Pete Carril remembered

Pete Carril, the Ivy League’s all-time winningest men’s basketball coach after 29 years leading Princeton, died Monday at 92. (Princeton Athletics)

The Princeton basketball community lost a father figure Monday with the death of its legendary coach, Pete Carril.  

It is difficult to express in a short essay the importance of Pete Carril to followers of Princeton basketball or to the game of basketball itself.  Most of the epitaphs I digested in the immediate aftermath of the news of Carril’s passing emphasized his coaching record – 514 wins, which remains an all-time record among Ivy League coaches – and his signature style of coaching, including his frumpy demeanor, and of course his perfection of the Princeton offense, which became stylish after Princeton defeated UCLA in the 1996 NCAA tournament.  

But Carril was much more than a coach who won a lot of games or whose teams managed to provide high drama in the first round of the NCAA tournament.  He was a bedrock figure at Princeton University not only during his three decades of coaching on campus but well beyond his retirement.  

Although he never scored a point in a Princeton uniform, Peter J. Carril came to define Princeton basketball even though he succeeded coaching giants such as Cappy Cappon and Butch van Breda Kolff.  Somehow, in terms of representing the Princeton brand, Pete Carril even managed in some ways to overshadow Bill Bradley, the most prodigious scorer in Princeton history and the greatest Ivy League basketball player of all-time.  

It wasn’t clear from the beginning that Carril would achieve such greatness.  He arrived at Princeton in 1967 without having a direct connection to the university, a true rarity in the culture of Princeton basketball. (Every coach since Carril either previously has played or coached at Old Nassau.)

Carril inherited a program that was firmly established on the map of college basketball.  Bill Bradley had lifted the program to national prominence, taking his Tigers squad to the Final Four in 1965.  But even after Bradley graduated, the program continued to flourish under the steady hand of Coach Butch Van Breda Kolff.  In the 1966-67 season, Princeton won the Ivy League title with a gaudy 13-1 record (25-3 overall) and advanced to its fifthconsecutive NCAA tournament, where it defeated West Virginia before falling in overtime to North Carolina. That season, Princeton basketball was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption, “Princeton builds a basketball dynasty.” Basking in this success, Van Breda Kolff bolted the college scene for a lucrative head coaching stint in the NBA.

Pete Carril was hired to replace van Breda Kolff in 1967.  With only one year of coaching at the college level under his belt at unheralded Lehigh, Carril seemed an unlikely successor to van Breda Kolff at first. Princeton had initiated a project to build a state of the art basketball facility (Jadwin Gym) to house its nationally prominent program, and with the cupboard still full of talented players, expectations for Princeton under Carril remained high.

In his first year at the helm, however, Carril’s squad didn’t quite live up to expectations.  Despite reaching a national ranking as high as No. 8 during the regular season, the Tigers could only manage a tie in the League standings with Columbia.  And after getting decisively beaten by the Lions in a one-game playoff, Princeton failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six seasons.

Carril righted the ship quickly.  In his second season (1968-69), he coached Princeton to an uncontested Ivy League title, including a perfect 14-0 conference record. It was the first time in Princeton’s illustrious basketball history that a team had gone undefeated in Ivy League play.

It would take six more seasons before Carril and Princeton managed to win another Ivy League title, but along the way, coach Carril led his Tigers to an astounding title run in the 1975 National Invitational Tournament, when the NIT still mattered. Princeton’s 1975 NIT title remains the only time in the 84-year history of the NIT that an Ivy League team has won the championship.  

During the remainder of the 1970s and early 1980s, Carril continued to rack up impressive wins and Ivy championships with little fanfare. After winning the NIT in 1975, Carril’s Tigers stormed to an Ivy League championship in 1976, again going undefeated (14-0) in Ivy League play.  Despite regular season wins over Alabama, St. John’s, and St. Joseph’s, the Tigers ended the 1975-76 season on a down note, dropping an agonizing one-point decision to Rutgers, which made it all the way to the Final Four that year.

The Rutgers loss arguably initiated the narrative that as good as Carril was at coaching in the unheralded Ivy League, he couldn’t quite get his team over the hump against the big boys in the NCAA Tournament.  Two more first round tournament losses to Kentucky in 1977 and BYU in 1980 dropped Carril’s NCAA Tournament record to 0-4.

My consciousness of coach Carril and Princeton basketball began to take shape in the late 1970s when my older brother enrolled at Princeton. I was still in high school a thousand miles away, but I will never forget talking with my brother about a highly anticipated matchup between Princeton and Notre Dame on Jan. 3, 1977, at Jadwin Gym.  (You can find Dan White’s excellent testimonial about that game here).  

