Welcome Home, Coach Carril
Pete Carril squints; his 76-year-old eyes strain to see the two pictures up on a shelf, across the room.
“Georgie,” he says, looking at the one on the left. “The Arkansas game. The year after we played Georgetown. They had a better team than Georgetown. Four pros on that team. We almost had ’em. Lost by four. Eastie had a big dunk in the first half.”
Now his 76-year-old mind is racing.
“Bobby Scrabis,” he says, looking at the one on the right. Great player. No. wait. That’s not Bobby. He was 34, right? What number is that?”
30. It’s Chris Marquardt.
“Well, it looks like Bobby. Same hair. Same legs. Same powerful drive to the basket. Same way to shoot the layup. What game was that?”
Loyola Marymount. Selection Sunday in 1991.
“They packed the place that day. Two hours before the game. What a team we had then.
“Was Slapper on that team? I remember he came to me and wanted to quit. I told him he doesn’t play to win. He had this girlfriend, and she didn’t like all the time he spent playing basketball. I told him to stick it out. Told him to go shoot around with his buddies for awhile. He made six straight shots against Penn the next day, and that was the last time he talked about quitting. He was smart. Blocked one shot one day, and they called him Slapper forever after that. He knew how to play, that guy.
“We had Kit back then. Saw him the other day. Still plays three-man tournaments. Great kid. Great player ... Can’t believe how long ago that was already.”
Then he pauses, and his 76-year-old body sits back deep in the chair.
“You know,” says Pete Carril, “you can’t stop the clock, right?”
* * *
Time, and lots of it, have marched by since Pete Carril last spent a winter without a basketball team to coach. Fifty-three years worth.
There were 12 years as a Pennsylvania high school coach, first at Easton High and then Reading High. Then there were the 29 years at Princeton, a tenure that resulted in 13 Ivy League championships, 11 NCAA tournament appearances, the 1975 NIT championship, the 1989 NCAA tournament near-miss against No. 1 Georgetown and ultimately the win over Penn in the 1996 Ivy playoff and 43-41 NCAA opening-round win over UCLA for his 514th and last win at Princeton.
After that, it was the start of a 10-year hitch as an assistant coach with the Sacramento King. It was during his second year in the NBA, around the time that the “Princeton offense” began spread throughout the sport, that he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; it was during his fourth year there that he had triple-bypass surgery. His run in Sacramento ended when head coach Rick Adelman was let go at the end of last season.
These days, he spends much of his time in Jadwin Gym, a place that when it was under construction in the late 1960s Pete Carril used to bring a six-pack and watch and marvel that he would get to coach in the new building.
And so what if some of the details of his long basketball odyssey escape him now? Talk to him about some of the great games he coached at Princeton, and he doesn’t always remember the right year or the right lineup.
His memory is crystal clear in the area that matters most, the players who played the game, who played his game for him, who played the way he wanted his game played, who still to this day have his lessons so ingrained in their memory that you could put any five together and watch them play his offense.
So maybe he can’t remember all the quips, all of the funny lines that filled up notebook after notebook, that made alumni group after alumni group chuckle.
Now, after all 53 of those years have come and gone, there is one oft-repeated Pete Carril line that stands out most: “You can’t separate the player from the person.”
And he will never forget any of them.
Not “Georgie” – George Leftwich, point guard on four Ivy League championship teams from 1989-92. Not “Slapper” – Matt Lapin, who graduated in 1990 after playing for two Ivy champions and leading Division I in three-point field goal percentage. Not “Bobby Scrabis,” the 1989 Ivy League Player of the Year. Not “Eastie,” Matt Eastwick, the only player in program history to start an NCAA tournament game in four different years. Not “Kit” – Kit Mueller, the 1990 and 1991 Ivy Player of the Year about whom Carril would say: “God blessed me the day that kid walked into my life.”
Not any of them.
It wasn’t always rosy, since warm-and-fuzzy is not Carril’s way. What he did bring was honesty. There was no privilege on his teams. Basketball, he would tell them, “is a poor man’s game, and I have guys with three cars in the garage.”
One day in the early 1990s, at an afternoon practice session in Jadwin, Carril once ripped his own shirt completely in half and continued to wear it almost like an unzipped sweatshirt because Eastwick cut the wrong way.
