By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In 1999, Carolyn Peck became the first African-American to coach a women’s Division I national championship basketball team. As head coach at Purdue University, Peck led the Boilermakers to a win over Duke in the title game in San Jose, Calif. The memories of that successful run still resonate for Peck, a former player at Vanderbilt and now associate coach on the Commodores’ women’s basketball staff.
Those fond memories came flooding back on Sunday night. That’s when Peck watched South Carolina beat Mississippi State for the women’s national championship in Dallas. With the win, Gamecocks’ head coach Dawn Staley joined Peck as the only African-American head coaches to win the women’s title. Afterward, Staley referenced Peck’s influence on her own coaching career in the postgame press conference.
“Carolyn Peck, a few years ago, when she was commentating, she gave me a piece of her net, her national championship net,” Staley told reporters. “She told me to keep it. I've had it in my wallet for years. She said, ‘When you win your national championship, just return it.’
“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.”
Peck still recalls the circumstances surrounding her relationship with Staley. Peck worked as a college basketball analyst for ESPN for nine years before joining Stephanie White’s staff at Vanderbilt last summer. In working South Carolina games, Peck began to take note of Staley’s potential as a coach.
That’s when Peck decided to pass on a gesture bestowed on her early in her career. While an assistant at Kentucky during the 1995-96 season, Peck traveled to the Final Four in Charlotte and watched Tennessee defeated Georgia for the NCAA title. Peck, who had served on the Lady Vols’ staff the previous season, received a piece of net from Tennessee senior Pashen Thompson after the win. Thompson told Peck, “Keep one of these until you win one of your own.”
Peck carried that net throughout her coaching career. Then, while visiting Staley, Peck decided she had found the perfect recipient of her own twine from Purdue.
— NCAA Women's BKB (@ncaawbb) April 3, 2017
“She coaches from the same position as a point guard, setting up those around her to be successful,” Peck said. “I see great similarities between Dawn Staley and Stephanie White. But I remember watching Dawn and thinking, she can do this. Watching Dawn, I thought, I’m going to give her a piece of our net. She can do with it what she wants.”
Now Peck said she is proud to see another African-American coach hoist a championship trophy in women’s basketball. But Peck is quick to note coaches of color who succeeded without winning national titles, names like C. Vivian Stringer (Cheyney, Iowa, Rutgers) and Marian Washington (Kansas). “They gave me the opportunity that I had,” Peck said.
On Monday morning, Peck’s phone buzzed. It was a text from Staley:
What a blessing. Thank you for inspiring me/us to being in this number. I will certainly pass on this tradition and pray there will be more that will keep this going. I’m overjoyed.
Now, Peck says Staley has a chance to pay it forward.
“In the photos of Dawn celebrating, you’ll notice she has two pieces of net,” Peck said. “She’ll have one for her and one that she’ll give to someone else. It’s the baton to pass on.”