Peck working on Miracle

WNBA: Guiding Purdue to last season's NCAA women's title was a high-water mark in the young coach's career, but a playoff spot for her Orlando team, an expansion franchise in the pro league, wouldn't rank far behind.

August 04, 1999|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When Pat Williams thinks of Carolyn Peck, the coach and general manager of the WNBA's Orlando Miracle, all he can see is an upside.

But for Williams, the senior executive vice president of the NBA's Orlando Magic, which operates the Miracle franchise, that upside isn't just about her basketball coaching ability.

"If you ask me if I think that Tennessee or Connecticut might come calling some day, that's not what I worry about," said Williams.

"Carolyn has such tremendous communication skills. I think she has the ability to impact the country. I could see her as a U.S. senator or a congresswoman or running a Fortune 500 company or an ambassador to a foreign country. Those are things I could see."

Peck, who guided Purdue to the NCAA title in March, clearly has an upside, and not just because she is 6 feet 4 and often wears heels to tower even higher over game officials.

She has the expansion team -- a mix of youth and experience -- within hailing distance of a playoff spot, trailing Detroit by a half-game with nine to play going into tonight's action. The Washington Mystics play host to the Miracle tomorrow night.

"We have fun personalities on our team, and even though this is the professional level, team chemistry is vitally important," said Peck.

"They play hard for each other and they pull for each other when they're not playing. We compete like the dickens in practice, but we're on the same team. Over time, that's going to pay off for us in the long run."

Peck's blend of enthusiasm and fierce competitiveness already has the Miracle believing in its postseason hopes, and, by extension, in her.

"She's the type of coach where, if you work hard, you'll never go wrong with her. That's very appreciated among the players," said Carla McGhee, a reserve Orlando forward who played against Peck in college when McGhee was at Tennessee and Peck was at Vanderbilt.

If the Miracle -- one of two expansion teams in the WNBA this season -- can get to the playoffs, Peck, 32, would become the first women's coach to take professional and collegiate teams to the postseason in the same calendar year.

And what a year it has been. Peck, who was an assistant coach at Purdue when former coach Nell Fortner left to lead the U.S. Olympic team in 1997, was not one of the original candidates for the Miracle job. The Magic organization sought six collegiate coaches, all of whom turned the franchise down.

However, Williams said two of the coaches they talked to highly recommended Peck, so he contacted her and conducted the initial interviews by phone.

Williams, who was the architect of the great Philadelphia 76ers teams of the 1980s and the first GM of the Magic, came away impressed with Peck and invited her to Orlando for follow-up talks.

When the loquacious Williams and his wife, Ruth, met Peck at the Orlando airport last June, he came away speechless.

"I told Ruth I just wasn't ready for what I saw," said Williams. "I mean, the height. The fact that she's 6-4 and wears heels tells you that she has confidence in herself and her abilities. And she's gorgeous and extremely intelligent. It was a no-brainer."

But Williams had to wait. Because the Purdue seniors had already had two head coaches in their four years, Peck was leery of leaving them in the lurch, so she asked if she could postpone her Orlando arrival until after the collegiate season.

Williams reluctantly agreed, and Peck then guided the Boilermakers to a 32-game win streak and the school's first national basketball title, making her the first African-American woman to win a basketball championship in NCAA Division I history.

"It's an accomplishment, but there are several other African-American women that have allowed the opportunity for me," said Peck, who left Purdue with a 57-11 mark.

"I didn't win a national championship because of the color of my skin. We won because we have 15 young ladies who are heroes."

Whether the kind of success that Peck had in West Lafayette, Ind., will pay off at the pro level remains to be seen, but, given her track record, you'd have to bet that Peck will cut the same imposing figure with the WNBA that she did in college.

"We treated our team at Purdue like a professional team. Each individual had personal responsibility and personal accountability," said Peck.

"The same thing happens at the pro level. All these young women have accountability to this team. The big thing for me is you've got to respect your players and they'll respect you. You've got to work hard and if they see that, they'll work hard for you."

Pub Date: 8/04/99

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