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Miracle Worker Carolyn Peck won an NCAA title in her second year at Purdue. Her next trick: building a brand-new WNBA team in Orlando

June 14, 1999
June 14, 1999

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June 14, 1999

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Miracle Worker Carolyn Peck won an NCAA title in her second year at Purdue. Her next trick: building a brand-new WNBA team in Orlando

Pat Williams, the senior executive vice president of the WNBA
expansion Orlando Miracle, remembers waiting to meet Carolyn
Peck for the first time a year ago. The month was June. The
place was Orlando International Airport. He remembers his wife,
Ruth, was with him, and they didn't know what Carolyn Peck
looked like, didn't have a clue, and they waited and waited for
the passengers to step off the plane and...Naomi Campbell showed
up?

This is an article from the June 14, 1999 issue Original Layout

He remembers his jaw dropped. He is not sure how far. "I mean,
I'm waiting for this basketball coach," Williams says, "and out
steps this six-foot-four woman, striking looking, like a New York
fashion model, and she has this enveloping east Tennessee accent,
and I'm just overwhelmed."

He remembers feeling like a Saturday-night suitor, fixed up on
the blindest of blind dates at the last minute and discovering
that he had been dropped into some sort of beer commercial. This
was Carolyn Peck?

"We'd been looking for a coach-general manager since April
[1998], when we got the team," says Williams, 59, who's also the
executive vice president for the Orlando Magic. "We were selling
season-ticket packages and moving ahead, and it seemed that
hiring a coach-general manager--because under our budget one
person has to do both jobs--was the next step. The problem was
that no one in our operation knew anything about women's
basketball."

What to do? He had started at the top, talking to Pat Summitt at
Tennessee and Geno Auriemma at Connecticut, and after they had
stopped laughing, he moved along to six more candidates. They
flew in for interviews, one after another: Jim Foster of
Vanderbilt, Gail Goestenkors of Duke, Wendy Larry of Old
Dominion, Theresa Grentz of Illinois, Carol Ross of Florida, and
Mickie DeMoss, an assistant at Tennessee. None of the six took
the job.

"I didn't know where to go next," Williams says. "I called the
only guy I knew who knew anything about this, [Dick] Hoops Weiss
at the New York Daily News. He'd given me my original list. Now I
went back for more names. On the new list was Carolyn Peck at
Purdue. Then a funny thing happened. The next day both Carol Ross
and Gail Goestenkors called. They both said that maybe I should
call Carolyn Peck."

There would be no wasted motion on this candidate. Burned a half
dozen times already, Williams called Peck twice and engaged her
in long conversations before even offering her a plane ticket to
Orlando for an interview. When he was sure she was interested, he
arranged the meeting. The one when she came off the plane.

"We went out to eat," Williams says. "She was intelligent.
Charming. We took her back to the hotel, and I told my wife on
the way home, 'I don't know if she can coach a lick, but I also
don't know if that necessarily matters. She's the one.'"

The only problem, of course, was that she already had a job at
Purdue, and it would be especially difficult for her to leave.

"The first time I went for an interview as a basketball coach
was to be an assistant at Tennessee for Pat Summitt," says Peck.
"She asked me a question I hadn't expected: 'Where do you want
to be in this business 10, 12 years from now, when you're 40
years old?' I blurted out--and I don't know why--'I want to be
on an NBA bench. I want to be the first woman coach in the NBA.'
I'd always thought that would be the best thing, the NBA, all
basketball, professionals, an 82-game season, sort of a Ph.D. in
basketball.

"So now, here I am, I have this chance in the WNBA to coach
professionals, women. I always say, 'Be careful what you wish
for, because when it comes along, you're going to have to make a
decision. It might never come along again.'"

She was 32 years old. Basketball was her chosen future. After
playing four years at center at Vanderbilt, a small-town girl
from tiny Jefferson City, Tenn., she rejected an offer to play
professionally in Spain and thought she was done with the game.
She worked for a year as a marketing consultant for a television
station in Nashville, then sold pharmaceuticals for two
years...and found she missed basketball a lot. She couldn't stay
away. She was using her vacation time to do clinics and camps.

"Why fight it?" she said when an offer to play overseas came
along. She took the offer, played three weeks in Italy, two years
in Japan, then returned to the U.S. to become a coach. She spent
two years with Summitt, one year at Kentucky and had been an
assistant at Purdue for only a year when she was promoted to head
coach to replace Nell Fortner.

Now the pros? After a year as head coach? Everything seemed to be
happening too fast. Years seemed to be compressed into months.

"Nell had called the three assistants to her house. She said
she'd been offered the job as coach of the U.S. Olympic team for
2000," remembers Peck. "I'm thinking, O.K., so now she's going to
tell us that we're going to be looking for jobs.' Instead she
said, 'I've recommended one of you to replace me.' We all looked
at each other. 'I've recommended Carolyn.' I couldn't believe it.
I told Nell later, 'I don't know if I'm ready.' She said, 'I know
you. You'll get ready.'"

This was the latest twist in a tumultuous time for the Purdue
program. Fortner had left after only one season. Her predecessor,
Lin Dunn, had been fired after a 20-11 season and nine years on
the job, and when she left, four players transferred out of the
program and two recruits asked to be released from their letters
of intent. Peck would be the third coach in three years.

She told the other two assistants, who had been sharing her
condominium, that they still had jobs but would have to find a
new place to live. She kept most of Fortner's approach to the
game but she kept her own personality--friendly with the players
off the court, demanding on it. The results were solid: 20-9,
followed by an Elite Eight finish in the NCAA tournament. Her
best players, guards Ukari Figgs and Stephanie McCarty, were
returning as seniors. All things seemed possible.