“I wish I’d listened to him 100% of the time,” says Eastwick, “and did 100% of what he said to do. Being a game coach in basketball is vastly overrated. It’s not about calling the right timeout to diagram some great strategic play. It’s about having your players prepared to go out and do something. We went into every game thinking we had an advantage no matter who we were playing, because we were incredibly well-prepared in every facet. Isn’t that the mark of a great coach?”
Eastwick played for Carril near the end of his time at Princeton. Five years before Eastwick graduated, Alan Williams led Division I in field goal percentage as the center of Carril’s offense.
“He wasn’t just coaching basketball,” Williams says. “He was coaching life.”
More than a decade before Williams, Peter Molloy played on the 1975 NIT champion and the 1976 team that went 14-0 in the Ivy League and lost its NCAA tournament opener by one to an undefeated Rutgers team that would go to the Final Four. Molloy would go from earning a Princeton degree to Fordham Law School, and today he is a lawyer on Long Island.
“Pete Carril,” he says, “was the best teacher I ever had.”
* * *
“One of the signs of dementia,” Pete Carril says, “is that you can remember things from a long time ago but you can’t remember what you just did. I read an article about this. George Will wrote it. I can remember the starting lineup for the old Minneapolis Laker teams. I went to a reunion in Reading of the 1961 team. I think Gary [Walters, now Princeton’s Director of Athletics] was a sub on that team as a sophomore. We made it to the Eastern finals that year. Anyway, I could remember where each of them sat in the classroom. I thought to myself ‘dementia; that’s what I have.’ And then I couldn’t remember I read the story, so I thought I was okay, right?”
Pete Carril likes to end sentences with the word “right.” It’s usually accompanied by his wry smile, one that lets you know he’s not taking this too seriously.
The reality is that at the age of 76, he works hard to keep his mind sharp.
“I try to concentrate on things,” he says. “When I meet someone, I repeat their name several times to myself so I’ll remember it. So far, I’m doing pretty well.”
Carol Weston echoes that opinion. If anyone would know, she would. She spent much of his time at Princeton as his secretary, where she sat with him and his staff in their office on the third floor of Jadwin without any walls separating any of them. The two have stayed close since.
“He’s as sharp as ever,” Weston says. “He doesn’t have email, but he does know how to use Google. He has a cell phone. Before he went to Spain [in December], I heard him talking on the phone to a coach over there, and he kept going back from English to Spanish. That’s not easy to do. He comes by, and he’s always saying something funny. He’s always asking ‘Who’s that? Who’s that?’ There are a lot of new faces here since he left.”
These days, Carril is a frequent visitor to Jadwin Gym. When he enters the building, the first sign is his voice, a low staccato that booms and echoes whenever he is in the lobby. He enjoys a celebrity status in the building, and every conversation stops when he comes by.
“Ten years,” he says. “That went pretty fast. It seems like I just left here. It was evident when I went to the holiday party. A lot of new faces. Not a lot of people left I remember. I try not to stay in town too much. I’m glad about the reception I’ve been getting. I was worried about that. I didn’t want anyone to be saying ‘here comes that old guy again. Doesn’t he have something to do?’ Everybody’s been nice to me.”
Carril has mixed his time in Princeton with travels literally around the world doing clinics. He spends time with his two children – his daughter Lisa is a teacher in Hopewell, while his son Peter Jr. works in New York in the investment field while living in Princeton – and his two grandchildren, Peter and Zoe, both of whom are in their teens.
“I saw some good football games here this year,” Carril says. “I’ve always liked football. And I’m looking forward to baseball season. Marv [Bressler, a professor emeritus in sociology who had a long history with Carril while they both were at Princeton] and I like to sit down the third base line. We did that for many years, and we’re looking forward to doing it again.”
In addition to his trip to Spain, he also has worked with the national team from Taiwan.
“This guy called me up and said that he wanted me to go with him to Taiwan to teach the offense,” Carril says. “I told him that I didn’t want to go, but if he came to see me, I’d teach it to him and he could teach it to them. After about 10 minutes, I said ‘I don’t want to be rude, but it’s going to be easier for me to go there to teach it to them than it is to stay here and teach it to you. So I went. And then I went a second time and third time. Now they’re coming to California to meet with me so I can work with some of their guys again.”
