When Eric Heins stepped down from his position as Director of Cross Country and Track & Field at Northern Arizona University in 2017, he wrapped up his 10 years running the program with a national title.
That left a high bar for his successor, Mike Smith, to clear.
But Smith has handled the challenge well, even ramping up the height of the bar. He did that by earning National Men’s Coach of the Year honors for his success during the 2019-20 school year.
That award gives the Georgetown graduate a special place in the history of a storied program. He is the first NAU track coach to receive national Men’s COY honors.
And he also became the first coach from a non-Power 5 conference to win the award, going back as far as 26 years.
Smith took over a program that Heins had built into a national power and the dominant program in the Big Sky Conference. The NAU cross country program had consistently been ranked among the nation’s top 10 – three times in the top 5 – and had made nine NCAA Championship appearances. His last cross country team, in 2016, entered the NCAA nationals as the No. 1 program in the country.
Between the cross country and indoor and outdoor track seasons, Heins had accumulated 27 Big Sky Coach of the Year honors.
The transition to a new coach was pretty seamless, thanks to a succession plan that brought Smith on board early. When Heins’ wife took a job with the NASA Space Center in Houston, he knew the 2017 outdoor track & field season would be his last before moving to join his wife in Texas.
So Smith was hired away from Georgetown, where he spent the previous four years, to join Heins’ staff as his heir apparent. It helped that Smith had lived in Flagstaff for six years and had worked at the NAU Center for High Altitude Training, an Olympic training site for long-distance running.
Smith continued to build on Heins’ success. During the 2017-18 season, the men’s cross country team won its fourth consecutive NCAA Mountain Regional title and the men’s indoor track team won the Big Sky Conference for a record eighth-straight year and finished runner-up at nationals. Smith was named the 2018 Big Sky Men’s Coach of the Year.
And this year the men’s program made more history, as the 2020 track team earned the program’s first-ever No. 1 national ranking in the USTFCCCA indoor rankings, sitting atop the polls for two weeks and going into the NCAA Indoor Championships ranked No. 2.
Now, the next challenge for Smith will be figuring out how to top this year’s success.