Notre Dame, coached by Digger Phelps, was ranked in the top 10 after having scored a huge upset over UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.  It was a trap game for Notre Dame and Carril smelled an upset. “There’s a lot of magic in Notre Dame’s name,” he said. “But there’s some real magic in Princeton’s name, too.”  Princeton shocked the college basketball world with a 76-62 win, and I started paying close attention to Princeton hoops after that.

I followed in my brother’s footsteps by enrolling at Princeton in the fall of 1979.  My allegiance to Pete Carril and Princeton basketball was cemented during my four years on campus when Princeton won two Ivy titles outright and tied with Penn for another.  I’ll never forget watching the Tigers demolish a Duke Blue Devils team during the 1981-82 season that was led by a young coach named Mike Krzyzewski.

During the 1982-83 season, my senior year, Carril and his coaching staff had put together a special team led by Ivy Player of Year Craig Robinson and fellow seniors Rich Simkus, Gary Knapp, and Gordon Enderle.  I can still hear Carril’s voice echoing through Jadwin Gym, screeching at his players to make a cut or pass the ball.  He seemed to have a special affinity for yelling at “Ritchie” (Rich Simkus), his star center.  

During those years, sports-oriented students such as myself and my roommates rarely missed a home game and the enthusiasm of the SUNY B Psycho Squad encouraged the Tigers to dozens of big wins at Jadwin Gym.  And in March of that season, Pete Carril finally exorcized his NCAA Tournament demons, first winning a play-in game at the Palestra against North Carolina A&T, and then taking his team 3,000 miles away to Corvallis, Oregon for a stunning first-round upset over nationally ranked Oklahoma State.  

In those days, only a handful of tournament games were nationally televised, and few people could watch Princeton’s success in the NCAA Tournament. The Carril legend was beginning to build, but it had not yet reached its peak.

I have mixed feelings about how Pete Carril finally entered the national consciousness.  It arrived in 1989 when Princeton won the Ivy League title despite losing three conference games and winning only 19 games overall.  A young but talented Tigers squad was assigned a No. 16 seed and unceremoniously dispatched on a suicide mission to face the indomitable and No. 1- seeded Georgetown Hoyas in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Providence. 

Everyone knows what happened in that infamous game.  The Tigers lost 50-49, despite leading most of the game and schooling the Hoyas on the art of executing backdoor plays.  

Nevertheless, Princeton and Pete Carril officially became the darlings of college basketball in defeat.  Some say the gripping contest saved the automatic bid for small conference champions.

But it was a loss nonetheless, and Pete Carril was all about winning games, not scoring moral victories.  

Even worse, Princeton fans will never believe their team got a fair shake from the referees in the game.  With only a single tick left on the clock, and down by a point, Princeton had the ball with a chance to win the game on a final shot.  Sophomore center Kit Mueller received the inbounds pass and turned to launch a mid-range jumper that Alonzo Mourning blocked to seal the win for the Hoyas.  Except that Mueller was almost certainly fouled on the play.  The referees swallowed the whistle and as time expired, an exasperated Carril waved his hands at the refs as they scurried off the floor not wanting to confront the furious coach

Every Princeton fan knows that in an alternative universe in which a proper foul call had been whistled, Mueller would have canned the two free throws he deserved to be awarded.  Princeton would have and should have won the game.  

Carril himself believed his team had been jobbed.  When asked later about the no-call, he famously quipped, “I’ll take that up with God when I get there.”  He will now have that opportunity with his maker, though not with the refs.

The 1989 Georgetown game heralded the arrival of one of Carril’s best recruiting cycles at Princeton.  Most of the players on the team that “lost” to Georgetown returned for additional seasons (with the notable exception of Bob Scrabis, a terrific talent who graduated in 1989), and Princeton ripped off three more Ivy League championships, highlighted by another undefeated conference record (14-0) in the 1990-1991 season.  Unfortunately, the Tigers could not overcome their NCAA Tournament near-miss personality, dropping close first-round contests to Arkansas in Austin, Texas in 1990, and to Villanova in Syracuse in 1991, before finally running out of steam against Syracuse in the first round of the 1992 NCAA Tournament in Worcester, Mass.  

I traveled to all of those games along with a growing number of Princeton groupies.  I would occasionally encounter Carril in hotel lobbies and at various alumni functions.  He never seemed completely comfortable in those settings or with the limelight cast upon him.  Instead, he seemed most comfortable in the relative obscurity of his home environment in Princeton, New Jersey, where he could hold court with close friends at Conte’s or other local establishments.  

Pete Carril likely reached the peak of his notoriety at the very end of his college coaching career in March 1996.  Coming into the 1995-96 season, Princeton had suffered a four-year dip, including one season in which the Tigers won only seven Ivy League games (1992-93).  But by the time of the 1995-96 season, Carril and his staff had recruited a special group of players, including Sydney Johnson, Steve Goodrich, Gabe Lewullis, Brian Earl, and a two-sport star athlete named Mitch Henderson.  

