Secrets of success

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Eric Heins leads Lumberjacks to victory and national prominence.

When not on the field, Coach Eric Heins works in an office not unlike most university employees, with one major exception – his shelf is lined with trophies. It is a room fitting with Heins’ personality as the award-winning Director of Track and Field and Cross Country at Northern Arizona University: no frills, no fluff – just winning. A lot of winning.

In his six years coaching at the university, Heins has led the Lumberjacks to 11 Big Sky Championships and produced six top-10 national finishes – including the men’s cross country team placing 2nd in the 2013 National Championship. He has been awarded the Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year Award 10 times, and was the Mountain Region Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year in 2010.

Despite the numerous accolades and prestige, Heins stays humble. He explains that while the national finishes and prolific success mean a lot to him and to those he coaches, what he enjoys most is mentoring his student-athletes and watching them grow and mature throughout their time in the program and at Northern Arizona University.

“It’s been a great experience to see students improve both athletically and academically,” Heins says. “We’ve had some who have come in struggling. To see them work hard and continue to improve academically and become role models around the university has been really special.”

Passing the torch

An alum of the University of Cincinnati, Heins ran track and field as a student and then at Indiana before accepting a graduate assistant position at Northern Arizona University working under then-Coach Ron Mann. An alum himself and coach at the university for 24 years, Mann inspired Heins to continue pursuing a career in coaching, and taught him what it takes to win and run a successful program.

“My first year in Flagstaff, the men’s team finished fourth in the country,” Heins says. “It was eye-opening to see what type of student-athletes and what type of preparation it took to elevate to that level, and how he managed the program.”

Thanks to these experiences, Coach Heins knew exactly what he wanted to do when he took the job with Northern Arizona University—build a successful program that would reflect the university’s commitment to winning the right way, with the right people.

“I still remember Coach Ron Mann telling me if you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to surround yourself with individuals of good character,” Heins says. “We’re not a win-at-all-costs type of program. We want to win and we want to be successful, but we want to do it with good students and good people around.”

Focused on students

Among those good people have been some of the highest-profile athletes the university has ever seen. Olympians like Lopez Lomong, Diego Estrada, and David McNeil have brought the program international prominence, and helped transform Northern Arizona University into a track and field and cross country powerhouse. Overall, Heins has managed over one hundred male and female student-athletes a year, and says one of his most important goals is getting to know each and every one of them personally.

“When traveling, we get to focus on having a good time and competing,” Heins explains. “That’s when I get to know them more, and learn more about their personalities and what interests them.”

Not satisfied with being the runner-up in 2013, Heins says the returning team is focused on winning a national championship, while adhering to the principles and focus on student success that the university values. 

“We’re getting the university national recognition by finishing in the top-three and winning conference championships,” Heins says. “We have a great group of young men and women who make a difference in the community and put the classroom first. This is what the university is about: winning while developing our students as people.”

In Heins office, the trophies are not completely alone. In front of them are framed photos of the students Heins has coached throughout the years. Like he’s believed throughout his entire career, they’re the ones who matter the most.