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?
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 , 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 mat 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.