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Family First

Northern Arizona cross country coach leaves job to support wife’s career — but not before fulfilling dream of his own

Eric Heins finished his 10th and final season as Northern Arizona head coach with a national title, the school’s first in any sport. Justin Casterline / Northern Arizona University

Eric Heins spent a decade building the Northern Arizona cross country program into a powerhouse.

In November 2016, his work culminated with the Lumberjacks capturing the team title at the NCAA Division I Men’s Cross Country Championships. The win came with mixed emotions: Heins and his team knew it was their last shot to win a national championship together. He had announced months earlier that he would be leaving to move to Houston. Instead of another coaching job, his destination was a dream job for his wife.

In spring 2016, Kaci Heins, a middle school science teacher, was offered an opportunity to be the educational supervisor at Space Center Houston, the official visitor center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The couple talked and decided to move to Houston. After all, they moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, early in their marriage for Heins’ chance to coach at Northern Arizona. His wife taught in middle school, where she was named national teacher of the year in 2014 by the Air Force Association.

“Once she showed that she was ready for a change, and it was an opportunity that she felt excited about, we decided to do this,” he says.

She began her new job in April 2016, and their 8-year-old son, Chase, remained in Flagstaff to finish out the school year. In August, Chase joined his mom in Houston, and Heins began preparing for his last season.

After the initial shock of hearing that their coach would be leaving, the Lumberjacks set out to make his final season memorable.

“The team made the season fun,” Heins says. “Since I was leaving, I thought I wouldn’t have the normal stress that coaches get when it comes to winning and losing. I thought I would be much more relaxed, since no matter what happened, I would be done at the end of the year. But once it started, I still had the competitive edge along with the excitement that comes with competition.”

After celebrating the national title, Heins moved to Houston to join his family. He remains employed by Northern Arizona as a member of the admissions office, recruiting high school students in Texas.

“I can see myself at some point coaching again,” Heins says. “But I have an 8-year-old son, and I get to spend the weekends with him and that is important to me. When I consider the travel from cross country to indoor and outdoor track and field, that makes me want to wait on coaching again until he gets older and is doing his own thing.”

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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