OKLAHOMA CITY – Because of Tom Heath, Oklahoma Christian University has a pool, a fitness center, a thriving intramural program, and a successful softball program with one of the best stadiums in all of NCAA Division II, and dozens of successful alumni. That's a lot of accomplishment for one career, and after being a blessing to generations of OC students, the 69-year-old Heath said he now is ready to enjoy the next stage in his life. He announced Tuesday the just-completed softball season was his last at OC, ending a remarkable run at the university that – including his days as a student – has lasted more than 50 years. "There really is no reason for me to keep coaching and not allow someone else to come in to coach a team that I feel real comfortable with, with a great facility," Heath said about his decision to retire. "I prayed about that and the timing is right. I've got to trust God that I'm making the right decision. My first grandson is being born in July, so I'm ready to spend some time with family, too." During 24 years as the only softball coach OC ever has had, Heath posted a 744-518-1 record, making him one of only five collegiate softball coaches in Oklahoma to win at least 700 games. At season's end, he was the 12th-longest-serving coach in any sport, at any level, at an Oklahoma four-year university. He was inducted into the OC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016. When the Lawson Softball Complex was built before the 2014 season, donors Ricky and Kelly Lawson insisted the playing surface be known as "Tom Heath Field." "Coach Tom Heath is a legend at OC," OC Athletic Director David Lynn said. "He had a great vision for the many things he was a part of on the OC campus. He shaped the intramural program and the on-campus fitness center into programs that have had a deep impact on every student that has attended OC for the last 40 years. "But his greatest vision was for a softball program at OC. He has been our only head coach and fittingly the field is named in his honor. Coach Heath has had tremendous success on and off the field and will be greatly missed." Heath's interest in softball began when he coached daughter's youth team. Sensing an opportunity to grow OC's athletic offerings, he sent a memo to OC's then-executive vice president, Stafford North, on Sept. 8, 1993, proposing the creation of a softball program. North liked the idea and university trustees approved it, but with one caveat – they wanted Heath to be the program's head coach. The team made its debut with the 1995 season and won its first game, beating Cameron 10-1. Heath – with longtime assistant coach Steve Gault – quickly built a successful program, one that went 42-24 in its second season of existence. In 2002 and 2003, the Lady Eagles qualified for the NAIA tournament and they remained competitive in the Sooner Athletic Conference through 2012, when OC left the NAIA to begin the NCAA Division II membership process. While transitioning into the NCAA, OC twice reached the National Christian College Athletic Association title game, in 2014 and 2015. The success has continued into OC's NCAA era, with the Lady Eagles reaching another milestone this past weekend, reaching the championship round of the Heartland Conference tournament for the first time. OC finished Heath's final season with a 32-25 record. In 1998, Heath and Gault were selected as the Regional Coaching Staff of the Year for the NAIA Southwest Region by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association. In 1999, Heath was named Sooner Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, and in 2014 and 2015, Heath received NCCAA Central Region coach-of-the-year honors. Along the way, Heath has earned the respect of his peers, one of which is college softball's all-time wins leader, whose team once shared a conference with OC. "For more than 20 years, Tom was the embodiment of the Christian coach at a faith-based university," longtime Oklahoma City University coach Phil McSpadden said. "He was a teacher, mentor and friend to all the young ladies that represented Oklahoma Christian so well during his tenure. He is the best man I've ever met or known in the years I've been in this profession."
Heath said he's always tried to focus on helping the young women in his program succeed not just at softball, but in life. Alumni from every generation of OC softball say he's done just that.
"Coach Heath … not only taught me how to hit better and play harder, but he taught me my love for Christ should show in all my actions," said OC Athletic Hall of Famer Amy (Vanderpool) Sievert, who played for Heath from 1997 to 2001. "On and off the field, he encouraged us to be the best person we could be.
"When we would fall short and make mistakes, he was there to coach us through that lesson – sometimes softball-related or sometimes life-related. Coach Heath taught me to love God and work hard. Everything else would take care of itself."
Kendra Pierce, who starred for OC from 2012 to 2015, had a similar experience playing for Heath.
"Coach Heath is a welcoming and loving person," Pierce said. "He gave me the opportunity to play softball at a school that didn't feel like a school. It felt and still feels like home. There are no words that will express how grateful I am that I got the chance to play for a great Christian man and coach like coach Heath. He will always be special to me and I will forever have a place in my heart for him and his family.
"Being able to say I graduated from Oklahoma Christian is one proud thing, but to say I played on the Oklahoma Christian softball team is my biggest accomplishment. This program and all of the coaches mean the world to me. Thank you, coach Heath, for believing in me and I hope you are as proud of your former players as we are of you!"
Earlier generations of OC students knew Heath in different ways. Heath grew up in south Oklahoma City before attending high school in Jacksonville, Fla., but he returned to Oklahoma to attend OC in 1967. As a student, he played baseball and basketball for the Eagles.
After his graduation in 1971, Heath taught for one year at a metro-area school, then became then-OC baseball coach Max Dobson's assistant with the 1973 season. Not too long later, Heath added duties as OC's intramural director to his plate.
Heath served as OC's interim baseball coach in 1981 before stepping aside to focus on his work as the intramural director. In his 20 years in that position, he was involved with the design of the pool in the Payne Athletic Center and presented a proposal to then-OC President J. Terry Johnson in 1988 that OC develop a fitness center with a recreational gym, leading to the expansion of the PAC.
Before becoming the softball coach, Heath also spent seven years as the director of OC's student center and four years as the director of the fitness center that he championed.
About a year after the softball program began, Heath sat down with a local architect and sketched out a two-page drawing of what such a stadium might look like.
He kept that drawing for years and worked with local architect Ryan Eshelman on tweaking it and improving it. But Heath knew that he'd have to raise the money if such a project ever was to come to fruition. Then, one day, Kent Allen – now OC's vice president for advancement – brought Ricky and Kelly Lawson to an OC softball game, and a friendship was born between the Lawsons and OC softball.
In 2012, Heath presented his dream to the Lawsons during a trip to Alabama. Not long after, the Lawsons told him they wanted to donate the money to build one of the finest college softball facilities in the U.S.
The $3.9 million Lawson Softball Complex opened with the 2014 season, making OC the first Oklahoma university to play its home games on an artificial-turf field. In 2015, Tom Heath Field was the site of the NCAA Division II semifinals and title game when heavy rainfall rendered other Oklahoma City-area fields unplayable.
With the foundation of a winning program and an elite facility both in place, Heath believes he is leaving OC softball in good shape for his successor.
"I was coming to the age where (retirement) is going to be sooner than later," he said. "There were a couple of things that had to be done before I retire. One is I wanted to leave a really good team for the next coach. I wanted to make sure the program was in good shape. Second, facility-wise, I wanted OC softball to have one of the finest facilities in our conference. The facilities are there. There are still some projects I want to complete, which I plan on doing after I retire."
Heath said what he'll miss most are the relationships with his players.
"It's all about the players," Heath said. "I've really enjoyed the players. All different kinds of personalities coming in here, all different backgrounds. Watching them develop and become mature young ladies when the graduate with careers ahead of them – that's the joy I've had from softball, watching them have a good life because they came to Oklahoma Christian.
"It's not about the facility or wins and losses. It's about those players. That's what gives me the joy that I have."
Like his older brother Randy – who retired in 2015 after 46 years coaching OC's cross country and track and field teams – Heath is proud to have spent his professional career essentially in one place.
"I have given my whole life to Oklahoma Christian," Heath said. "My whole working life, except for one year. From that point on, I've given everything to OC, so I'd kind of like to do something different while I've still got the energy."