Now, four months later, Peck was leaving? "I had to talk to the
players about all this," she says. "It became an emotional time.
I cried every day."

Figgs was resigned about the news. You're leaving? O.K. We've
done better every year with a new coach; we'll just win the whole
thing with the fourth one. We don't need you. End of story.

McCarty was angry. "Carolyn said she'd interviewed for this new
job, and I said, 'So you're using it as a negotiating tool with
Purdue for more money,' and she said, 'Well, no, I'm not,' and
that's when I got mad," says McCarty. "We'd stayed and played for
her because we believed in what she wanted to do. Now she was
going to leave? We didn't want to be just stepping-stones for
people. I felt betrayed, and I told her so."

Each meeting with a player was an ordeal. Mary Jo Noon, a
freshman center, broke down and cried. Camille Cooper, a
sophomore center, said, "You told us we were going to win a
national championship." Katie Douglas, a sophomore guard-forward
and Purdue's star of the future--well, what could Peck say to
her? Douglas had lost her father to cancer in 1997, and then
Fortner had gone, and now Peck? There was a separation, between
Peck and her team, that had never existed. Peck says she felt as
if she were facing "a firing squad" when she met with the team.

She couldn't leave. "I called Pat Williams," Peck says, "and I
said, 'Is there any way I can coach this year at Purdue and then
come to you next year, when the team starts playing games?'"

"I understood her problem," Williams says. "Of course the ideal
would have been to have her here for a year, making personal
appearances, selling tickets, working on personnel situations,
but this was late, and where was Purdue going to find a coach in
June? Everyone was pretty much set. I said O.K." So Peck stayed,
and Purdue won the NCAA championship.

A preseason exhibition trip to Switzerland and France soothed
some feelings, with games and shopping every day, paddleboats on
Lake Geneva. A season-opening upset of top-ranked Tennessee in
West Lafayette certainly helped. A philosophy evolved: Play for
today, worry about tomorrow when it comes. Peck refused to
answer media questions about Orlando and the future. Play for
today, be involved in what you're doing.

On Dec. 21, when the Boilermakers played at Florida, five buses
of Miracle staff and season-ticket holders made the trip from
Orlando to Gainesville for the game. A sign on one wall of the
O'Connell Center read, COACH ROSS, THANKS FOR STAYING. COACH
PECK, WELCOME TO FLORIDA. Peck got the Florida sports
information director to remove the sign.

"We talked a lot all year about being a family and how things
change," Peck says. "Changes make everybody uncomfortable. Are
you still in a family if you go away to college? You don't
necessarily disassociate yourself from the family because you
leave. We talked about selfishness. I was the first to admit that
I was being selfish about wanting to take the new job. They were
being selfish about wanting me to stay. Selfishness always
exists, and it's not all bad."

One today led into another today and another, and when the
regular season was over, Purdue was 28-1 with only a 73-72 loss
at Stanford. The NCAA tournament was another succession of todays
in blinders, the final one a 62-45 win over Duke for the title.
The Boilermakers trailed by five at the half, and Peck urged them
to remember last year's tournament, when they were ahead by five
and lost to Louisiana Tech. Five points was nothing. The game was
a blowout by the end, even though McCarty sprained her ankle with
4:20 left and sat, in tears, unable to return to the game.

Peck looked down the bench in the closing seconds. She and her
assistants had put up empty picture frames in their offices, the
words RESERVED FOR PURDUE'S FIRST WOMEN'S BASKETBALL NATIONAL
CHAMPIONS underneath. She watched Figgs and McCarty, all of them,
hugging and cheering and laughing. "This," she said to herself,
"is the picture."

She was in Orlando two weeks later. Ready for work.

"It's crazy," Peck says. "I bought a house and I've moved in,
but I haven't moved in. You know? Everything is in boxes. You
wash your hands and you say, 'Now, which box has the towels?'"

Every other day there seems to be another coach of the year
award, another dinner, another trophy for the Purdue success.
Every day there is practice, a Miracle expansion team that isn't
a typical expansion team, stocked with five expatriates from the
defunct American Basketball League, including Shannon Johnson
and Sheri Sam. She has a viable team to coach in her first
professional year. The Miracle's season is scheduled to open on
June 10, at home against the Houston Comets, the two-time WNBA
champs.

Williams, the boss, couldn't be happier. "Everything has worked
out," he says. "I'm just so glad that none of those first six
women took the job, so glad we have Carolyn. I'm just so glad
she coached the year at Purdue. What better result could you
have? She's the coach of the year. You couldn't buy credibility
like that."

The fact is mentioned to him that the job coaching Orlando's NBA
team, the Magic, is open after the resignation of Chuck Daly.
Peck has mentioned that her ambition is to coach in the NBA. Is
there a possibility here? "I don't know where Carolyn Peck is
going to wind up," Williams says, quite seriously, "but I'm
convinced she will do great things. I don't know if it will be
politics, the NBA, whatever, but she will do great things."

Peck is more reserved. "I like the job I have," she says. "I like
it a lot." Today is today. Tomorrow is tomorrow.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ANN STATES/SABACOLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Best seat in the house Peck was schooling her new charges in Sunday's preseason game.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Toweling off During a preseason scrimmage at Orlando Arena last week, Peck didn't waste any time whipping the fans into shape.
"We didn't want to be just stepping-stones for people," says
McCarty. "I felt betrayed, and I told her so."
"I don't know where Carolyn Peck is going to wind up," Williams
says, "but I'm convinced she will do great things."