Coach Eric Iverson has seen a lot of change in the sport of softball since he began at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College 23 years ago.
The Women’s College World Series (WCWS) in Oklahoma City drew a crowd of just over 12,000 people in 1996.
In the past 20 years, the popularity of softball has driven attendance to nearly 80,000 people every year.
“It’s gone from a sport that people only knew existed to one of the biggest sports in the nation, with thousands of people watching the WCWS on ESPN,” Iverson said.
However, when Iverson started at NEO, he had a vision that focused on overall growth.
“I wanted to build something that people would respect,” he said. “I wanted to be known for athletes who excelled academically, on the field, and in their personal lives.”
This growth mindset has led Iverson to shape the NEO softball into a nationally competitive program and recently earned his 1,000th win with the team.
Named to the NJCAA Softball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2009, Iverson is the only two-year coach in Oklahoma to win over 1,000 games.
In spite of the tremendous success, he is quick to note that those 1,000 wins were earned by the hard work of 20-plus years of athletes.
“We won 1,000 games with a lot of people, not just me,” said Iverson. “My family has been an incredible part of this milestone. NEO Softball is a family thing at our house and my wife and two daughters have been so understanding of the times when I have to be at late practices or on the road.”
In addition to his family, Iverson noted that the success belongs to the program.
“I think that it is important to deflect this away from me and put it on the program. We receive incredible support and have had dozens of talented athletes. I’m the lucky one.
“I’m the guy that’s been able to do the same job for 20-plus years at the greatest institution among two-year schools.”
For Iverson, however, on-field performance is only part of what makes a successful program. Along with athletic skill and physical strength, he expects his team members to develop their character and academic prowess.
“I expect my players to develop their character and hold themselves to a standard of excellence. When my first team came through, I remember telling them ‘it may not be while you’re here, but one day we will have great facilities.’ I want athletes who will take pride in themselves and take pride in what we have available.
“I can say now that we have great facilities. When Dr. Hale came on campus ten years ago, he was incredibly supportive of the program and how it had grown. We continue to have pride in our program and what it represents. Even now, we know that our field isn’t Wrigley Field, but it’s our Wrigley Field. Our locker rooms aren’t brand new, but we’ve made them our own.”
In fact, rather than Wrigley Field, the NEO softball field bears Iverson’s name.
Iverson Field at Alumni Stadium was officially dedicated in 2015 to honor Iverson’s commitment to excellence and mark his 20 years with the program.
At the time, Iverson noted “to think that forever, my name is going to be part of this campus is so humbling and so awesome. I can't thank Dr. Hale and the administration enough. It's a huge honor and I’m proud of what we have built so far."
Pride and character are major hallmarks of Iverson’s coaching philosophy.
Each day during the season, you can find him mowing the grass on the field and ensuring that everything is in line.
“I can’t expect my players to hold themselves to an exceptional level if I don’t hold myself and our facilities to an exceptional level. It all comes back to taking pride in the program and our facilities. Somebody told me many years ago: ‘show me a bad facility and I’ll show you a lazy coach.’ I’ve never wanted to be portrayed as lazy and I want to model character and pride to my team.”
Iverson also notes how his definition of success has changed over the years. As a younger coach, he always had a focus on team success. However, he has broadened his definition for success in the past 20 years to include the quality of person a player becomes 10 years away gone from the program.
“When we bring our athletes in, we make them reflect and define their character. We make them ask themselves what their vision for their future will hold. One of the best measures of that success is to look at where those players are 10 years later. I don’t mean look at how much money they are making or what their job is, but are they happy? Are they excited about where their life is going?”
A benefit of the notoriety that 1,000 wins brings, Iverson said he has been able to get back in touch with alumni from early in the program.
“I’m most excited to use this achievement to get really attached with our softball alumni. My phone blew up for two days from players that I hadn’t heard from in a while and they want to be involved. They helped create this success and we want them to be engaged.”
For now, Iverson is keeping an eye on the success of the team and is excited for what the next 20 years will hold.
“When I look at NEO Softball 20 years from now I am positive that there will be growth. I don’t know that Eric Iverson will be there, but who knows? Right now, I am excited that the pieces are fitting really well together. Our team has a lot of character and athleticism and we’ll have to see what happens when challenges start to get tough. I anticipate that they will hold up really well through the rest of the season.”