By Elizabeth Troutman Adams
With the hands of adoring Big Blue fans stretching toward him, Coach Mark Stoops clutched the hand of his youngest boy with one hand and smacked high-fives with the other as he entered Commonwealth Stadium on Oct. 4. For the University of Kentucky head coach, football and family are inseparable; which is why sons Will, 8, and Zack, 4, often accompany Stoops and his Wildcats during the most pivotal team moments.
A confident and visionary leader in a new era in Kentucky football, Stoops has already won the favor of the Kentucky fan base by pushing for upgrades to football facilities, signing high-caliber new recruits and winning games in the dauntingly competitive Southeastern Conference. After springing to Kentucky on a famous notion of “why not?” two years ago, the Stoops family has now settled in a suburban section of Lexington where they find fulfillment in new friendships, a football coaching staff extended family and eager fans all around who believe Stoops can “change the game.”
Chantel Stoops juggles team travel and obligations that come with the role of “coach’s wife”, with baseball games and school carpools as the mom of two boys. A grade school teacher from Wyoming, Chantel met Mark while she was finishing school and working as a waitress at an Italian restaurant. Mark, who coached the defensive secondary for the University of Wyoming at the time, was eating at the restaurant with a group of coaches. Their chance meeting was the beginning of a long-distance relationship, as Chantel had accepted her first teaching job in Denver, Colorado and for the time, Mark was grounded at the University of Wyoming.
With frequent moves around the country, Chantel grew weary of keeping up with Stoops as he climbed the ranks of the football industry. But around the time of Mark’s move to Florida, he surprised Chantel in Houston with a diamond engagement ring.
Chantel then joined Mark in the football lifestyle.
When Mark accepted a position as the Defensive Backs Coach at the University of Miami, the couple enjoyed three years renting a condo on the beach. Mark then took a job as the Defensive Coordinator for the University of Arizona, working with his brother Mike Stoops, the head coach of the team. From 2004 to 2009, Mark built the Arizona defense up to a top-25 overall defensive unit in his final two seasons with the team. Stoops then served as Defensive Coordinator for Florida State University, where he assembled one of the most formidable defensive lines in the country during his three seasons.
In the back of his mind, through years turning around programs and bolstering defensive forces, Mark was determined to achieve his goal of landing a head coaching position. But although opportunities to take the top job arose, Mark was waiting for the right position to come his way. Then Mark approached Chantel with the question, “What about Kentucky?”
“I thought, they are a basketball school,” Chantel said of her first thoughts about Kentucky. And she knew the team was struggling to build its football program—and that was a scary, but at the same time exciting, challenge for the family.
“When the opportunity to become the next head coach at the University of Kentucky was presented to me, I knew there would be a lot of hurdles to overcome,” Mark Stoops said. “But even then, I could see the potential that this opportunity would have for myself and my family.”
On Dec. 2, 2012, Mark Stoops officially accepted the top job at the University of Kentucky. Although Mark is originally from neighboring Ohio, he, Chantel and the boys had never visited Kentucky. Following Mark’s lead, Chantel and the boys flew in from Florida for the head coach announcement press conference.
Short on sleep and time to prepare for a trip to Lexington, Chantel was at first apprehensive about her new home. Fortunately, she came across an article on the internet in which talk show host Kelly Ripa raved about the beauty of Lexington. Ripa described the area’s horse country landscape and friendly people.
“She said it’s the hidden gem in the United States—that they keep it a secret because they don’t want everyone to know how great it is,” Chantel said. Upon flying into Kentucky—even in December – Chantel soon agreed with Ripa’s recommendation.
Chantel said Lexington has the “best of” Southern and Midwestern hospitality, and plenty of restaurants and entertainment for people in her age group, unlike many college towns.
One of the Stoops’ first family hurdles in the process of coming to Kentucky was explaining the move to older son Will, who was attached to his neighborhood friends in Tallahassee. To help him get through the transition, Chantel and Mark promised Will a puppy, who turned out to be a cuddly Boston Terrier named Izzy Blue. But the first year, which Chantel refers to as “the lost year,” in Lexington was a difficult adjustment for everyone in the family. Mark was incredibly busy with work and the family was living in a temporary condominium while their home was undergoing renovation.
Now taking a few moments between events, football games and kid activities to refresh in her stylish black and white kitchen, Chantel feels like Kentucky is a step closer to feeling like home. She loves her kids’ schools and her neighborhood. No day is ever predictable—it could involve allergy appointments or committee meetings or football functions. She is grateful for a support system of assistant coaches’ wives who live within walking distance from her home. She has also bonded with new friends, like Heather Couch.
“It just hasn’t been hard to make friends here,” Chantel said.
Chantel and the boys are usually along for the football ride. Chantel said, as the wife of a former Defensive Coordinator, she gets tense during Kentucky’s defensive plays. Unlike the previous football administration, the current UK Football coaching staff comprises mostly young families, with many young children from 15 separate coaches’ families gathering in the indoor practice facility before home games. Chantel and her boys also deliver homemade cookies to the players on Tuesday nights, when all coaches’ families are invited to share a meal with the players.
A committed dad himself, Mark encourages assistant coaches and staff to take their kids to school and spend time with their kids outside of work. Mark has dismissed himself from formal dinners to go watch Will play baseball, a sport that Mark also played and excelled in when he was younger. Chantel said Mark’s busy schedule doesn’t exempt him of carpool duties either. While Chantel drops Will off at school, Mark takes Zach to daycare on his way into the office every morning
The Stoops family is also embracing their promise to the Big Blue Nation. They think there’s nothing more rewarding than building a football program from the ground up.
Photos courtesiy of Shaun Ring and Chantel Stoops.