He’s also stayed close his growing coaching tree, one that includes Joe Scott at Princeton, John Thompson at Georgetown, Chris Mooney at Richmond, Bill Carmody at Northwestern and Armond Hill with the Boston Celtics.
“The first time in 53 years, right?” he says. “As long as the in-between periods aren’t too long when I’m not doing anything, it’s fine. I’ve managed to keep myself in basketball.”
* * *
Pete Carril is the son of a Spanish immigrant – one of Carril’s other favorite sayings, repeated often, is: “what good is being Spanish if you can’t chase after windmills.” Carril’s father worked for 40 years in the steel mills of Bethlehem, Pa. and, according to his son, “never missed a day.” Years later, Pete Carril would stand in the Palestra at Penn and remark to reporters that his father had helped make the steel that built that building, way back in the 1920s.
“My father taught me that it’s very important to do what you’re supposed to do,” Carril says. “When you lower your standards, they turn around and attack you.”
Carril’s way out of the steel mills was basketball, a sport he played at Liberty High School in Bethlehem for a coach, Joseph Preletz, who liked his teams to to run up and down the court, press and score. He was a Pennsylvania all-state selection in the 1947-48 season, and he then made the short trip from Bethlehem to Easton, where he would play for Lafayette College.
He had four coaches in four years with the Leopards, the last of whom was Butch van Breda Kolff, who had played at Princeton in the 1940s. Carril earned Little All-America honors at Lafayette as one of the nation’s top players under six-feet tall, and for decades thereafter carried a newspaper clip in his wallet that referred to his ability as a rebounder.
From Lafayette, it was off to the Army. His orders for Korea were issued just as the cease-fire there was reached in 1953, and he spent the rest of his time in the Army as a public information officer in Carlisle, Pa., “writing biographies of colonels.” He was discharged in 1954, the same year he became the junior varsity coach at Easton High School. On his first day on his new job, he has often said, he was mistaken for the janitor.
“I knew I wanted to coach,” Carril says. “You had to be a teacher too. I couldn’t go to college right away, because I didn’t come out of a big-time program.”
He became the varsity coach a year later and then the coach at Reading High in 1958. He would go 145-42 at Reading, where he would coach Walters, who would go from there to become point guard on Princeton’s 1965 Final Four before graduating in 1967.
“Coach Carril for me was the single most important transforming influence in my life,” says Walters. “He was inspirational both as a teacher in the classroom and as a teacher on the court. He had an ability to transmit his passion, knowledge and commitment to excellence in a manner that made you set your sights higher than you ever thought you could.”
Carril’s days in Reading were some of his fondest, and he has remained close to many of those he mentored along the way, in addition to Walters.
“I consider my time as a high school teacher and coach very valuable,” Carril says. “That’s where I first learned to teach things from a very basic perspective. Every time I go back now, it’s like I never left. We go out to dinner. We go to reunions there. Every summer we run a camp at the Reading Jewish Community Center. All of the coaches are former players. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of laughing.”
Carril left Reading in 1966 to become the head coach at Lehigh, where he went 11-12 in his only season. It was then that he became part of the somewhat incestuous Princeton basketball history.
It started when van Breda Kolff returned to Princeton as head coach for the 1962-63 season. He would leave to coach the Lakers in the NBA after the 1966-67 season, the same year that Walters graduated as Princeton’s point guard, and Carril would become the Tiger head coach. Walters would return as an assistant coach for Carril after serving as head coach at Union, where he would coach Bill Carmody, who became a long-time assistant at Princeton under Carril. Carril, with Carmody on his staff, would coach John Thompson and Joe Scott and then watch as Walters became Princeton’s AD and hired Carmody, Thompson and Scott as head coaches.
* * *
Pete Carril’s 514th and final win at Princeton came on March 14, 1996, when Princeton defeated defending-champion UCLA 43-41 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament in front of 31,569 fans – enough to fill Jadwin Gym nearly five times over – at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. The win enabled Carril, who had announced five days earlier after Princeton’s overtime win over Penn in the Ivy League playoff game by writing it on a blackboard in the postgame lockerroom at Lehigh’s Stabler Arena in his hometown of Bethlehem, to go out in a wave of national publicity and good-feeling.
