Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 7
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
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LIFE OF BRIAN: Brian Earl surveys the action in his role as an assistant coach for the Princeton University men’s basketball team. Earl, a Tiger hoops standout in the late 1990s, is in his third year coaching at his alma mater. After helping the Tigers garner national attention during his playing days with three NCAA tournament appearances from 1995-99, Earl is dedicated to getting the program back on top of the Ivy League.

PU Alum Earl Enjoying Coaching at Alma Mater, Applying Lessons Learned During Playing Career

Ed Benkin

Brian Earl was part of a remarkable era in Princeton University men’s basketball, helping the Tigers garner national attention during the late 1990s.

The sharp-shooting guard sparked the Tigers to three NCAA tournament appearances from 1995-99, highlighted by tourney wins over UCLA and Nevada-Las Vegas. Earl holds program records for most three-pointers (281), most games played (116), and most starts (113).

Now Earl is working to return the Tigers to the top of the Ivy League, serving in his third season at Princeton as an assistant coach to former teammate Sydney Johnson.

For Earl, working with Johnson as a coach has been a natural extension of their playing days.

“All of the guys who played together in the late 90’s have a special connection,” said Earl, the 1999 Ivy League Player of the Year, who ended his career with 1,428 points, fifth-most in program history.

“We’ve always been on the same page. To have him as the head coach and for me to be back here, we want to bring back the kind of approach that we had in the 90’s when we were a contender.”

While Earl enjoyed a successful playing career at Princeton, his initial plans after graduation did not include coaching. After spending some time playing basketball in Europe and working in the corporate world, Earl received a call in 2007 from Johnson, who wanted to know if Earl wanted to work with him as an assistant coach with his alma mater.

“It wasn’t something where I thought I was definitely going to be a coach once I was done playing,” said Earl.

“But there is a lot of coaching influence around me. It was something that just kind of fell into place. Sydney and I had talked, and when he got the job, he called me, and it seemed like the right time to make something happen.”

The beginning of the 21st Century was not kind to Princeton basketball. The Tigers fell from Ivy League contenders to bottom feeders in the Ancient Eight. Johnson and Earl are beginning to turn things around in their third year together as Princeton is off to a 14-6 start and is 5-1 in league play.

As a veteran of many Ivy League weekends, Earl knows how important a fast start can be, especially when a team wins on the road.

“It’s a huge relief,” said Earl. “The Ivy League doesn’t have a conference tournament, so you’re really playing an in-conference tournament during the regular season. To go through the first weekend and get the first two wins on the road is a little bit bigger than in any other conference in America.”

Earl enjoyed early success in his basketball career. He and his brother, Dan, were both stars at Shawnee High School in Medford, New Jersey in the mid-90s. The Renegades won their first-ever state title during Earl’s freshman season. He capped off his senior year by leading his team to another state crown.

“There really was a change in the town,” said Earl. “Coach (Joe) Kessler really led a complete turnaround. It just kind of exploded when I got there my freshman year. We lost one game and won the Tournament of Champions. It kind of paved the way to expect the kind of success that we had over the next three years that I was there.”

Earl had several college options to choose from, but decided to take his game as well as his academics to Princeton. After a fast start his freshman season, things began to change.

“Any freshman thinks you understand the college game since you play against future college kids when you’re in high school,” said Earl.

“But you’re just not ready for the level of competition, specifically for me physically. It does wear you down.”

Earl also needed an adjustment period with his new head coach, Hall of Famer Pete Carril, who was coaching in what turned out to be his final season with the Tigers and employed a tougher style than the coach at Shawnee.

“Playing under Coach Carril was a very interesting experience going from Coach Kessler,” Earl said.

“Coach Kessler was a little more laid back than Coach Carril, who’s obviously a legend and who was very detailed-oriented. It took a toll. It was a learning experience and something that I keep in mind when I work with the freshmen now.”

Earl began to thrive at Princeton when Bill Carmody took over for Carril the following season.

During his junior season in 1997-98, the Tigers were a Top 10 team but a 63-56 loss to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAAs still haunts Earl to this day.

“I still believe we could have beaten Michigan State,” said Earl, reflecting on the defeat that left Princeton with a final mark of 27-2.

“I’m sure their coaches and guys would disagree. We didn’t make shots and we were a Top 10 team in the country. That was a blown opportunity for us.”

Earl is taking the opportunity to use the knowledge he gained from all his playing days now that he is on the bench at Princeton.

“It’s as close as you can get to being back and playing,” said Earl, who helped the Tigers make the NIT quarterfinals in his senior season.

“One of the luxuries you have at Princeton is that you’re working with the greatest kids in the world. They are students and they are athletes. It’s really easy to coach them. Whatever you say to them, they will listen.”

If the Princeton players of today heed the lessons that Earl is passing on, the program could find itself in the national spotlight once again.

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