The young Tigers dropped their league opener to Penn but found their footing and won 12 straight games before dropping the regular season finale to Penn, their eighth straight loss to the Quakers.  Locked in a tie with Penn at 12-2 in the conference standings, the Tigers were forced to face their rival from Philadelphia for a third time on a neutral court for a playoff game to determine the Ivy League champion.  Fittingly, the venue was Stabler Arena at Lehigh, where Pete Carril’s coaching career began.

I traveled to a packed gym in Bethlehem, Penn. to watch that playoff game knowing how hard it would be for Penn to vanquish Princeton for a third time in the same season.  It took an overtime session to accomplish the mission, but Princeton prevailed 63-56 in a game that at times featured sloppy play by both teams.

Only the next day would fans like myself come to realize that Carril had announced his retirement to his players in the locker room immediately following the game.  In typical, understated fashion, he wrote on the blackboard:  “I am retiring.  I am very happy right now.” Later when asked about his decision, Carril said, “I knew I was going to retire but it was one of the best-kept secrets.  I thought it would be a release of pressure for the team and for myself to announce it then.”

After three decades of yelling, stomping and pulling the tufted hair from his Yoda-like head, Carril was finally happy.  

It turns out that being happy was a good prescription for Pete Carril and his young team.  With a 21-6 record, the Tigers earned a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament and were matched in the first round against the defending champion and No. 4 UCLA, a program Princeton had never beaten in its history.  

I traveled to Indianapolis along with the rest of Princeton Nation to witness what we all assumed would be a farewell to Pete in the first round at the RCA Dome.  Instead, after a very shaky start, we witnessed what seemed to be divine intervention.  The Tigers overcame an early 7-0 deficit and then another second-half deficit to tie the game at 41.  With only seconds remaining, the Tigers scored the game winning basket on a signature backdoor cut by Gabe Lewullis after a perfect feed from center Steve Goodrich.  Final score:  Princeton 43, UCLA 41.  It was Pete Carril’s final win as a college coach and it took place on the biggest of all stages against the greatest program in college basketball history.  

I have thought many times about Pete Carril’s legacy and what he has meant to Princeton and the game of basketball.  On a personal level, there is no doubt that he turned me and thousands of other sports fans into lifelong devotees of Princeton basketball.  This is no small feat, because it’s not always easy to be a fan of Ivy League sports.  The Ivy League suffers the reputation of being small, and often irrelevant in the world of major college sports.  Moreover, the Ivy League has cultivated an image of itself as being elite and detached from the world of big-time college athletics.  

When I was a student at Princeton, the idea of an academic institution having a great sports program was often looked down upon.  The ideal in those days was to be ranked No. 1 by U.S. News and World Report, not by the Associated Press basketball poll.  The higher an Ivy school ranked in sports, the less likely it was to be considered an elite academic institution by its peers.

Also, it’s important to consider that many of the teams that Pete Carril coached at Princeton consisted mostly of white athletes, often from a privileged background.  As a liberal, I found it hard to reconcile my instinct to cheer for the underdog with an affection for something as elite and privileged as Princeton basketball.

Pete Carril threaded the needle for me and many other fans of Princeton basketball.  He came from a blue-collar background and presented himself as anything but an elite.  By cheering for Princeton basketball, fans like me could believe they were genuinely cheering for the underdog rather than a group of privileged athletes.  

Pete Carril balanced his humble background and persona with a philosophy of using intellect and preparation as a way to overcome superior opposing talent; hence, the title for his 1997 book, “The Smart Take From the Strong.”

For fans of Princeton basketball, Pete Carril presented the ideal combination of modesty, humility, and intellect.  And the product he put on the court was often nothing short of a work of art, so if you enjoyed the beauty of highly performed athletics, he was the perfect maestro despite his own rumpled appearance. 

Some of Pete Carril’s records and accomplishments likely will be eclipsed by other coaches in the Ivy League, but he will always remain a Mount Rushmore figure, forever beloved by fans of Princeton basketball.  There will never be another figure quite like him, and I will always be grateful to him for the joy he provided as he prowled the Princeton sideline for nearly three decades and for the incomparable way in which he represented Princeton University and its treasured basketball program.

3 thoughts on “Pete Carril remembered”

  1. Good article though I can’t imagine watching a sport and thinking about elitism or allowing it to color one’s view one iota.
    in basketball it has more often than not been a disadvantage to either be viewed this way or to view oneself this way. This is noted by Carrill in his book.

    All you need is a rubber ball some pavement and a hoop nailed on the side of a tree. And you have a chance.
    Where else is this true? Soccer? Ok well maybe that’s why they are the two most popular sports in the world.

    The biggest disadvantage is not getting a scholarship having to keep up academically with no extra help and taking a bus to play a back to back.

    This has been true at least in my lifetime which is rather long at this point.

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