Gym rat

Winthrop men's basketball coach Randy Peele guides his team through a practice session.
Winthrop men's basketball coach Randy Peele guides his team through a practice session.

Don Forsyth didn't see it at the time, but he looks back and realizes the very difficult discussion he had with Randy Peele in 1979 was the starting point for a career.

Forsyth, then the head basketball coach at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Va., had to tell Randy Peele he wasn't good enough as a player. He had to cut him.

He called Peele, a small, slow point guard who had to make up in heart what he lacked in ability, something he'd done from the time he was old enough to lace up a pair of sneakers, into his office.

Peele had played better than he ever had during tryouts -- "I played my ass off," he said. He was tenacious, gritty. No one wanted to be guarded by him.

"Randy was the type kid you wanted on your team," Forsyth said. "He was one of those gym rats. He loved to be in the gym, and he'd talk your ear off about basketball.

"But he was a step slow and didn't have a lot of size. He didn't have the quickness to push the ball up the floor the way we wanted."

For the first time, Peele had no team, no practice to go to, no conditioning drills, no reason to get ready for the next game.

The gym rat had no place to go.

"It devastated me," Peele said. "At the end of that year, I was lost."

But Forsyth, already seeing a budding coach, asked Peele to stay on as his student assistant coach. Peele said no. He didn't want to face his teammates, guys he'd played with for years, without being in shorts and sneakers and running wind sprints.

"I had a hard time facing my friends," Peele said. "My self-esteem wasn't great at that point. Looking back, maybe it was the best thing."

As Peele begins his 25th season of blowing whistles and making game plans -- including his first as Winthrop University's head coach -- it's easy to understand why he loves what he does so much.

And why Forsyth remains a friend.

"I respected him and still do," Peele said. "He taught me a lot about being honest with players."

Always playing sports

Ask Peele to explain why he's a coach and not a doctor or lawyer or a car salesman, he smiles and says, "I guess it's because of how I grew up."

The Ocean View community is on the outskirts of Norfolk, Va., not far from the salt and spray of the Chesapeake Bay. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were no computer games, no iPods, little technology beyond a TV with three channels and radios that would bring play-by-play into kids' bedrooms.

Peele's father, Reggie, was the manager of the Belo Grocery Store, working 60-hour weeks, until he had his first heart attack at age 39. He then got a third shift job as a data processor for the government.

His mom, Shirley, was a government purchasing agent making sure the Navy ships that left the port in Norfolk had everything they needed. A devout woman, she was on her knees every night praying for the welfare of her family.

It was a solid household.

Peele and his friends, such as Jimmy Stevens, played sports year-round, almost around the clock. If they didn't have an organized game, they made up one.

"We'd drape a tent over the clothesline for a backstop and wrap a whiffle ball in tape," said Stevens, now living in Pittsburgh and working for SLM Financial. "We'd play home run derby. Randy couldn't hit the curve but could always turn on the fast ball. I never got it by him."

Stevens, the younger brother of Rock Hill High basketball coach Bobby Stevens, got to know Peele through baseball. Their dads coached little league teams. They didn't live on the same street, but were only a 10-minute drive from each other.

"We developed a bond through sports," Stevens said.

When Stevens' dad poured a concrete slab and put up a basketball goal in the back yard, that bond became cemented through the bouncing of a basketball.

"That thing looked like a football goal post," Stevens said. "It was made out of wood, almost the size of a regulation backboard. Dad drilled holes in it so the wind wouldn't catch it and painted a square on it."

The games often would go on well into the night, illuminated by a floodlight attached to an extension cord and tied to a ladder.

Peele and Jimmy Stevens would go two-on-two against the older Stevens brothers, Bobby and Fred. Bobby went on to play at Virginia Tech, and Fred played for Eddie Sutton at an Idaho Junior College before going to Tulsa.

"They were pretty good role models," Jimmy Stevens said.

But that didn't stop him and Peele from thinking they could win, which, of course, they never did.

