ROCK HILL — A friend of the family was in the kitchen, washing dishes, doing what she could to make life easier for a moment.
His wife was in the dining room, talking to another in a long line of well-wishers on the phone.
But as Randy Peele scrolled through his cell phone while standing in his living room, the first message from one of his players stopped him in his tracks.
"Look at this, Reggie Middleton," Peele said, eyes welling up as he read the five-chapter text from his senior point guard.
"He told me he loved me, and he thanked me for taking a chance on him - and that he'd probably be in jail right now if it wasn't for me."
"He told me I saved his life," Peele went on, pausing at the reading of the first of many emotional messages on the day.
Neither Middleton nor any of the rest of the Winthrop basketball players who shed tears in a team meeting Monday could save their coach, who was fired at the end of an 11-20 record that marked the school's first 20-loss season since 1997-1998.
Winthrop fired a coach after that season too, replacing the forgettable Dan Kenney with the bright young Gregg Marshall, who might have made it impossible for Peele to keep his job for long.
Marshall won seven Big South Conference titles in nine years before heading for Wichita State - leaving Peele's two NCAA trips in five years short of a bar it's going to be hard for anyone to clear.
Peele was 77-82 overall as Winthrop's head coach, 48-38 in the Big South. But in firing him, the school pointed to declining records, fifth- and sixth-place finishes in the league the last two years, and dwindling attendance at the Winthrop Coliseum.
"We are certainly very appreciative of the hard work and dedication shown by Coach Peele on behalf of this university over the past nine years, first as an assistant and then as head coach of our men's basketball program," athletic director Tom Hickman said in a statement.
"We all celebrated the team's achievements in 2008 and 2010 with the Big South Tournament championships. However, over the past couple of years our men's basketball program has underachieved and that is distressing.
"Sometimes there is a need to provide a spark for a program and that usually comes in the form of a change in leadership."
Firing Peele now will cost the school $165,000 for the last year remaining on his contract. They're also on the hook for around $100,000 to former baseball coach Joe Hudak, fired in 2010 after 19 seasons with the Eagles.
Peele offered the school a chance to avoid having to pay him for doing nothing. Peele said he called Hickman on Friday afternoon and requested a meeting to talk about his future, having heard nothing from school leaders since the beginning of the season.
Coaches rarely get to the last year of their contracts, because it seriously impacts their recruiting efforts. But according to sources close to Peele who asked not to be identified, he offered to come back and coach the last year of his contract - with one provision.
Peele asked Hickman for a conditional contract extension based on the Eagles' winning either 18 games or a conference championship next year. Hickman declined that offer, the sources said.
Asked Monday afternoon why he thought he had been fired, Peele shrugged and pointed to a number of factors he thought were "out of my control."
From the loss of last year's leading scorer (Robbie Dreher) to a top-heavy schedule he might not have arranged if he knew he'd be without such talent, Peele could only shake his head at what led to his ouster.
"The bottom line is, you have to win games, and the last two years, we didn't win as many games," Peele said. "College basketball is a business, and the business is, you've got to win - no matter what.
"That's the way it goes, and that's what you know walking into, no question."
Hickman was not available for further comment, after releasing the statement at 11:45 a.m. At 12:15 p.m., his secretary said he was out to lunch. At 3:15 p.m., she gave the same answer. At 4:15 p.m., she said he "must be on campus."
Hickman didn't return messages seeking comment at his home or office afterward.
While no official word on a successor has come from the university, a number of names have surfaced.
They include former Winthrop assistants Jeff Meyer, now at Michigan in his 33rd year in college basketball; Earl Grant, now at Clemson after six years as Marshall's assistant here and at Wichita State; and Barclay Radebaugh, who was just named Big South coach of the year at Charleston Southern after a 19-12 season - his first with a winning record in seven years there.
Whoever replaces Peele will have a hard time matching his passion for the school.
He talked at length Monday about his love for Rock Hill, even though it hasn't always been so kind in return. The slings and arrows in recent weeks were difficult, and even while recruiting, coaches would say, "I've heard the rumors."
Hardest for him was the impact on his family. His wife Debra's eyes were red throughout the day, and she wept as she hugged players leaving the team meeting.
But Peele said he worried most about his daughter Blair, a senior at Northwestern High School.
"A kid tells my daughter the other day, 'When your dad gets fired in a few days, you won't be the queen princess around here,'" Peele said. "How about that?"
Through it all, he's tried to maintain a stiff upper lip, even as the senior class he recruited underperformed, following a spirited quarterfinal upset of Campbell with a flat 20-point loss to VMI in the tournament semifinal.
"Today's been a tough day," Peele said. "I've gotten a lot of calls from friends and coaches and players, gotten a lot of great support.
"But coming in here and seeing these kids, that hits you really hard. ... Maybe I didn't give them enough, but I tried 100 percent."