It's not going to be easy. So what has changed? For University of South Florida softball coach Ken Eriksen, it has never been easy.
USF (50-12) has a formidable challenge in its historic first appearance today at the Women's College World Series. The Bulls' first-round opponent is No. 4-seeded Oklahoma (50-8), which carries a championship pedigree and home-field advantage at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
Eriksen referred to Oklahoma as "the '27 Yankees.'' Then he modified that metaphor, saying USF vs. Oklahoma is like "a Triple-A team facing the New York Yankees.'' Without missing a beat, he compared the Sooners to Apollo Creed, the fictional boxer in the "Rocky" movies.
"There's a lot of punch in that Boomer Sooner fist,'' Eriksen said. "We're going to go out and be the best Rocky we can right now. You talk about 1,500 being at our ballpark, a sellout. We're talking 15,000 people right now, a lot of energy inside that Oklahoma stadium. We're talking about Oklahoma possibly being the favorites to win it all, playing right in their backyard.
"Nobody gave Rocky a chance. But he had a puncher's chance. That's what we're going to go after. If you give me a shot, a 0-0 ballgame in the seventh inning, we've got a puncher's chance.''
The underdog role.
It's the story of USF softball.
It's the story of Eriksen.
He never expected this to become his life. He was a walk-on from Stony Brook, N.Y., who built himself into a valuable outfielder for Robin Roberts' 1982 Bulls, USF's first postseason baseball team. Where would he land next? It sure wasn't going to be fast-pitch softball.
"Me, coaching a bunch of girls? No way,'' he said, summing up his attitude.
But he was coaxed to join coach Hildred Deese's team as hitting instructor, when she offered to pay for his graduate work.
His grizzled, direct, baseball-driven mindset didn't play well at first. He enthusiastically slapped a player on the backside when she singled. She glared at him: What are you doing?
He remembers looking up in the fourth inning, realizing a USF pitcher was tossing a no-hitter. Wow. A no-no. He kept quiet. He avoided eye contact. When it was complete, he raced on the field, jumping up and down. Why wasn't anybody else celebrating? Everybody stared like he was crazy.
"She does this all the time,'' Eriksen was told.
Oh. That's right. It's softball .
He quickly learned how to be a man who effectively coaches women.
"You've got to know when to be a coach, when to be a father, when to be a brother," Eriksen said. "A long time ago, somebody told me, 'When women feel good, they play good,' and that is so true. My wife continually reminds me, 'Ken, don't be a jerk, OK.' "
The gig was something to do until a baseball job opened. Along the way, frustrated that his career was stuck in neutral, he actually resigned in 1995. He placed the typewritten letter on the desk of then-USF athletic director Paul Griffin, who was out of town. Griffin soon demanded to see Eriksen and essentially wouldn't let him resign.
"I was out the door,'' Eriksen said. "I'd either find another coaching job or get something in the private sector. Thank goodness Mr. Griffin convinced me that tap dancing and cleaning pools wasn't going to make a living for me.''
When Deese retired, Eriksen was elevated to head coach in 1997. Soon, he was asked to join the USA Softball national team program. He became an assistant coach on the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team in 2004. He's now the national team's head coach. So, while Eriksen might not be instantly recognizable at his local grocery store, he's considered softball royalty.
Which is why so many people are surprised he stayed at USF.
Funny thing about the World Series field. Eriksen interviewed at nearly all those schools — Oklahoma, LSU, Arizona State, Alabama — but was rejected each time. He was offered the Tennessee position but turned it down.
"Those schools were unbelievable money-wise, support-wise, everything you need,'' Eriksen said. "And here we were playing at a recreation field. I love USF. It's my alma mater.
"And in my mind, I always thought, 'Man, you get USF to the World Series, that says something.' We kept grinding. It wasn't an overnight success story by any means.''
The old facility — an eyesore or an embarrassment, depending on your perspective — had its share of stories, too. Eriksen remembers the time when his player smacked a double to the gap. At that moment, a soccer ball from a nearby intramural field bounced over the fence. Up went the umpire's arms. No pitch.
There was the night of another potential USF no-hitter during a tournament. Another coach went to the power box, thinking it would turn on the lights for a practice field. Instead, it shut off USF's lights. After a 45-minute delay — you guessed it — base hit to break up the no-hitter.
"Maddening stuff,'' Eriksen said. "The program deserved better.''
With the two-year-old USF Softball Stadium, it has better. Recruiting should be upgraded. There will be more World Series opportunities. The one constant is Eriksen and the tough love he dispenses.
"He's our coach, but he cares for us like we're his family,'' USF sophomore shortstop Kourtney Salvarola said. "I had surgery before my freshman season. As I'm coming out of the emergency room, he's the first person I saw. He made it back there, even before my parents. That's just how he is. He cares.''
"You can't question his credentials because with his involvement in USA Softball, he has coached the best players in the world,'' USF senior third baseman Jessica Mouse said. "We buy into everything. He doesn't make it any bigger than it needs to be. So we relax, have fun, play as we can and put our complete trust in him. He's the best.''
Eriksen has one season remaining on his contract. His affection for USF notwithstanding, there might be a temptation to go full-time with the USA national team, particularly if the Bulls can win a national championship. Then again, he's not playing for those trappings. It's about the process.
His favorite moments are up in his office, going over film, looking for the favorable matchups, while listening to blaring music, either Led Zeppelin or John Mellencamp, maybe Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
"My wife calls me the idiot savant of softball,'' Eriksen said. "I don't know if that's a compliment. I don't even know if she says 'savant,' to tell you the truth.
"It turned from just something to do to a hobby to a passion. Now it's a life commitment. And to be honest, I'm having the time of my life.''
Women’s College World Series
USF (50-12) vs. Oklahoma (50-8)
WHERE: ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City
WHEN: 1 p.m. Thursday
TV/RADIO: ESPN2/1010 AM
NEED TO KNOW: USF is making its first WCWS appearance, Oklahoma its seventh. The Sooners won the 2000 national championship. … If USF wins, it faces the California-LSU winner at 7 p.m. Friday. If it loses, it faces the Cal-LSU loser on at noon Saturday.