Carolyn Peck enters the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame a pioneer for Black coaches
Peck, the first Black woman to coach an NCAA championship team, provided a ‘beacon of hope’ to Dawn Staley and others
Carolyn Peck believes that it was a conspiracy that she was to play basketball.
When Peck was in the fifth grade in Jefferson City, Tennessee, she attended her first basketball tryout. Peck had grown up attending the games of her older brother Steve who she would watch play and win. She had been inspired to take the game up herself in an effort to follow in his footsteps. To the excitement of Peck, cheerleading and basketball tryouts were on the same day.
Once the final list had been posted for the basketball team, which included Peck, fine print on the flyer also read that those who made the roster wouldn’t be able to attend the cheerleading finals. Basketball it was.
Peck would go on to become a standout at Jefferson County High School where she’d be named Miss Basketball before going on to play for Vanderbilt. It would be as a coach, however, that Peck left an indelible mark on the sport. In 1999, she became the first Black coach to win a national championship in women’s basketball as the head coach of Purdue.
On Saturday in Knoxville, just a half-hour drive from her hometown, Peck will take her place among the game’s most revered as a member of the 2023 class being inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. For pioneers in sports, particularly those who accomplish firsts, their legacies are at times condensed into a headline. The cost is often a lack of recognition of the detail that went into the process.
At the Hall of Fame, an appreciation of Peck’s impact on and off the court will be felt in full.
When Peck was named the head coach before the 1997-98 season, Purdue women’s basketball was at a tipping point. Peck was the team’s third coach in three seasons. Lin Dunn had been fired after the 1995-96 season, and her replacement, Nell Fortner, was leaving the program after one season to coach the U.S. national team. The team was bolstered by a dynamic duo of juniors Ukari Figgs and Stephanie White, but it needed a coach who could both ground the program while steering it forward.
Peck took on that challenge. She was 31 years old and had been a college coach for only four years as an assistant at Tennessee, Kentucky and Purdue. Now, she was the head coach at a Big Ten program. Peck didn’t feel ready when Fortner recommended her for the job. Seeking advice, she called the first person to give her a coaching job, Pat Summitt.
“I told her I wasn’t ready,” said Peck, who worked for Summitt from 1993 to 1995. “Pat said, ‘Well, if you’re not ready, where do you want to go? Get ready. You want to coach high school? You want to go to coach junior college? Or do you want to get ready on the job?’ ”
Peck chose the Purdue job while trying to implement some of the lessons she learned under Summitt. Don’t waste energy mulling over problems, find solutions. Always be prepared and ensure your players are always prepared.
Peck enlisted the help of legendary coach Billie Moore, asking her to attend a Purdue practice in hopes of receiving feedback from one of the game’s best. Moore liked the flow and the organization of the practice but had a suggestion after observing how Peck directed her players.
“You’re not going to have a voice in two days,” Moore told the budding head coach, who had been yelling at her players from her throat. “That has to come from your diaphragm.”
In Peck’s first games as a head coach, she recalled that when Purdue won, the entire locker room would erupt like they had won a national championship. They didn’t know when the next win was going to come. But the wins kept coming. Purdue finished its season 23-10 and made a run to the Elite Eight, suffering a difficult defeat to Louisiana Tech.
The loss was excruciating for Peck, who spent multiple days replaying the sequence of the game and painful outcome. When she rose, she walked to her computer and, using the equivalent of a word processor, placed a sheet of paper into a picture frame that read “Purdue’s First National Championship Team” at the bottom. Each player received one ahead of the 1999 season, including a notebook that contained a picture of what their championship ring could look like. By season’s end, they’d fill the frame with a picture of them cutting down the nets in California.
During their coverage of this year’s NCAA women’s Final Four, Peck and ESPN analyst Monica McNutt were in conversation with LSU head coach Kim Mulkey.