"We'd take a beating, but we'd never want to change teams," Stevens said. "And Randy wasn't very big. He got his nose bloodied a couple of times and banged around pretty good.

"But he never quit. And that's why as long as he coaches, I know his teams, whether up by 20 or down 20, won't quit. He won't let them."

"We did it all," Peele said, "but basketball became my true love."

Stevens' house was seven-tenths of a mile from the beach along the Chesapeake Bay. In the summer, they'd often run to the beach, each wearing a 20-pound weighted vest.

"We'd be whipped, blisters on our feet," Stevens said. "We'd try to see who'd quit first."

The playground across from the beach was another gathering spot. While others caught a few rays on the sand, Peele, Stevens and their friends would go all day and into the night on the outdoor court.

Peele was so intent on winning, he'd punish himself by not buying himself a drink if his team lost.

"It was kind of sick, really," he said. "I was kind of over the edge with it growing up. But I just loved to play."

He'd even slide downtown to the old Norfolk Arena looking for a pick up game and would often be the only white face on the floor.

"I was always looking for a game," he said.

Learning to be tough

Although he grew up in a Presbyterian household, he went to Barry-Robinson Catholic School, a former home for wayward boys, and played for John Carmody, a tough disciplinarian who earned his money as fire captain and had his fun coaching basketball.

Under Carmody, he learned what it meant to be tough, how to play to your strengths, qualities he still stresses.

Peele started for three years and was a team captain as a senior. In between, he played baseball, ran cross country and one year played soccer, too. He also worked for the school newspaper.

His teams played against Jimmy Stevens, who went to Norfolk Catholic. Peele said they had "some unbelievable games," because both teams were made up of Ocean View kids.

"He was your typical private-school guard," said Carmody, who's still coaching in Norfolk. "He was short but smart and overcame a lot of physical liabilities with instincts and hustle.

"His work ethic was something. He'd stay after practice to do extra conditioning and drills on his own."

Peele admits he made a mistake when he graduated Barry-Robinson. He still thought he could play with anyone. But instead of trying to find a spot at a smaller college, he spent a year at Frederick Military Academy, which at the time had one of the top prep school programs in Virginia.

One of the teams Frederick played that year was Louisburg Junior College in North Carolina. The day of the game, the teams had dinner in the same spot. When the Louisburg players came walking in dressed in their ties and blazers, looking smart and disciplined, Peele took notice.

"I called my mom and told her that's where I wanted to go," he said.

He spent the 1976-1977 and 1977-1978 seasons at Louisburg, coming off the bench for legendary coach Enid Drake, a coach he feared but learned to love. His numbers and playing time were modest, but he listened, watched and learned. When he played, he was Drake's coach on the floor. Peele now recruits guards who can do the same.

At Louisburg, life took the kind of turn no one wants to face, least of all an 18-year-old hours from home.

In September of his freshman year, his father suffered his second heart attack.

"Some of my relatives came and picked me up," Peele said. "I knew it would be the one. I was there when he died September 21st. It was tough going back to school."

His father was 49.

Peele made it through his sophomore year at Louisburg, but knew he had to get back home to be closer to his mother. He returned to Norfolk, enrolled at Virginia Wesleyan to get an education and make the team.

Don Forsyth's team.

Hooked on basketball

When he got cut, his friends did the best they could to help him get over it, because they all respected how he played and how much he knew about the game.

Larry Ward, who made the team, and Peele became best friends. They were in each other's wedding. The still talk weekly, sometimes late at night.

"I can appreciate how he felt, that he might have felt left out, but it didn't last long," Ward said. "He was one of us, and everyone had respect for him even then, because we knew he knew the game."

John Carmody, Peele's coach at Barry-Robinson, had moved to Norfolk Catholic and needed an assistant coach for the girls basketball team. He called Peele.

"I knew his love for the game," Carmody said. "I knew he was hooked. And I knew he was a good person.

"In 33 years with the fire department, I knew it was the little things that could get you, not the big things. Some people are concerned with the little things, and Randy was."

