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?' "