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Carolyn Peck elated for Dawn Staley as second black coach to win women’s basketball title

‘Now that there’s a one and a two, there’ll be a three. And the excitement that gives me is thrilling.’

Carolyn Peck was so focused on her players after Purdue beat Duke in the 1999 women’s basketball championship that when a reporter asked her what it meant to be the first African-American coach to win a title, Peck realized that she’d never thought about it.

She recalled the coaches who came before her: Marian Washington (Kansas), Marianna Freeman (Syracuse) and C. Vivian Stringer (Rutgers). Then she thought about her English teacher at Jefferson County High School in Dandridge, Tennessee.

“She said to me, ‘When you do an outline, you never have a one unless there’s going to be a two,’ ” said Peck, now an associate head coach at Vanderbilt. “When I was described as the first, that meant there was going to be a second.

“Of that national championship net that I had, I cut a piece of it off and I gave it to Dawn [Staley].”

Staley, who went to three Final Fours as a player at Virginia, finally won a national championship Sunday with her South Carolina Gamecocks. Staley became the second African-American coach to win a national title in women’s basketball.

“Carolyn Peck, a few years ago when she was commentating, she gave me a piece of her net,” Staley said. “She told me to keep it. I’ve had it in my wallet for years.

“I’m going to have to pass a piece of my net on to somebody else so they can share and hopefully accomplish something as big as this. I do have to give a shout-out to Carolyn Peck, and I will return her net, thankfully.”

This was all part of Peck paying it forward after Tennessee forward Pashen Thompson gave her a piece of the net she cut down in 1996 after the Lady Vols won the title. In 1995, while Peck was on the staff at Tennessee, the team lost to Connecticut in the national championship, and the next year she moved on to Kentucky to become a full-time assistant.

Peck was at the Final Four the following year, and Thompson, one of the post players she had worked with, called her former coach down on the floor, cut two pieces of the net and gave one to Peck.

Thompson told Peck to keep the piece until she won a national championship, and Peck wore it on her tennis shoe through everything she did: from being an assistant at Purdue to becoming the head coach to winning the title.

When Staley, who has coached South Carolina since 2008, began making progress with the Gamecocks, Peck gave Staley a piece of her net from Purdue.

“‘The only thing that I ask is that when you win yours,'” she recalled saying to Staley, “‘you pass it on, because you don’t ever have a first unless there’s going to be a second.’

“And [Sunday night], Dawn Staley was the second,” Peck said as she teared up. “And it’s huge, and I’m so proud of her. It’s special, because I’ve been a fan of Dawn since she was a player. She just loves the game.”

In 1998, Peck led Purdue to the Elite Eight, where the team lost to Louisiana Tech. After the loss she wrote, “Reserved for Purdue’s first national championship” on an 8-by-10-inch sheet of paper, printed it out, framed it and gave it to every member of the Boilermakers’ program.

The summer before Purdue’s title run, Peck accepted an WNBA coaching job with the Orlando Miracle. She spoke to her players individually and told them about the new job. Ukari Figgs and Stephanie White, who had played under three coaches to that point, were the last two calls Peck made. Figgs didn’t want to hold her coach back and supported the move. White told Peck she couldn’t leave because they had everything in place to win a championship.

Peck went to her attorney and said she wanted to stay at Purdue, so the pair combed over her contract and found she could remain for one more season, and with Orlando’s permission she would take the job after the 1998-99 college season. Once that was resolved, the wheels began turning on the Boilermakers’ championship season.

The Boilermakers traveled to Europe, where they grew even closer, and lost only to Stanford during their 34-1 season. When Purdue reached the championship game against Duke, the team found itself down by seven points to the Blue Devils. Peck surprised the players when she came into the locker room at halftime and told them they had Duke right where they wanted them. She quickly reminded them how they had been up on Louisiana Tech by the same margin the previous year and lost.

Purdue played with renewed energy, and Peck recalled Katie Douglas with the ball in her hands as the final 7 seconds rolled off the clock.

“I looked down at our team and our staff, and I remembered where we started from in June,” Peck said. “I remembered that group of people agreeing we could do this if we stuck together.”

Peck said she has players walk up to her and tell her they were at her championship game in San Jose, California. Comedians Sinbad, Bill Cosby and so many others who Peck didn’t even realize were paying attention recognized the magnitude of what she had done.

Peck coached in the WNBA until 2001. She was the head coach at the University of Florida from 2002 till 2007.

She joined ESPN as an on-air commentator in 2007 and worked for the company until returning to coaching in 2016 at her alma mater, Vanderbilt. If she were still with ESPN, the one question Peck would want to ask Staley is: “When you look back on winning this national championship, what is the thing that you would remember the most?”

Of all the questions Peck was asked after her title, that was the one she remembers to this day. She recalled Douglas, a sophomore that year, at the end of the game and how she had come to Purdue after her father died of cancer. Peck watched Douglas do all the hard work required of a champion.

Staley, Peck said, would experience excitement for her players because the championship was never about Staley. It was always about elevating her team and putting the players in a position to experience success.

Peck also said Staley might not truly understand the gravity of her victory until people she doesn’t even know begin walking up to her and telling her, “I was pulling for you; I believed in you.” Or there will be that young woman who will come up to her and say she wants to be Staley someday.

“When you think about the battles that Marian Washington, Marianna Freeman and coach C. Vivian Stringer have been through … but they did it for the love of the game and the opportunities that they provided for us,” Peck said. “Now that there’s a one and a two, there’ll be a three. And the excitement that that gives me is thrilling. … I’m a true believer in the power of the mirror. … You have a motivation to become what you see.

“There are plenty of other young coaches that are watching what Dawn Staley did [Sunday night], and that gives them energy. It gives them motivation that they’ll do it too.”

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.