Ohio-born husband and wife are making quite an impact on the university’s campus

Story: Phillip Tutor | Photo: Betsy Compton

For a glimpse of Kristen and Nick Woodruff’s path to the University of West Alabama, there may be no better place than the kitchen of a pizza shop along U.S. 425 deep in the Arkansas timberlands.

Young, recently married and rich only in aspirations, the Woodruffs once lived in Monticello, a college town about 40 miles west of the Mississippi River. Nick, a graduate assistant at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, had been promoted to assistant coach of the Boll Weevils’ men’s basketball team. Kristen had a job — in Ohio — but resigned to join her husband’s career dream.

Pizzas, it would be.

Mazzio’s Italian Eatery sits a short drive north of the UAM campus, its menu filled with the usual varieties of pizzas, pastas, calzones, chicken wings and salads. Unemployed despite having two college degrees, Kristen couldn’t ignore the paycheck and, as Nick remembers, began “flipping pizzas and bringing dinner home.”

“She was a big part of letting me coach, and now I’ve kind of finally helped out by getting this job and doing pretty well. But she carried us for a while.”

Today, the Woodruffs are nearly a decade into their time in Livingston. Kristen is the quality assurance director for UWA’s Division of Online Programs, which features more than 50 online offerings. Nick is head coach of the men’s basketball team, which this season shared the Gulf South Conference regular-season championship, won the GSC tournament and qualified for the NCAA Division II playoffs.

Together, this husband-and-wife team of Midwest transplants is a visual constant on the UWA campus, where their embrace of the university’s mission, its students and its athletics programs are well known.

“They are just an unbelievable power couple. It’s like Brad (Pitt) and Angelina (Jolie), and we’ve got Kristen and Nick,” said Dr. Jan Miller, dean of UWA’s College of Education and the Division of Online Programs. “They both are just the most humble people you’ll ever, ever see. Nothing really ruffles their feathers. They’re cool as a cucumber. I think the world would be an awesome place if we had more Nick and Kristen Woodruffs in the world, for sure.”

Basketball’s never-ending allure

Long before Livingston and Monticello and the pizzas at Mazzio’s, Kristen and Nick grew up in Oxford, Ohio, a city tucked into that state’s southwest corner not far from Cincinnati and the Indiana state line. They went to the same high school. Both played sports. Nick took Kristen to the homecoming dance. One of Kristen’s brothers — she’s the second-oldest of her parents’ nine children — married one of Nick’s best friends. Their pasts overflow with connective snippets.

Oxford is permanently embedded in their DNA. Like Livingston, it’s a college town, home to Miami University, one of the nation’s oldest public institutions of higher education. Nick’s mom worked nearly two decades as a secretary in that university’s football recruiting office. One of Kristen’s brothers played football at Miami. As an eighth-grader, Nick job-shadowed Miami’s basketball coach, which became tinder for his burning desire to become a coach.

At Talawanda High School in Oxford, Nick played guard for the basketball team. Kristen, initially tall for her age, was a post player in middle school but moved to guard. “I’ve always loved basketball, but I wasn’t as good of a player as Kristen was,” Nick said. “She was the player, I just have a mind for it.” They sheepishly agree that if they played one-on-one today, she’d probably win.

“Nick is a ‘ball coach,’ not concerned with much of anything else going on outside of his family and his team during the season. Fifty-plus wins over the last two seasons proves that.”

UWA Athletics Director Kent Partridge

Rather than attend Miami, Kristen and Nick embarked on an unofficial tour of southern Ohio’s universities. Nick graduated from Muskingum University in Zanesville. At Capital University in suburban Columbus, Kristen earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational communications, played basketball and justified Nick’s opinion of her on-court talent. She left that campus with a stellar resume: four-year letter winner, three-time team captain, two-time Ohio Athletic Conference first-team selection, and the 2010 conference player of the year. Still hooked by basketball’s allure, she spent two years as a graduate assistant at Otterbein University in Westerville, where she earned a master’s degree in business administration. Coaching, she eventually realized, was her husband’s future, but not hers.

Their interconnected lives, forever rooted in Ohio, were about to take them south.

“You miss the people, and you miss your family,” Kristen said. “But I’ll be honest, if I never see snow again, I’m good with that. The weather here is much better.”

