Although Carolyn Peck’s basketball career started at a much earlier age, she first made a name for herself on the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team. Her class was the first to take Vanderbilt to the national championship. After graduation, she tried her hand as a working professional before joining the WNBA. After two and a half seasons with the WNBA, she started her coaching career as a restricted-earnings coach under University of Tennessee legendary coach Pat Summitt. After a quick stop at the University of Kentucky, Carolyn coached two seasons at Purdue, where she led her team to the national championship. Her time there earned her the title of the first African American to coach a women’s Division I national championship basketball team. She returned to the WNBA, this time as general manager and head coach in Orlando. She returned to college basketball at the University of Florida, where her teams beat Tennessee and LSU, but the overall season stats weren’t enough for her to keep her job. Carolyn then began as a full-time analyst for ESPN. After nine-and-a-half seasons, Carolyn received a call from her former player Stephanie White, who had accepted a position as Vanderbilt’s head basketball coach, and asked Carolyn to join the staff as her associate head coach. After just 45 minutes with Carolyn, I was inspired to run faster, work harder and choose opportunity, all day. For those of us not lucky enough to play with or for Carolyn, she has offered to share some of her experience and wisdom. Welcome Coach Carolyn Peck as today’s FACE of Nashville.
What inspired the decision to return to your alma mater?
I fell in love with Vanderbilt. Coming from a small town, I like the small community feel on campus and the high reputation for academics. Stephanie White got the head job and called to tell me the situation. She was still coaching in the WNBA and asked me to be the associate coach here. I am in my second season now. It has always been a dream of mine to find a way to come back.
It is easy to sell a place that you not only believe in, but know. When you get a degree from Vanderbilt, I know what that means in the business world. You also get the opportunity to play in the best women’s basketball conference in the nation. It’s a win, win.
Tell us about the dynamic of working with two of your former players (Stephanie White and Kelly Kormara).
We know each other well, and we pull from each other’s strengths. Stephanie has always been a student of the game. Even when she was a player, she would see things on the court we could take advantage of. We have always had open communication.
I have always been known as a players’ coach. When I started in the coaching field, I loved being an assistant because of that relationship you have with the players. You can explain what the head coach is looking for, and you know how to get the most out of them to help them perform their best for the head coach.
I look back and think, they are all grown up. Stephanie and Kelly were fierce competitors. Losing is not in the DNA. They will work that much harder because they hate losing more than they love to win.
What are key differences in coaching at collegiate and professional levels?
There is a big difference, for me. Once I started coaching the WNBA and I had to cut my first player, I saw a side of coaching I didn’t enjoy. I was ending the dreams of a woman who wanted to play the game. When the first player I cut got tears in her eyes, I got tears in mine. I know what it means to love that game that much.
In college, you commit to the players for four, sometimes five, years. It is a short amount of time to develop them not only as players, but as people. When those years are up, it is like Momma Bird kicking them out of the nest. You hope the skills you have given them will help them be successful — in basketball, as a mom or working in the professional field.
You coached under Pat Summitt. What is the greatest lesson you learned from her?
The lessons I learned from Pat were that you work hard, and you never let anybody outwork you. You prepare for the unpredictable and you love. You gotta love your players. The one thing people from the outside knew was the stare. But when you know what is behind the stare, and why it had the effect on the players it did, you know it is because those players knew that she loved them. She was doing everything she could to help them have the best experience and to be the best people and players they could be.
Basketball has always been a big part of your life. How has it influenced you in other areas of your life?
My first year playing overseas, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. You hear: mom, cancer, stage 4. What do you do? As long as you have time on the clock, you have a chance to win. That was the mentality sports gave me, and the mentality my mom had — and still has. She is still here.
Where have women’s sports not made enough progress?
Awareness has grown a lot since I played in college, but the one thing we all want is to be taken seriously at a higher level — not the same level as men, because it is different. Women’s sports need to continue to be put on stage. Look at what Dawn Staley has done at South Carolina, what the WNBA has done, or the U.S. Hockey team, or the Women’s Olympic team, or Vanderbilt’s tennis team. People like to see that. We need to make a concentrated effort in our marketing department for women’s sports as a whole.
Who is inspiring you right now?
Dawn Staley, Robin Roberts, Megan Barry, Pat Summitt (every day) and Vivian Stringer, who is about to win her 1,000th game at Rutgers. She has taken three different teams to the Final 4. After winning the national championship, people asked me how it felt to be the first African American to win. You had to think about Vivian, and all those before me who knocked down doors to create the opportunities I have had.
So how did it feel to be the first African American to win?
I was 33 at the time, and it means a lot more to me now, when I am 53. In English, you are taught that if you are going to have a first, you need a second. So I thought, if this is the first, there will be a second. I gave Dawn Staley a piece of our net because I felt that she was going to be the second — now there will be a third and a fourth.
I hope younger women say, “If she can do it, I can too.” When I became the first African American assistant coach under Pat Summitt, Vivian Stringer told me what an obligation I had to do a good job. It was an opportunity that needed to be taken full advantage of and not to be taken for granted.
My grandfather, who was the first African American principal in our hometown, always told us, “You are only discriminated against if you choose to be.” My family gave me the foundation to believe in myself. As coaches, that is one of our charges — to help players believe in themselves, to help build their self-esteem and to help absolve this presence of bullying. Pat was always about what’s right, not about what will benefit the Vols or Tennessee, but what would benefit all women.
What is the best piece of advice you have received, and from whom?
“When a task has once begun, never leave it ‘til it’s done. May the task be big or small, do the task great, or not at all.” From my Grandma Bill.
Where can we find you when you aren’t working?
Hanging out with my husband. When we can get away, we like to hike at Radnor Lake.
Name three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends.
My cell phone (unfortunately), my debit card and TV Land (I love to watch old reruns)
Thank you to Carolyn Peck for answering all of our questions (and making us wish we could join the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team). And a special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos of Carolyn Peck!
After suffering a massive heart attack at the age of 32, Cody Brummet faced a long road to recovery. We’re thrilled to feature Cody as our newest FACE of TriStar. Click here to read his inspiring story.