Carmody isn't surprised to know that Peele's scouting reports are meticulous. A Peele scouting report could probably tell you what side of the bed a kid rolls out of.

"It goes to show you don't have to be a great player to be a good coach," Carmody said. "It has to do with passion, and he's always had it."

As a college junior, Peele was working for a coach who would win three state championships. It was his first taste of understanding what makes championships.

Peele moved over to coach the boys and, after graduation, got a job at Portsmouth Catholic for $8,000 a year teaching four classes. At 22, he was athletics director, head boys basketball coach, assistant girls coach, junior varsity baseball coach.

And he drove the bus.

"I lived in the gym," he said. "But I was probably a (crappy) teacher. I was spread so thin."

He left Portsmouth Catholic at age 25.

"At that point," he said, "I knew I wanted to be a college basketball coach."

Making a move

Peele would take his high school teams to team camp at Old Dominion and got to know assistant coach Jim Casciano. When Casciano got the head coaching job at St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vt., in 1983, he asked Peele to come along.

Peele loaded his car and headed north.

"I remember that day," Ward said. "He was chasing that dream, and he's been chasing it ever since."

Even Peele had second thoughts.

"I got to the Delaware Bridge," Peele said, "and pulled over. It was a 95-degree day, sunshine. I asked myself, 'What in the hell are you doing going to Vermont for $7,000 a year?' I kept going."

He lived in international housing and sold ads for the game program to make a little extra money. By the time the season rolled around, he was wearing boots to the game and carrying his dress shoes in a bag. From December to March, he saw snow, not the ground.

After two winters, he was ready to move and saw an opening for an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee-Martin. But they couldn't afford to bring him in for an interview. Peele's grandmother bought him a plane ticket, and he wound up getting the job and the $25,000 salary that went with it.

In three years, the team was ranked in the top 25, but Peele knew two things.

He wanted to be closer to home, and he didn't think, if the head coaching job came open, he'd have a chance at getting it.

He moved to Campbell University in 1988 to work for Billy Lee, learning the motion offense and the importance of man-to- man defense. He also took a pay cut and went from coaching in an 8,000-seat gym for a team ranked in the NCAA Division II top 25 to Buies Creek, N.C. It was a job at a Division I program, and it was closer to Norfolk, but it was Buies Creek.

"One of the first nights I'm there, it's 3 a.m. and I can't sleep," Peele said. "I'm driving around town asking myself 'How am I going to get players to come to Buies Creek?'"

He did make one good recruiting call.

Meeting his wife

Debra Carter was out with friends one night in 1986 when she met her future husband.

Randy Peele introduced himself and, through the course of the conversation, said he'd like to give her a call and maybe they could go out. Ironically, for a guy who spent countless hours with a phone mashed to his ear, her phone didn't ring.

"He never called," she said. "I saw him in the same spot not long after that. He said he'd call. He never did.

"I finally found out that not a single person he ever dated made it through a basketball season, and I saw why."

Peele's round-the-calendar love for basketball wasn't something most women could deal with, but Debra Peele saw something else.

"It's hard to find people with a real passion for anything," she said, "and he had it. That was refreshing."

Peele finally got around to dialing the number. They were together for two years before getting married in 1990. It took her about 18 months to understand just how wrapped up in the game of basketball her husband was.

"I'd be less than honest if I didn't say that first 18 months, two years were challenging," she said. "I kept waiting for the season to be over. It was never over.

"I kept thinking he'd wear out, but he never did."

There were practices, games, phone calls to recruits, long recruiting trips and summer camps. There was videotape to break down, scouting reports to prepare. And late-night conversations with coaching buddies.

But there was family time, too, because, she says, "he's the most organized person I know." He found time to balance his passion for work with a passion for his wife, their daughter, Blair, and stepsons Brad and Aaron Hinson.

"He's my biggest fan," Debra Peele said, "and I'm his. We've put something together that works for us."

That something got them through the worst years of Peele's coaching life.

