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Designing Woman
Pat Jordan
August 04, 1975
A lot of people in volleyball consider Mary Jo Peppler a talented but temperamental prima donna. Yet few deny that the Superstars winner is in tune with these times
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August 04, 1975

Designing Woman

A lot of people in volleyball consider Mary Jo Peppler a talented but temperamental prima donna. Yet few deny that the Superstars winner is in tune with these times

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I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jeweled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern...
Christ! What are patterns for?
—AMY LOWELL

The floor is bare except for the cardboard dress pattern, which is scattered in disarray. Seated behind a sewing machine in the sparsely furnished room is a woman in her late 20s. She is sewing by hand, her head tilted in such a way that her features are foreshortened and shadowed. Only her hair is caught by the smoky shafts of sunlight pouring through an open window.

"I drove to Houston," she says. "I'd heard about Mary Jo. Everyone in volleyball knew about her. The girls on her team lived in a big old house in Houston. Mary Jo did the cooking. I remember one day she left some pots boiling on the stove. One of the girls turned them off. Mary Jo was furious. She was the cook, she said, and locked herself in a room. A few weeks later I walked into the kitchen, and there were three girls staring at a pot of stew. It was bubbling and boiling over the sides of the pot, down the side of the stove and onto the floor. Mary Jo had gone out and had forgotten to turn it off. None of the girls would touch it. 'Not me,' one said, 'you think I'm crazy!'

"We were terrified of her. She was so hard on us. We were emotionally involved, too. We looked to her for direction, both as players and as women. She was going to lead us to an Olympic gold medal. It was our dream. Then they took the program away from her. Just like that! We had nothing left.

"She was so hurt, she quit volleyball. She had gone through hell to play volleyball. Now she's turned professional. She's playing for the pro team here in El Paso. One of two women playing on a men's team. She won't be able to adjust to men. They'll try to dominate her, and she won't let them. She'll never adjust. She's light-years ahead of them in her thinking. When it comes to volleyball plays and systems, she's a genius. But in other ways, she's a dreamer. She was the best of coaches and the worst of coaches. She had these beautiful systems worked out in her head. But we could never perform them on the court and she could never understand why."

As an amateur, Mary Jo Peppler was voted the best woman volleyball player in the world at the 1970 international games in Bulgaria despite the fact that her U.S. team finished 11th. As a coach, she formed two of the most powerful women's teams in the country, the Los Angeles Renegades and the E Pluribus Unum team of Houston. The latter won the U.S. championship in 1972 and '73, wresting that title from its Southern California possessors for the first time in 22 years.

Despite these playing and coaching successes, however, Peppler's volleyball career has been filled with controversy. She feuded with officials of the U.S. Volleyball Association in what she claims was an effort to improve the caliber of U.S. teams and win an Olympic gold medal. She has been accused of being a prima donna who, when she does not get her way, either quits or slacks off during competition. Al Monaco, executive director of the USVBA, says, "She's a gifted athlete who can't be handled."

Mary Jo Peppler finally provoked the USVBA so much that she was told she was no longer needed either as a player or as a coach of the team that was to represent the U.S. in the 1976 Olympics. The team coach at that time, Charles Erbe, said he preferred to build his squad around younger, more malleable women. "I've worked with older girls before," he said. "They did not have attitudes I wanted to train, and I told them to get lost."

Forced to abandon her dream of an Olympic gold medal, Mary Jo Peppler joined the professional International Volleyball Association, which began operating in May. When she signed with the El Paso Juarez Sol last winter she was still the best woman volleyball player in the world and still, after 12 years, relatively unknown as an athlete, but two months later she won the women's Superstars competition in Rotonda, Fla. At the age of 30, Mary Jo Peppler was finally thrust before the public eye.

The Brazos in downtown El Paso is a square, four-story, stucco building the color of mustard. It is dwarfed and shadowed by the city's glass-and-chrome skyscrapers and, at the same time, set apart from them by spacious parking lots. The Brazos is an island deserted by time. It belongs to another El Paso—a flat, dusty, bleached, unshadowed desert town, shimmering and floating under a white sun, a town of hot, dry winds and adobe huts with shuttered windows like black holes, a town of Mexican women and gunfights and quick flights on horseback through the desert.

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