While coaching the Bulls, he has to schedule summer events and coordinate programming for Team USA.
“It’s very difficult, I’m not going to lie to you,” Eriksen said of coaching both teams. “It’s time consuming. You have sleep deprivation because even during the season at USF, you’re trying to keep up with what’s going on with your players that are maybe still in college, of players that are still out there training.”
Despite having split responsibilities, Eriksen gives his players at USF enough time and attention. Players described his abilities as taking a tightly knit team and advancing them as quickly as possible.
“He has kind of an intensity that made me think he was really going to challenge me,” freshman pitcher Georgina Corrick said. “When I first got into his office and was talking to him, he and my dad had the same sense of humor. So it was like I was talking to my dad. It was really nice to have that sense of familiarity while I’m here.”
Corrick is unique because she played for Great Britain’s Women’s National Team in 2017. She went toe-to-toe with some of Europe’s top pitchers and helped the team earn a berth in 2018’s World Baseball Softball Confederation Women’s World Championship.
“I had absolutely no idea he was the Women’s National Team coach,” Corrick said. “As soon as I committed, people started telling me and I thought that was crazy to think that I can play against him and his team, but I’m also on his team right now.”
Corrick described Eriksen as “a bit more intense” than her Great Britain coaches. Despite his intensity, he maintains a fairly laid-back attitude most of the time.
“He has a really good balance between fun and work,” Corrick said. “You can come out here and he’ll be joking five minutes before the game, and he’s moving around and playing around with everyone, but as soon as it’s game time, he’s ready to go.”
Redshirt Junior Mia Fung shares a similar view of Eriksen, saying that he is easy to talk to and relatable. His ability to balance work and play is evident by his win count — Eriksen reached 900 career wins this season.
“You can joke around with him,” Fung said. “He’s not some mean coach who will never crack a smile. He’s always either laughing at our jokes or he’s the one telling us the jokes and I really like that about him.”
More than an on-the-field jokester, Eriksen’s coaching reaches further than softball.
“He teaches us on and off the field how to be a good person,” Fung said. “One of the main things that he has preached to us, since I was a freshman at least, was that he wants us to be successful and a good person on and off the field.”
The main difference between the two teams he coaches is age, but there are other aspects that weigh on each cohort. Students often worry about school, but professionals worry about keeping their job.
“You do more player personal development with a collegiate program,” Eriksen said. “You’re 18 to 22 years old. It’s the minor leagues so you’re bringing young people up from high school and watching them grow-up and mature and really come into their own self-identity at that time.
“Coaching the women with the national team, you’re coaching professional people that don’t have a lot of major ups and downs. They’re very steady. To them, it’s more about the game, it’s more about training to beat somebody, not worry about school, relationships, coaches, being away from mom and dad for the first time. These are women that you’re coaching so it’s like coaching in major league baseball.”
Despite some glaring difference, Eriksen said there is a common factor connecting the two teams.
“The similarities are they’re people and people are always going to have trust,” Eriksen said. “When they feel they have trust, it’s easier to work with people.”
Though Eriksen has proven himself as a coach both at the collegiate and international stages, his coaching job for Team USA is anything but guaranteed. The National Team was not able to say whether or not Eriksen would be the coach of Team USA for the Olympics in 2020.
“These are year-to-year assignments,” Sebren said. “Ken is positioning himself appropriately with USA Softball in the future. Our goal is to be in the Olympics in 2020 and we’re going to have that opportunity this summer to qualify at the world championships and Ken is leading us in those goals.”
With a coaching career that can be compared to burning a candle at both ends, Eriksen has been a staple for both USF and Team USA throughout.
“These things are overlapping constantly,” Eriksen said. “It’s overbearing at times, but thank goodness you have great family. And thank goodness you’ve got the support staff here at USF that has made it easier for me by telling me, ‘Hey, take some time off when you need it.’ So I have that time off between Dec. 24 and Dec. 26 I take advantage of every year.”
In a way, Eriksen has grown with USF since he played as a Bull in 1979.
“From the advent of even thinking about starting a football program to having teams get to the NCAA tournament in basketball and soccer,” Eriksen said. “To how many All-Americans we’ve had in track and field, tennis and golf and all those things that have gone on. The buildings, all the brick and mortar of this place has been incredible.”