The Woodruffs’ competitive spirit

At UWA, the Woodruffs work in roles that couldn’t be more divergent, one academic, the other athletic. As a 35-year-old head coach of a successful NCAA Division II team, Nick is a public figure intrinsically linked to UWA. Kristen enjoys much more anonymity, though Miller is adamant that the wife of the basketball coach can’t hide from the university’s online success. Chief among that adulation is Kristen’s role as the liaison between UWA and the partner organization that provides enrollment management and marketing efforts for the online programs.

“She is the MVP of online programs,” Miller said. “She is our day-to-day, behind-the-scenes person who makes sure the processes on the partner’s side and UWA’s side run seamlessly. It is the most well-oiled machine you’ve ever seen.”

For the former all-conference basketball player, that administrative role is different from what Kristen first expected when she decided to avoid a career in coaching. With degrees in communication and business administration, she envisioned roles in athletics administration or communications for a sports television network. But Nick’s career journey, as it often would, rewrote that script.

“It’s a privilege to work here, first and foremost. And there’s a community here that is our friends. They help us figure this out. It’s not just the two of us. We’re not on an island. We’ve got a community of supporters.”

Kristen Woodruff

As a profession, coaching is often a nomadic slog. Coaches move for promotions and higher pay. Unemployed coaches move because they need a job. When Nick’s career began in earnest at Arkansas-Monticello, Kristen’s career flourished when the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center hired her as a consultant and training coordinator. It was neither coaching nor athletic administration. Not only did the ability to assist Arkansas’ rural communities resonate with her, it justified the decision to eschew sports and embrace a career in business.

“I fell in love with that,” she said. “I really enjoyed it.”

The Woodruffs wouldn’t stay in Arkansas long. Nick’s career, the one that began on the basketball courts in Oxford, wouldn’t allow it. When UWA hired the head coach at AUM, Allen Sharpe, Woodruff also joined the Tigers’ coaching staff. The moves didn’t rankle Kristen. She had played college basketball. She knew how the system worked, that coaching families moved as often as military spouses, and that work-life balance was nevertheless possible. She was nonplussed.

“I knew what I was getting myself into because it’s all-encompassing,” she said. “I think that’s why part of me knew that coaching is not for me, but being a part of basketball is because that competitive drive is still there.”

Nick embraces the lifestyle — the late-night film studies, the grueling recruiting travel and the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week schedule. He scoffs at any thought of doing something else, something less stressful. “Coaches talk about the grind. This is not a grind,” Nick said. “I don’t go to the coal mine. I don’t go to the paper mill at 4 a.m. I get to work coaching. I get to do my hobby for a living.”

Kent Partridge, UWA’s director of athletics, considers Nick the embodiment of his department’s historic culture of hard work and success.

“Nick is a ‘ball coach,’ not concerned with much of anything else going on outside of his family and his team during the season,” said Partridge, who praises his coach’s tunnel-vision mentality. “Fifty-plus wins over the last two seasons proves that.”

Parenting and coaching at the same time

It doesn’t take Kristen long to count the number of UWA games she’s missed since Nick replaced Sharpe as the Tigers’ head coach. It’s two. That’s it. One last year, one this year. The Woodruffs’ children, Steven, 7, and Sloane, 4, are courtside constants. If you ask Kristen how many children she and Nick have, she might say 12 — or more — because of the relationship her family has with the Tigers’ players, many of whom also are far from their childhood homes.

Steven, his parents say, is a mini-Nick — all sports, all basketball, all the time. He can’t get enough. In fact, Partridge describes Steven as “the pied-piper for every kid in the gym, leading every halftime shooting session and making sure all his buddies know our players.” But Sloane isn’t as impressed by her dad’s job. At a recent UWA postseason game in Birmingham, Sloane slept in her mother’s arms for most of the night. When she woke up late in the second half, she asked, “When are we going back to the hotel?”

“She doesn’t have a care in the world about if he wins or loses,” Kristen said.

When Miller, dean of education and online programs, describes the Woodruffs, she quickly mentions the respect Kristen and Nick have for their respective positions at UWA. During the day, they aren’t joined at the hip while on campus. Professional boundaries matter. “He is supportive of the job that she does and he understands the importance of the role that she plays,” MIller said. “I rarely see Nick over here in the College of Education and online programs. And I bet they rarely see Kristen over (in athletics) unless it’s for a game. But they support each other 100 percent. It’s just the coolest thing.”

That collegial spirit on UWA’s campus is invaluable, the Woodruffs say, especially for a coaching family with young children.

“It’s a privilege to work here, first and foremost,” Kristen said. “And there’s a community here that is our friends. They help us figure this out. It’s not just the two of us. We’re not on an island. We’ve got a community of supporters.”