Head Coach Burns ready for big coaching opportunity at NIU

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James Krause

DeKALB — Coaching wasn’t the obvious choice for women’s tennis coach Eric Burns after graduating from Franklin College as a four-year letterman in the sport.

It took some time away from the game and persuading from those in a top-level program for Burns to find his calling.

“I just really loved the game,” Burns said. “I got to play through college, get my degree and really enjoy the experience the whole way. I never really planned to coach out of college. I took a job at a skiing resort and at the same time went to an Indiana University tennis camp. There, coaches really put it in my ear to go after coaching.”

Nearly two decades later, Burns boasts a resume that includes seven 20-win seasons, three conference championships and three NCAA tournament appearances. Burns said continuing to compete and defying the expectations of his players is what he’s loved most about coaching.

“I like competing,” Burns said. “I missed that from my playing days, and I think it’s a big reason why I coach. I also just like helping players and seeing them achieve things that they didn’t think were possible.”

NIU cited his experience and success as reason to name Burns the women’s tennis head coach Aug. 20.

Athletic Director Sean Frazier said he was excited to hire Burns, and have him be the leader in the women’s tennis program progress.

“After a thorough search, it was clear that [Burns’] background of coaching success, as well as his academic strength among the programs he has coached, will not only help him build a championship-caliber program here at NIU but will prepare our student-athletes for success outside of NIU,” Frazier said in an NIU Athletics news release on Aug. 20.

The hire is a long time coming for Burns, who has tried previously to take the position at NIU.

Burns said he’s always wanted to coach in the Mid-American Conference, a conference he said has great, competitive tennis.

Burns said the MAC always has great divisions in men’s and women’s tennis.

“I applied for this job in 2014 and didn’t get it back then,” Burns said. “I’ve always wanted to work in a stronger conference.”

Burns has coached in the Midwest his entire career, getting his first head coaching role at Purdue Fort Wayne in 2002.

Burns would coach the PFW women’s team to three Summit League titles in six appearances and three NCAA tournament bids before the program closed in 2015.

Burns then took over as the men’s and women’s coach at Wright State University in 2015, coaching the women’s team to a 72-50 record during his tenure.

A native to Hanover, Indiana, Burns said it’s not just local ties to the region that have kept him in the Midwest, but an enjoyment of indoor competition.

“One thing I like is the season changes where you get to play indoors, and I enjoy indoor tennis,” Burns said. “That’s where my career has taken me, and I like living here. That’s why I’m still here.”

Burns takes over a roster of nine women, eight of whom are international players. Senior Mary Ellen Green is the only American born player, and the only senior along with senior Brodie Walker.

Burns said the variety of backgrounds among players is similar to his teams with Purdue-Fort Wayne.

“It brings a lot of flavor and a variety of experiences to the team,” Burns said. “I think it makes it a really good experience for everyone involved.”

Burns has played against high-level competition before, facing Michigan University in his first NCAA tournament appearance with Purdue-Fort Wayne. Burns said playing great competition year-round will be important for players reaching their peak.

“When you have a team that isn’t quite as talented on paper, on tape or has quite the experience as some of the teams that are doing pretty well in the MAC, you have to face the best competition around,” Burns said. “You need to get players to buy in and get them to believe they belong at that level. Against those teams, there are a lot of opportunities for your players to excel.”

While the ultimate goal for Burns and his team may be a conference championship, the new coach is focused on getting his team ready for Intercollegiate Tennis Association Regionals at Michigan State University.

“It would be great to have a doubles team or a singles player play well at the ITA Regionals in the later rounds — maybe even win it,” Burns said.  

The team will head to East Lansing for the tournament Oct. 16.