When Ross resigned after the 2002 season it was unexpected, especially when she said that she had taken the team as far as she could, that it was time for someone else to fight the battle of somehow joining the elite teams of the Southeastern Conference like Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia. That was when Athletic Director Jeremy Foley pulled off a major hiring coup by bringing in Peck, who won a national championship as the head coach at Purdue in 1999 and spent three years coaching the Orlando Miracle of the WNBA.
Peck never promised miracle turnarounds for the Gators but instead promised that the foundation would be built to make Florida into a powerhouse program. After a 9-19 season her first year, Peck went 19-11 last year and took the Gators to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Although this year's 14-11 record might be considered a step backward, it isn't. This is the best coached of all three of Peck's teams. This is a team that will fight, scratch and claw for a full 40 minutes. They don't have the talent that Gators teams of the future are going to have --- the Gators are already assured of one of the best recruiting classes in the nation next year, and there will be more of that because Peck is a superb recruiter --- but they have the kind of heart that Peck is going to see in every team that she puts on the floor in future years.
The wins and losses are not the tale of this season. The Gators are 14-11 and it is a season filled with heartache. In so many games, the Gators are one or two timely plays away from winning against higher ranked teams. It breaks Peck's heart to see her team play so hard and lose tough games, but even the heartache she feels for her players is overwhelmed by the optimism that she sees in the eyes of each of her players. It is an optimism that is created by a desire to continually improve.
"I think that we've learned a lot from each experience that we've had this year," said Peck Tuesday afternoon before practice. "I really believe with all my heart that this team is ready to make that explosion and get it all to click together all at the right time. I believe we are so close and it's going to happen here."
She knows that the future holds great things for Florida basketball. She knows that in years to come the Gators will post the kind of records that result in top five rankings. The talent will be here. The team will be better. The games that are heartbreaking losses will become crushing defeats for Gator opponents.
All that will happen in the future but even when her team gets to where they most certainly will be one of these upcoming years, Peck doesn't ever want to lose sight of how solid the foundation became in this year of so many bitter losses in the last seconds of big games.
"I think that this team's chemistry is the best that we've had in three years and I thought last year got very good," said Peck. "This year is definitely the most unselfish team that we've had. They go through tough times and they still persevere. I admire that in each one of them."
Making it through the tough times means coming to practice each day ready to get better, ready to battle through the disappointment of the night before, ready to put the night before behind them and look to the future ready to taken on whatever challenge there is. Making it through the tough times has bonded her players. They are a real team, truly united and one that truly believes that they are part of something happening.
"After a tough loss like the one Sunday, they don't hang their heads," said Peck with admiration. "Instead they come in and ask me what can we do to get better? What can we do to improve? When you do that, things like winning take care of themselves."
That willingness to work hard has made this year's team so special for the coach. No matter how hard she works her team in practice they come back for more. There is a hunger in their eyes that she sees, an unrelenting desire to get to the top.
"It's hard work and going through this league and playing at the level we are, but that challenge makes it worth it," said Peck. "If it was an easy thing to do I don't think we would appreciate it as much and going through the tough times that we have makes the good times that we have that much more special. This is a team that from day one has drawn its energy from each other.
"They go out there, compete and play hard. They have the memory of the tough times that makes them want to improve and they do have the memory of the good outcomes to let them know that's what they have to continue to work toward."
Peck believes that one of the leading indicators that Florida basketball is on the verge of greatness is in the bond that has been formed by teammates. It's that kind of bond that makes UConn women's hoops so great. It's that kind of bond that you see at Tennessee where Coach Pat Summit's present team is always buoyed by the encouragement of great players from the past who just can't get enough of being around the team atmosphere that Summit has created in Knoxville for more than 30 years.
"This team will do anything and everything together," said Peck. "They move as a pack. Where you find one of them is where you find all of them. They go to the movies together, or go over to spend time at someone's house together or to the mall together. When I have them over to my house I have to kick them out.
"Whether it's doing each other's hair, studying together, helping someone get ready for a big test or just hanging tight at the mall, they're together. Best of all, when it's game time, their mentality is we're going into battle together."
Peck has long believed that before the battles are won on the court, the character battle must be won. She wants teams filled with players who care about each other, players who look out for one another both on and off the court, or as she puts it, she wants players "who've got each other's backs!" Teams that win championships are teams that have that kind of character.
"I think that before it can be about going to battle in a game that it has to first be about life," she said. "Character does count. You can't go to battle in a game with someone who you don't trust completely. That's what I love about this team.
"I think about the character of these young women and they're the kind of people that I want to be with when I go to battle in life. They're all about the right things. They strive to put the right foot forward in everything that they do."
A few days ago at practice, while her team was shooting free throws, Peck was sitting with Kim Dye, a sophomore guard who's out with an injured ACL. Peck told Dye that this was the most fun year she's had as a coach.
"She looked back at me and she said, 'Coach, there's going to be plenty of fun years in the future!' and I thought, yeah, she's right."
It won't be that long until the good times roll for Carolyn Peck and when they do, the Southeastern Conference should remember this: Paybacks are hell!