Today, that game always appears on any list of great NCAA tournament upsets or buzzer-beaters. Gabe Lewullis, then a freshman who made the game-winning layup and now an orthopedic surgeon, is sought after by newspapers across the country every March, and that will probably never change.
That win was the defining moment of a career at Princeton for Carril. It came seven years after one of the greatest games ever played, Princeton’s 50-49 loss to Georgetown in the 1989 NCAA tournament that probably did more to popularize March Madness than any other game ever. The Georgetown game started a four-game stretch in which Princeton lost four first-round NCAA games by a total of 15 points, including the four-point loss to Arkansas and a two-point loss to Villanova.
“I get calls every year when the tournament comes around,” says Carril. “We played some games much better than that one. That one got a whole lot more recognition for that one than for some others. We played UCLA out there once [a 76-75 loss at UCLA in the 1969-70 season] when they were No. 1. We lost by one at the buzzer. We were ahead the whole time. Nobody ever really talks too much about that one.”
Carril’s first win at Princeton was a 62-59 win over Army – coached by Bobby Knight – during the 1967-68 season. His first team tied for the league title with Columbia but lost the one-game playoff for the NCAA tournament bid; his second team at Princeton went 14-0 in the league before losing his first NCAA game to St. John’s.
His next postseason team was the 1971-72 team that defeated Indiana and then lost to Niagara in the NIT. The 1975 team swept Holy Cross, South Carolina, Oregon and Providence to win the NIT, back when the entire tournament was played in Madison Square Garden.
He returned to the NCAA tournament in 1976 with the 54-53 loss to Rutgers at the Providence Civic Center, the same building where the Georgetown game would be played 13 years later. Between 1977 and 1984, Princeton made four NCAA tournament appearances while twice tying Penn for the league title, but after defeating North Carolina A&T and Oklahoma State before losing to the Boston College in the 1983 NCAAs and San Diego in the 1984 NCAAs, Princeton would not return for four years.
Worse yet, it wasn’t just Penn that went to the tournament in those years. Brown won the 1986 Ivy title, followed by Penn in 1987 and then Cornell in 1988; those three teams lost their NCAA tournament games by a combined 120 points. There was talk of taking away the Ivy League’s automatic bid – and those of some other smaller conferences – to the tournament heading into the 1988-89 season.
Princeton, in the 1988 season, lost a pair of one-point heartbreakers at the buzzer on the Yale/Brown trip to fall out of the league race that year, but the Tigers blew out Cornell 79-58 at Jadwin on the final night of the season after the Big Red had clinched the league championship. The following year, the Tigers looked to have the league clinched before stumbling at Penn and Dartmouth and needed a win at Harvard on the final night of the season to secure the 1989 title.
There seemed to be no chance that Princeton would keep the NCAA game against No. 1 Georgetown close, but March 17, 1989, would be one of the great nights in program history. Princeton, running its offense flawlessly, led 29-21 at halftime and held the lead until the final minute of the game. Alonzo Mourning, who would go on to a long-time NBA career, saved the Hoyas with 21 points and 13 rebounds, and it was his foul shot that gave the Hoyas a 50-49 lead with 23 seconds left. Mourning then blocked shots by Scrabis (15 points, 40 minutes) and Mueller (nine points, eight assists, 40 minutes) in the final six seconds, both of which were or were not fouls, depending on your perspective.
“I’ll take that up with God when I get there,” Carril said after the game.
Within two years, Princeton was back in the Top 25 and CBS had paid billions of dollars for the rights to the entire tournament, especially the first round. Princeton found itself repeatedly on national television as the college basketball world embraced the way Carril’s teams played.
Even after the streak of four straight league titles ended with the graduation of the Class of 1992, Carril retooled, bringing in a freshman class in 1994 that would take the program back to the top and beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
His last season at Princeton, the 1995-96 season, saw Princeton lose to Penn in the Ivy opener before ripping off 12 straight league wins. Penn, meanwhile, would stumble against Yale and Dartmouth, setting up the season finale at the Palestra where a Princeton win would mean the league title and a Penn win would force a playoff. It would prove to be no contest, as Penn ripped Princeton 63-49 in a game that was never close. It was the eighth straight time over four seasons that Penn had beaten Princeton, and the Tigers were going to have to reverse that trend four days later.
