HOLDING COURT: Former Princeton University men’s basketball head coach Pete Carril addresses the crowd in February 2009 after the main court at Jadwin Gym was officially renamed “Carril Court” in his honor. Legendary Hall of Famer Carril passed away at age 92 on Monday, August 15.
By Bill Alden
One of the most legendary and colorful figures in in Princeton University sports history, Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Pete Carril, died on Monday, August 15 at age 92.
The Carril family issued a statement on Monday posted on the Princeton University Athletics website indicating that Carril “passed away peacefully this morning.” He died at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, where he was recuperating from a stroke.
Carril, a native of Bethlehem, Pa., who played college basketball for Lafayette College, took the head coaching job at Princeton for the 1967-68 season and guided the Tigers for the next 29 seasons. During his storied tenure, Carril posted a 514-261 record, leading the Tigers to 13 Ivy League championships, 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, and the 1975 NIT title.
Prior to coming to Princeton, Carril started his coaching career as an assistant at Easton Area High (Pa.) in 1954 and then became a head coach at Reading High in 1958 where he guided Gary Walters, a future Princeton star and director of athletics at his alma mater. He served as the head coach at Lehigh University for one year before taking the Princeton job.
The hallmarks of the style that Carril perfected at Princeton included a deliberate offensive game that featured constant motion, crisp passing, and quick cuts to the basket. That disciplined approach was complemented by a stifling defense which had the Tigers among the national leaders in fewest points allowed per game on a yearly basis. Princeton led the country in scoring defense 14 times from 1975 to 1996, including eight in a row from 1988 to 1996.
That method of play, which became known as the “Princeton Offense,” has left a lasting influence on the game as teams from high school to the Golden State Warriors of the NBA have employed that style to spread the floor and wear foes down before getting open looks from the perimeter or in the paint.
While orchestrating that precise and confounding brand of the game, Carril himself made a rumpled appearance. He wore sweaters on the sidelines and
with tousled gray hair often flying, he commanded his players in a raspy voice while waving a rolled up program. Off the court, he had a fondness for cigars and was known for spending long nights at Conte’s breaking down games over pizza and beer. He was also a regular at Andy’s Tavern.
With his blue collar background in Pennsylvania as the son of a steelworker, Carril often dispensed his wisdom with ample doses of profanity. He penned a book with Dan White, The Smart Take from the Strong, in 1997, detailing his basketball philosophy which included hundreds of nuggets explaining his tough-minded, no-nonsense approach to the game.
In the introduction to the book, coaching great Bob Knight, who guided Indiana to three NCAA titles, said that Carril has “been a tremendous asset to the game of basketball and a great credit to it.” Knight added that “I can think of no better compliment that a basketball coach could ever receive than to be told, ‘You know, your teams play a little bit like Pete Carril’s Princeton teams used to play.’ ”
Under Carril’s guidance, the Tigers dominated the Ivy League along with archrival Penn. From 1964 to 2007, either Princeton or Penn won or shared the title in all but two seasons. Carril ended his career as the winningest coach in Ivy history.
Under Carril’s guidance, Princeton made an impact on the national stage as well. Carril coached Princeton to wins over teams coached by such legends as Knight, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Digger Phelps, Lefty Driesell, and Frank McGuire. In 1975, Carril guided Princeton to a stirring run to the NIT title where it beat Providence 80-69 in the final.
Some 14 years later, the Tigers almost pulled off one of the great upsets in college hoops history as the 16th-seeded Tigers fell 50-49 to top-seeded Georgetown in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
In 1996, Carril’s final year at the helm of the Tigers, Princeton achieved that breakthrough upset. The 13th-seeded Tigers stunned fourth-seeded UCLA, the defending national champions, 43-41 in the first round of the NCAA tourney with the winning points coming on a backdoor layup by Gabe Lewullis.
After stepping down from Princeton, Carril went on to serve as an assistant coach of the Sacramento Kings in the NBA from 1996 to 2006. He was a 1997 inductee to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
His legacy includes a special coaching tree. Every Princeton head coach since Carril’s retirement either played for him or coached with him, as he was succeeded by longtime assistant Bill Carmody and then former players John Thompson III, Joe Scott, Sydney Johnson, and Mitch Henderson.
Henderson, the current Tiger head coach, put Carril’s influence on his players and the game in perspective in a statement posted on the Princeton Athletics website.
“It is difficult for me to put into words the impact that Coach Carril has had on my life and on the lives of the hundreds of others who were fortunate enough to have crossed paths with him,” said Henderson’98, who played under Carril at Princeton.
“While his impact on the game of basketball is immeasurable and his long lasting ‘Princeton offense’ will live on beyond him, it is how he touched so many people on a personal level that will be his greatest legacy. Coach taught me that keys in life were to be unselfish, to value the team over the individual, to understand that there is no substitute for hard work and to never limit yourself in what you think you can accomplish. I speak for everyone who has ever been associated with Princeton basketball when I say that we love Coach, we learned lessons from him that we use every day and we will never forget him.”
To recognize that impact on a permanent basis, the main floor in Jadwin Gym was renamed Carril Court in February 2009 in honor of the famed coach.
“I would like to think that he understood that this is as much about the legacy of Princeton basketball and the guys who played for him,” asserted Walters in remarks that night.
“It is greater than him and that’s the way he would want it. I personally believe he made Princeton basketball a brand name which burnished the academic reputation of this University. It is the smart taking from the strong, we were the Davids beating the Goliaths.”
Upon taking the mike at the ceremony and graciously thanking the University and his players, Carril evoked the humor and perceptiveness that was a major part of his legend.
Noting the Carril Court label on the floor and a life-sized banner of the coach unfurled from the gym’s rafters, he quipped, “It’s bad enough people are going to step all over me when they play on this court, now they’ve decided to hang me.”
Over the last decade, Carril continued to hang around Jadwin, occasionally coming to practices to dispense his wit and wisdom to players and coaches and also watching games from a spot in the upper deck of the arena.
With Carril’s passing, there will be a huge void at Jadwin and in the hoops world.