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Miracle Worker
Leigh Montville
June 14, 1999
Carolyn Peck won an NCAA title in her second year at Purdue. Her next trick: building a brand-new WNBA team in Orlando
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June 14, 1999

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

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"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."

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