“Do they have your number?” Carril was asked in the postgame interview at the Palestra that night.
“I don’t believe in that stuff,” was his answer.
Three more times he was asked if Penn had his team’s number; three more times he said he didn’t believe in that. Finally, Carril was asked what his team could do differently in the playoff game to win.
“Nothing,” he said, “if they have our number.”
Then it was a smile, a chuckle and off to three days of practice, three days of getting his team to believe that they could win. The result was another classic at Lehigh, where Penn shoved and Princeton finally shoved back. The Tigers built a double-figure lead, but the Quakers came back, finally tying it in the final 10 seconds of regulation. Off to overtime the teams went, with the momentum clearly with the Quakers, but Sydney Johnson took over in the final minute, and Princeton came away with a 63-56 win that earned the NCAA bid. To this day, any player from that game will tell you that that the playoff win means more to them that what happened the following week in Indiana.
The common misconception is that Princeton played a perfect game against UCLA. In reality, Princeton shot 37% from the field, was just 8 for 27 from three-point range and was outrebounded 31-21. What the Tigers did do, though, was defend UCLA brilliantly, forcing 38.5% shooting and 16 turnovers, and executed when it was needed most. Princeton trailed 41-34 with five minutes to go, but a long three-pointer by Johnson, a great drive by Chris Doyal to set up a Steve Goodrich layup and a Mitch Henderson steal that led to a Johnson layup tied it with three minutes left. After Cameron Dollar missed both ends of an intentional foul with 1:02 to go and Kris Johnson’s shot jumper was rebounded by Goodrich with 30 seconds to go, Princeton called timeout to set up for the final possession. The result was the now-legendary backdoor pass from Goodrich to Lewulllis, followed by the Toby Bailey airball at the buzzer, that gave Princeton the win.
Carril’s college coaching career ended two days later with a 63-41 loss to Mississippi State. His final record at Princeton was 514-261; with his season at Lehigh, his final coaching record was 525-273.
Princeton had three head coaches in the six years before Carril arrived; it’s had three more in the 10 years since he left. In between, he stayed for 29 years. Why? Because every time he thought about leaving, he always would say, there would more players who kept him here. Light bulbs, he called them.
“It’s fun to see him now, fun to talk to him,” says Eastwick. “Ultimately, he was all about doing things the right way. He’s a philosopher of life who made the connection to the basketball court. He ran a program to win basketball games, and that was the end result, and he did it in an honest and straightforward way. What else can you ask of your coach?”
* * *
Pete Carril spent 29 years at Princeton, one at Lehigh and 12 more as a high school coach traveling almost exclusively by bus. Many of those rides were long ones, in the middle of the night, with no frills attached.
And then, in the 1996-97 season, all that changed. As an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings, Carril was quickly introduced to the NBA lifestyle.
“Everything was first class,” Carril says. “The hotels. The planes. You’d pull right up on the bus right next to the plane and get right on. You never had to carry your bag. I wasn’t used to that. I remember when they used to turn the heat off in the winter when school wasn’t in session because of the oil shortage, and we’d be freezing all through practice. We’d sleep in Dillon Gym.”
Sacramento isn’t quite what you think of when you think California.
“That’s Los Angeles,” Carril says. “There’s a real difference. Sacramento is a lot like Bethlehem, actually. A lot of regular people, hard-working people. It’s not industrial. It’s mostly small businesses. Trucking. Farming. I liked that a lot.”
Carril was lured to Sacramento by Geoff Petrie, the architect of the franchise and one of the great players from Carril’s earliest days at Princeton.
“I wasn’t that anxious to go,” Carril says. “My goal was never to be a pro coach. I went into it slowly. I was careful were to go and where not to go. We had some wonderful years out there. We almost won a championship. We had some great teams.”
Carril liked his role with the Kings so much that he stayed for 10 years. During that time, he worked very closely with the kind of players he never imagined at Princeton. If they were skeptical at the beginning, they quickly warmed up to the veteran coach.
“Generally thinking, I think I was successful,” he says. “I had something to say that was going to work. I didn’t try to fool them. I told them the truth. Sometimes, it wasn’t so nice.”
