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Carolyn Peck, Dawn Staley and the “net”-work of Black women coaches

In 2015, Carolyn Peck, who became the first Black head coach to win a national championship in 1999 with Purdue, gave a piece of her title-winning net to Dawn Staley, a token intended to inspire Staley in her quest become the second Black head coach to win a national title. Two years later, Staley won it all with South Carolina. Now, Staley is empowering the “net”-work of Black women head coaches.

Mississippi State v South Carolina
Dawn Staley cuts down the net after leading South Carolina to the 2017 national championship.
Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

In 1999, Carolyn Peck became the first Black women’s college basketball head coach to lead her team to a national championship, with her Purdue Boilermakers taking the title over the Duke Blue Devils.

However, at the time, Peck’s history-making achievement was, at best, at footnote.

Before the 1998-99 season, Peck announced she would be leaving Purdue after the season, having accepted an offer to become the inaugural coach of the WNBA’s soon-to-be Orlando Miracle. How players successfully navigated this atypical circumstance was the dominant headline following the championship victory.

On top of that, Purdue point guard Stephanie White (then White-McCarty) was injured during the national championship game, adding another dose of adversity for the Boilermakers to overcome.

As such, game accounts from the New York Times and Sports Illustrated did not mention that Peck was the first Black head coach to capture a women’s NCAA championship. The Chicago Tribune only noted the significance of Peck’s triumph after speculating if Peck would stock the Miracle roster with former Purdue players.

Things have changed, in part due to Peck.

Carolyn Peck strengthens the “net”-work of Black coaches

Reflecting on her 1999 title, Peck noted, “When I was described as the first, that meant there was going to be a second.”

In 2015, she identified a potential second in Dawn Staley, who had begun to transform a long-middling South Carolina program into a burgeoning powerhouse. Peck shared a piece of her title-winning net with Staley. She later recalled telling Staley, “‘The only thing that I ask is that when you win yours, you pass it on, because you don’t ever have a first unless there’s going to be a second.’”

Soon after Staley steered South Carolina to the 2017 national championship, she revealed the special token Peck shared with her, as well as her intention to further tie together the “net”-work of Black head coaches in the women’s college game.

Staley announced:

Carolyn Peck, a few years ago when she was commentating, she gave me a piece of her net. 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.

Dawn Staley and the expanding “net”-work of Black coaches

Last week, Staley made good on her promise. In fact, she made better than good.

Staley sent a piece of her 2017 net to every Black woman head coach in Division I women’s basketball. As she explained it:

I wanted us to come up with the next coach who should receive it, but there’s so many. I was doing an interview ... and I just said it’d be pretty cool to give all the Black coaches who are coaching at the Division I level a piece of the net because it’s a tangible thing that sometimes when you’re going through things day-to-day and you don’t feel like you can see your way through it, that little nylon piece of string … [it] rejuvenates you to continue and it gives you that reason to keep pushing.

The small pieces of nylon had the desired effect, with a number of coaches expressing their deep appreciation for Staley’s gift.

Arizona’s Adia Barnes, who, along with Staley, made history last season by giving the Final Four two Black head coaches for the first time, shared:

It’s just something that I can look at. It’s what I’m striving to do, and she knows that. It was very thoughtful, and people don’t do those things, and I’m just proud to have a piece of it. Hopefully I’ll get one one day. I want the bigger one, too, so hopefully I’ll get the real net.

Doshia Woods, head coach of the Summit League’s Denver Pioneers, placed the piece of net beside a figurine of a little Black girl with basketball that sits on her office desk, explaining:

I put the net next to her because it’s a constant reminder of what’s possible. I felt like [Staley] could have easily just sent it to the Power Five coaches, the ones who maybe have the resources and talent to (win a national title), but for me, it’s motivating to be great where you are and to win championships here.

Head coaches taking over Power Five programs, such as Wisconsin’s Marisa Moseley and Auburn’s Johnnie Harris, likewise were touched by Staley’s gesture.

As were a pair of former collegiate national champions in Texas Southern’s Cynthia Cooper and Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey.

Representation matters

In the more than two decades since Peck’s accomplishment, the world of sports has gained a greater, necessary appreciation for the politics of representation. The increasing number of Black women head coaches in women’s college basketball, as well as the successes of these coaches, is understood as important.

However, these women themselves long have found inspiration in each other’s achievements. While Carolyn Peck looked to the likes of C. Vivian Stringer, Dawn Staley could look to Peck. Staley now serves as the symbol of possibility.

Among the growing “net”-work of Black women head coaches, there is a potential third, fourth and fifth national-championship winner, all of whom’s victories not only will further extend the “net”-work of Black coaches, but also further confirm the representational power of these women.