Mulkey, who had led her Tigers to the Final Four in her second season at the helm, asked the commentating crew who had ever advanced to a Final Four in their second year with a program, pointing to the rarity of the achievement.
“Carolyn goes, ‘me,’ ” said McNutt of Peck, who was the first coach to accomplish such a feat. “It was this really great moment between two friends but also a historic mic drop for those of us in the room. I didn’t know she had done that in just her second year.”
Peck’s victory in 1999 as the first Black head coach to win a national title in women’s basketball has become a cornerstone in the fight for visibility of Black coaches. Peck shattered a ceiling, and its ripple effects continue to be felt almost 25 years later. In doing so, however, her monumental accomplishment of being the first has seemingly overshadowed the very details of that 1999 season that led to that history-making moment.
“I think one headline fits a little bit more succinctly into a box,” McNutt said. “It’s so important for us who carry the stories and honor the legacy to include all the details.”
The details of Purdue and Peck’s 1999 season alone are staggering, beginning with the fact that Peck almost didn’t coach Purdue that season. In the summer before the 1999 season began, Peck had accepted a job to become the general manager and head coach of a new WNBA expansion team, the Orlando Miracle.
“Initially when we heard she was taking a new job, we were heartbroken,” White said. “We were on the heels of, we thought, a national championship kind of season. We knew we had the pieces.”
Peck, along with Figgs and White, convinced the athletics department to let Peck coach through the end of the ensuing season. Newspapers labeled Peck a “lame duck coach,” a title that doesn’t sit well with Peck to this day.
“I think the title of lame duck made it sound like nothing could be accomplished and that it didn’t matter,” Peck said. “To me, that season mattered more than anything. … There was no lame duck about what I did.”
Purdue began the season by defeating Summitt and three-time defending champion Tennessee. Over the course of the regular season, the Boilermakers won six games against ranked opponents. Their only loss during the regular season was by one point to Stanford on the road. They captured the Big Ten regular-season and conference championship on their way to the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed.
During their storied tournament run, Peck and Purdue went through some of the most respected coaches in NCAA basketball history: Marian Washington and Kansas; C. Vivian Stringer and Rutgers; Sylvia Hatchell and North Carolina; Leon Barmore and Louisiana Tech; and Gail Goestenkors and Duke.
Purdue ended its season on a 32-game winning streak. Its championship marked the first in Big Ten women’s basketball history. Peck, who was 33 at the time, remains the youngest coach in NCAA history to win a women’s Division I national championship.
“People don’t realize how new she was to being a head coach and here she is … just mowing down these other coaches,” said Figgs, who would be named the Final Four most outstanding player and is now an executive at Toyota Motor Corp. “Just finding the ways to navigate through that sometimes she gets underestimated for how she set us up to be able to win that championship.”
Peck believes that part of that oversight dates to 1999. Compared with other national champions, she believes her Purdue team didn’t get the celebration that its championship run and season warranted.
“There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of fanfare,” Peck said. “It really felt like that whole team, the fact of us winning and me being the first Black woman to win a national championship, it didn’t matter for 18 years. Until Dawn [Staley] won it.
“That’s where it became a big deal. When she pulled out that piece of the net that I had given her and shared that with the world, that’s when it became relevant. It really didn’t matter until there was another.”
In 2015, while Peck was in Columbia, South Carolina, to cover a game, she gave Staley a piece of her 1999 championship net. It was the continuation of a gesture made by Peck’s former player at Tennessee, Pashen Thompson, who had given Peck a piece of Tennessee’s championship net in 1996, telling Peck to keep it until she won her own.
It was important for Peck to support the next generation of Black coaches that followed her. To be the first Black coach to win a championship was a special moment. She didn’t want to be the last.
“Anybody, if you want to be in the field of coaching, I support you, but especially Black women, because that support had not always been there,” Peck said. “It was not an easy job. It takes a village. To have that support is important.”
In Staley, Peck found the coach she believed could be next.
