PU Hoops Coach Carril Leaving an Indelible Legacy, Imparting Unforgettable Life Lessons to His Players
HANDS-ON TEACHER: Former Princeton University men’s basketball head coach Pete Carril greets well-wishers in February 2009 before a ceremony where the main court at Jadwin Gym was officially renamed “Carril Court” in his honor. Hall of Famer Carril, who passed away at age 92 on August 15, left an indelible legacy on the players he guided.
By Justin Feil
When Pete Carril returned to watch Princeton University men’s basketball games, the former Tigers head coach sat high in the Jadwin Gym rafters.
Seeing the game was important to him. Being seen was not.
“He taught you how to play, how to see, how to think,” said current Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson, who played two seasons for Carril before he retired in 1996. “There are these incredible gifts that you’re being given and you don’t realize it. And how to work – how to come into the gym early, how to stay late. And his presence … that was what he was. He was a teacher.”
Carril, the Hall of Fame coach who spent so much time teaching players how to see the game the right way, died on August 15 at age 92 after complications following a stroke.
Carril’s coaching tree is one of the fullest in college basketball with six former players currently serving as head coaches, and former players continue to pass along his lessons while adding their own wrinkles to what was branded the “Princeton Offense” because of Carril’s success and since has seen its concepts emulated from high schools to the NBA.
“The reign of Coach Carril did not end in 1996 when he retired,” said former Princeton athletic director Gary Walters. “The reign is still going on in the eyes of all those players who played for him and eventually succeeded him at Princeton.”
Walters played for Carril at Reading High School, helped to advocate for Carril’s hire at Princeton after only one season of college coaching at Lehigh, was an assistant to Carril, and eventually his boss as Princeton AD. Walters credits Carril for motivating him along his own path.
“I went full circle with him,” said Walters. “I’m so fortunate. Without question, he’s the most influential mentor in my life. When I was in Reading, I think he saw a lot of himself in me with the circumstances we both grew up under and the way we played. He had a vision about what I could do that certainly exceeded my own sense of my own potential. I was really lucky to cross his path in my life.”
Henderson was point guard on the final team that Carril coached, a team remembered for knocking defending national champion UCLA, a No. 4 seed, out of the 1996 NCAA tournament in the first round, 43-41, as a No. 13 seed on Gabe Lewullis’s backdoor layup in the closing seconds. It was Carril’s 514th win in 29 seasons at Princeton.
When Henderson was hired back to his alma mater as head coach in 2011, Carril gave him a card that simply said, “Think. See. Do.” He let that message sink in with Henderson, who knew what Carril meant.
“I always thought I saw a lot, but I hope I would see half as much as he would see,” said Henderson. “To teach the game and teach them how to see and think for each other and how to get the best shot or the best cut on a possession to help somebody else, that was its own reward. That was the purpose and goal daily. The main charge was to teach them how to play, how to see, and that was always present. That was always the thing we talked about.”
Henderson felt the benefits of Carril’s teaching as a player. Henderson came to the Tigers with potential. He was extremely athletic — the New York Yankees drafted him out of high school — but developed well under Carril and his successor, Bill Carmody.
“Coach Carril would talk to all of us before and after practice and he would bring you into the loop, and before your peers, talk about what you needed to work on,” said Henderson. “For me, it was very impactful. It was very hard-hitting. I got so much better. I would say I was lightly recruited. I was trying to pitch myself to Princeton, and by the time I graduated I got invited to every NBA camp.”
It was the same for others. Carril famously was tough on his players, but they got better because he was such a great teacher of fundamentals and how to dissect the game.
“One of the things that he did for me as a player, he made me aware that I could see,” said former Tiger standout Howie Levy, now the head coach at Mercer County Community College. “Which then opens up a lot more things, because now you know you have the skill, and how do you maximize it?”
Brian Earl was just a freshman on the 1996 team that upset UCLA, then went on to become Ivy League Player of the Year and set the Princeton record for career 3-pointers. Just as importantly, though, Carril was there for Earl when he started coaching as an assistant at Princeton.
“He was great,” said Earl, now the head coach at Cornell. “They used to make fun of him. They used to say he was like Yoda because he looked like Yoda when he was a coach, but he didn’t act like it. He would come in a couple times a week and we would sit and watch video together and he was like that. He would let me get to the answer but sort of guide me along. And so it was a completely different personality at that point. Only a few times was he like, ‘This is the way you do it.’”
Carril never backed down from playing a scholarship school even as the national scene grew more competitive after integration of southern schools in the late 1960s. He tweaked his offensive philosophy to one of ball control and relied on his team’s skills to compete with what became known as the Princeton offense. The result was the Tigers became a team no one looked forward to playing, especially come NCAA tournament time.
“Coach would say he was a pessimist, but we never went into a game not thinking we could win the game,” said Levy. “I look at it now as a coach, we had a plan and if we executed that plan, we were going to win. There were no two ways about it. If you lose, it wasn’t because they’re good players, it was because we didn’t execute our plan properly. There was always an answer for whatever a team threw at you.”
Carril in retirement was a resource to his former players. Like Walters, Joe Scott was lucky enough to call Carril his coach, mentor, and friend. The current Air Force head coach, Scott played for Carril, served as an assistant under him, and eventually coached Princeton before also coaching Air Force and Denver all the while staying in close contact with Carril.
“You can’t be like him, but I coach believing 100 percent in all of his philosophies,” said Scott. “His philosophies need to be taught, and this is what you learn, consistently.”
Often, Carril’s messages weren’t strategic in nature, but more about what he saw in players or recruits, how they could fit or contribute. Walters says that Carril was part sociologist, like his friend, the late renowned professor Marv Bressler.
“It was an incredible gift to have very much of a second chapter, a different time with him, not as a peer, but close,” said Henderson. “He would tell what he saw. But I had to ask him. He wouldn’t just say it. Then there were days I was having my own issues with my team or myself and he would say, ‘You should ask me what I see.’ I knew then it was like he had something to tell me, but he wasn’t going to just say it.”
Carril may have cast a large shadow, but he also tried to keep a healthy distance. He was often seated up near the windows of the athletic director’s office in the upper stands at Jadwin to take in Princeton games after he stepped down. He returned from time to time while serving as an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings for 10 seasons, then far more frequently to take in Princeton practices and games following his retirement from the NBA.
“He was a visionary,” said Walters. “He was up in a spot where he could take everything in, in a very objective way without being disturbed by people who were meaningful friendly but didn’t understand that he was there to watch the game.”
Carril was honored in 2009 with the renaming of the basketball floor at Jadwin Gym to Carril Court. It was an honor that he publicly said he didn’t want to happen until after his death. Princeton enjoyed celebrating his achievements while he was still around, and his death now has prompted another wave of memories as players and coaches recall the legendary coach.
“It gives you a chance to be grateful, to share,” said Scott. “I talked to John Thompson. He and I spoke twice. I talked to Howie. I talked to Bobby Scrabis twice. I talked to Chuck Yrigoyen, who was our SID when I played. We talked for a long time. I think it’s just going to happen more and more.”
Princeton is said to be scheduling a ceremony to commemorate Carril in September, with more details to be released in the near future. Carril was passionate about basketball, about his teams at Princeton, and about the way to play the game. His influence continues on as others show how he saw the game.
“I think it’s safe to say you’re talking about the greatest basketball coach of Princeton’s history,” said Walters. “And further, one of the most significant teachers on the Princeton campus. The lessons learned under Coach Carril by many of his players have served them well through the years. It’s very, very difficult to effectively assess his impact other than say, ‘I don’t know how you could have performed better.’”