A turn downward

In 1991, Mike Dement called Peele. Dement was the head coach at UNC Greensboro. He had played at Louisburg College and remembered Peele. He'd also heard about his work ethic. He needed an assistant coach.

"It was Mike Dement who taught me how to work hard," Peele said. "That first year we went seven days a week, 12 straight months. On Sundays, we were in the office at 9:15 a.m. until we turned that thing around."

To recruit well, time had to be spent, even if it meant hours in a car, on the phone or watching film, traits he's never lost.

In 1995, Dement left to become the head coach at Southern Methodist, and Peele slid over into the hot seat, his first head coaching job. He got the job in part because the players wanted him. He'd recruited most of them.

In March of 1996, the Spartans were Big South Conference champions and came within an eyelash of beating Cincinnati in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Times were good, and the Spartans moved to the Southern Conference. But things went downhill two years later, when, after the Spartans moved into first place in the league, Peele lost his two best players to season-ending injuries.

The spiral didn't stop, and by the end of the fourth year, Peele was fired.

"I learned that if you stay in this business long enough, you're going to get some blood on you," he said, "but when you do, you really find out if you're a basketball guy or not."

Just before the 1999 season, he landed on his feet as an assistant to Ricky Stokes at Virginia Tech but had to take a job as administrative assistant at $15,000 a year, a $57,000 pay cut. But five months later, he was a full time assistant and, he thought, back on track.

But four years later, Stokes was fired, Peele was out of a job again, and this time there was no coaching job waiting in the wings.

Coming to Winthrop

These days, when Randy Peele hears young coaches complain about how hard their jobs can be, he smiles and tells them try selling cars for a living.

He did.

After Virginia Tech, he spent a year trying to explain the difference between a Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited and a Jeep Laredo to people who thought anyone selling a car was at best a liar and at worst a cheat.

He hadn't punched a time clock in 20 years and was a frequent visitor to the general manager's office each week to explain why his card had missed punches.

"For the first time in my life, I hated going to work," he said. "I found myself looking at my watch every day, and I'd never done that."

People would still call him "coach," but like it was in the past tense, like he "used to be a coach."

"During the first eight weeks, we were married, my mother died unexpectedly," Debra Peele said. "That and the year Randy spent selling cars I'd rank in the same arena. It was the most devastating year we've had.

"He was missing part of his soul. His spirit was broken. He tried to hide it, because he keeps a lot of things close to the vest. But that was a very sad year for us."

That year also made him appreciate even more who he was -- a basketball coach.

"That year was the worst," he said, "because of the strain I put on my family. I told Debra, 'I've never had a job before.'"

He thought about looking for another high school job, even turned down a couple of college offers because he didn't want to uproot his family.

"To turn down a job when you don't have one," he said, "that's hard."

In the summer of 2003, Peele got a call from Winthrop's Gregg Marshall, who was looking for an assistant to replace Barclay Radebaugh. Marshall wanted to get a look at Peele and asked him to work at his summer camp.

After a week, Marshall had seen enough. Peele got the job.

"We celebrated that night," Debra Peele said. "He was getting back what he really loved to do."

Peele wanted the job because the program was based on what he preached -- winning, discipline and hard work. He didn't have to change anything about his approach to the game to fit in.

Peele was Marshall's top assistant for four years until getting the head coaching job this past April when Marshall left for Wichita State. He got the job, in part, because the players wanted him. He'd recruited most of them.

But for the most part, he got it because he worked for it.

"Nobody's given me anything," Peele said, reflecting on where he's been. "Everything I've gotten I worked hard to get. I feel like I've rolled up my sleeves and put myself in a position to be a head coach not once, but twice.

"If I'm not working, I feel like I'm falling behind."

Looking at it through the eyes of a coach, Peele thinks back on that day when Don Forsyth told him he wasn't good enough to make the team.

"Would you have cut Randy Peele?" he was asked.

Peele paused and thought for a few seconds.

"Looking at it from where he was," Peele said, "yeah, I would have cut him."

View a video of Randy Peele talking about the challenges of becoming a head coach at