It was an interesting match, a retired college coach who had spent his almost his entire career at an Ivy League school, trying to help the modern pro athlete. Some were open; others weren’t.
“Corliss Williamson,” Carril says. “Great guy. Family man. Educated. Wanted to work hard. Willing to listen. I liked Hedo Turkoglu a lot. Hedo came from Turkey. I met his parents. I saw how devoted he was to them. I worked a lot with Scot Pollard. The latest one was Kevin Martin. Worked on his shooting with him. I worked with Peja [Stojakovic] on his dribbling the first day he was in this country.”
The Kings ultimately traded Stojakovic to the Pacers for Ron Artest, who in many ways personifies all of the issues that define today’s pro athletes. Artest can score and is as good a defender as anyone in the league, but he also missed most of last year after being suspended for his role in the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl, has a huge guaranteed contract and may be as interested in his rap career as his basketball career.
“Artest is a tough guy to coach,” Carril says. “What I do like about him is the way he deals with his own children. It gives you a hopeful sign that he can work his way through his problems and be a more productive player than he is.”
Carril would still be with the Kings had Adelman not been let go.
* * *
It’s become known as “the Princeton offense;” elements of it are everywhere in basketball these days.
“Some guy drew it up in a magazine,” Carril says. “Some high school coach started using it. Eddie Jordan used it with the Nets when he had Goodrich there. Soon, there was a story about how everyone was playing it. They call in the Princeton offense. To me, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.
“We took the Boston Celtics low-post play. They’d put [Bill] Russell on the right block. Tom Sanders or about three other forwards would be on the other side. They threw the ball down to Russell and set a screen. Sam Jones came off the screen and banked in 5,000 shots. We took that, and we called it ‘Celtics’.
“Then we had a play called ‘Knicks.’ Took it right from Red Holtzman. We called it ‘Knicks’ for years. Then we started calling it chin when Chris Yetman started signaling with his chin. I remember when he did it. I said to Billy ‘what’s he doing out there?’ Now? It’s all over the NBA. Chris Yetman should be famous. And they call it the Princeton offense. It’s not my offense.”
Pete Carril has always spoken very passionately, and he has always been able to mix basketball with many other parts of life. One of his former players has cancer, for instance. Carril’s take?
“Remember the Manhattan project?” he says. “They wanted an atomic bomb, so they got all the best minds together, and in three years, we had a bomb. Why can’t we get all these minds together and cure cancer?”
It’s hard to overstate the impact that Pete Carril has had on Princeton University, not just Princeton basketball. Much of the men’s lacrosse team’s offense during its rise to national prominence and six NCAA championships grew out of conversations between Carril and lacrosse coach Bill Tierney.
Walters, whose basketball education began under Carril, is now the chair of the Division I men’s basketball committee, which brings further attention to Princeton basketball while it charges Walters with overseeing the largest single property in college athletics and possibly all of American sports – the NCAA tournament.
Generations of students, professors, fans, media members and other coaches have come interacted with Carril have been struck by his messages, his style, his persona. The first impression – the most lasting impression – that many have of Princeton University is from Carril, who grew up not in privilege but in near-poverty, a man who had nothing in this world handed to him, a man who in so many ways was so mismatched for Princeton University and yet who stayed faithful for 29 years.
Today, he looks relaxed and happy. He smiles easily. His voice is never raised. He no longer can do some of what he loves so much, such as play tennis or go for long walks or even play basketball, which he did in Jadwin pickup games well into the 1990s, when he could still drop in setshots from well beyond the three-point line.
Ultimately, in the end, he is a very simple man, and the more the world around him grew complex, the simpler he became. Make shots. Guard your guy. Be honest with people. And above all, work hard. No shortcuts. It’s the tradeoff for not having to work 40 years for Bethlehem Steel.
It’s that simple.
And no where is it more obvious than when he talks about the game that has been such a huge part of his life.
“Princeton offense?” he shrugs. “Whatever that is. You can translate it in one sentence.
“What it means is sharing the ball. That’s it, right?”
And with that, his 76-year-old self pushes its way out of the chair in which he has spent most of the last hour. And then he’s out the door and down the hall. Again, you can hear the voice as it echoes.
It seems to linger long after he’s off, much as Pete Carril himself will linger forever at Princeton University, in a way that can never be matched.
- By Jerry Price