“It meant everything at the time,” Staley said. “She knew that we were close [to a championship]. Sometimes you lose focus on why you’re doing it and how close you are. The piece of nylon was just a reminder.”
For Staley, Peck played a critical part in giving her an example of a coach, particularly a Black coach, who accomplished the hardest achievement in the sport. Staley called Peck her “beacon of hope.”
“She’s the person that, when I got into coaching … she helped me,” Staley said. “She helped me see far and wide and understand what comes with being a Black coach and being a Black coach that wins. … That’s what she represents for us.”
When Staley won a championship in 2017, becoming the second Black coach to win a national championship, she was able to share that historic victory with Peck.
“I don’t know if she got quite the love that she deserved in 1999 when it happened,” Staley said. “With what she did and our success, we get to talk about her a lot more for actually breaking that glass ceiling. It’s cool that we get to do that. … Now, we get to talk about her going into the Women’s Hall of Fame.”
In 2007, following three years with the Miracle and five seasons as the head coach at the University of Florida, Peck got a call from her agent about an offer at ESPN to rejoin the company as an analyst. (Peck began her career as a studio analyst for ESPN in 2001.) Except for a brief return to the bench as an associate head coach at Vanderbilt, where she served as an associate head coach under White, Peck has been a pivotal presence as a commentator for the sport.
Peck has connected with viewers through her ability to provide big picture and strategic insight while also being able to break the game down for viewers from a coach’s perspective. Peck approaches each assignment as an educational opportunity for fans.
“I think the thing that I like the most is I get to interact with the players and tell their stories,” Peck said. “I want after each broadcast for the viewers at home to walk away having learned at least one thing about the game.”
Over the years that Peck has been calling and analyzing games, she’s seen a positive change in the landscape in regards to the number of Black women in the industry, particularly in front of the camera. For McNutt, the effect of Peck’s longtime presence on the women’s basketball desk has been immeasurable.
“I can’t express how much looking at someone who looks exactly like you who is crushing it — just being there is a big thing,” McNutt said. “She’s an incredible ambassador for the game and is always so warm and welcoming. And she knows the game so well.”
That impact of Peck’s presence has also impacted the very subjects she covers.
“She gives us somebody that calls our game, somebody to trust. That’s the biggest gift that you can give us as Black women and coaches and admirers,” Staley said.
When White and Figgs think about their memories of Peck and what they’ve kept with them almost 25 years since their championship run, they bring up Peck’s sense of calm and confidence on the sideline or her ability to empower her team on the floor. They mention the open door culture Peck created where she would genuinely listen to players’ ideas and feedback about what they saw on the court.
Some of their most poignant memories, however, had nothing to do with basketball.
A few months into the 1999 season, Figgs’ dad called Peck informing her that Figgs’ grandmother had died. Figgs was on her way to class when she found Peck sitting outside of her classroom door.
“She was there to tell me. She was there to comfort me and to try and help me through that situation. I get emotional now thinking about it,” Figgs said. “She made sure that I knew she was there. … She’s a great coach and going into the Hall of Fame, but for me she’s been an even better person and friend.”
Peck will bring her home field advantage to the Hall of Fame, where she’ll be surrounded and uplifted by friends and family that she estimates will run 50 seats deep – from her parents and two brothers to her best friend from high school to play-by-play partner Courtney Lyle.
“It’s a great honor when you think of the people that have already been inducted,” Peck said. “Just to be even mentioned in the same breath. I’m overwhelmed.”
Peck’s induction will bring her basketball journey to the forefront. The coach, who has never stopped coaching, will receive the sport’s highest honor and the recognition for a mark left on the game that continues to be felt.
“She gives so much to this game. She gives so much to the audience when she’s broadcasting. She gives so much to her family and friends who are close to her. She gives so much to other coaches by being the example,” White said. “I think that ultimately Carolyn’s legacy is going to be how much she has given to the human beings in this sport.”