Stories, Laughs, and Life Lessons Filled Jadwin Gym As PU Held Celebration of Life for Hoops Coach Carril
FOR PETE’S SAKE: Princeton University men’s basketball alums pose together last Friday at Jadwin Gym after a Celebration of Life held in honor of legendary Tiger head coach Pete Carril, who passed away in mid-August at the age of 92. The event drew hundreds of former Princeton players, opposing coaches, past and present Tigers coaches, and members of the community.
By Bill Alden
Pete Carril espoused a basic philosophy to his Princeton University men’s basketball players over his 29 years at the helm of the program — there was life and there was basketball but there was no life without basketball.
In the wake of Carril’s passing in mid-August at the age of 92, Princeton held a Celebration of Life in honor of the Hall of Fame coach last Friday morning at Jadwin Gym.
The event, which drew hundreds of former Princeton players, opposing coaches, past and present Tigers coaches, and members of the community, was filled with laughs and some tears.
The gym was transformed to a shrine to the coach with a montage of images of Carril on the video board and banners detailing his achievements hanging near the stage.
The program featured six speakers. It also included a video tribute of Carril’s career narrated by Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster Tom McCarthy. It detailed some of the highlights of Carril’s Princeton tenure that ran from 1967 to 1996 and saw him lead the Tigers to a 514-261 record, 13 Ivy League championships, 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, and the 1975 NIT title. He was a 1997 inductee to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
There was another short film with remembrances from such Princeton luminaries as Princeton President Emeritus Harold Shapiro, Princeton Athletic Director Emeritus Gary Walters, former Tiger hoops great Craig Robinson along with former Tiger players and coaches Armond Hill, John Thompson III, and Mike Brennan.
The Rev. Christopher Thomforde ’69, a player in the early years of Carril’s tenure set the tone for the morning.
“There is a gap created in our lives when anyone of consequence dies,” said Thomforde. “We maintain the gap and let grief be real to each of us. Today we want to celebrate, tell stories, and give thanks for a very important person Pete Carril.”
Noting that he talked to Carril about once a month for 50 years, Thomforde recounted his final chat, a conversation that reflected the relentless nature of coach.
Calling coach Carril around his birthday on July 10, Thomforde was heartened to hear his mentor describe him as one of the hardest workers he ever coached. But then Carril followed that praise by pointing out that Thomforde was awful on high pick defense.
“I said coach Carril, you are 92 and I am 75,” said Thomforde. “I can walk but I can’t run. I could never jump. Let it be, there is nothing we can do about that now.”
Up next, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83, admittedly no basketball expert, credited Carril with standing in the pantheon of such University greats as James Madison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Albert Einstein, and Toni Morrison.
Noting that Carril had been described as hoops yoda to perpetual motion, Eisgruber said that the hoops program enriched his undergraduate experience.
“Pete Carril and his teams helped define my Princeton too,” said Eisgruber. “I am going to always remember cherished memories that Pete Carril and Princeton basketball provided to me and to so many other alumni. You made this University better and you will live on forever in our hearts and the tradition of Princeton basketball.”
One of the greatest players in Princeton basketball history, Geoff Petrie ’70, who scored 1,321 points for the Tigers and went on to a six-year NBA career, detailed his special relationship with Carril.
Meeting Carril in the spring of 1967, launched Petrie on a “lifetime adventure” in basketball and life.
“Here is this barrel-chested cigar-smoking, beer-drinking, pizza-loving force of nature that was going to teach us how to play basketball,” recalled Petrie.
There was plenty of tough love along the way. “Practices and games would become the morality plays that would expose your character or lack thereof,” said Petrie. “I soon learned if you grew up with a three-car garage, your toughness was questioned. Drinking water during practice was a sign of weakness, although beer was sometimes considered a health food. Rebounding was inversely proportional to how far you lived from the railroad tracks.”
Later as the president of basketball operations for Sacramento Kings, Petrie helped Carril enjoy a second hoops act, hiring him to serve as an assistant coach for the team.
“The waters of time smoothed off the rough edges and he took to the elder statesman role in stride,” said Petrie. “He went back to his teaching roots as an assistant. He loved working with the individual players and their game and that really rejuvenated him for the 13 years he spent with the Kings.”
The years spent with Carril have left an indelible impact on Petrie.
“Coach meant so much to so many and he was a true force of nature who created his own weather on the basketball court,” said Petrie. “I will miss him terribly, but he was a lifetime gift to me and so many who crossed this path. Pete lived with a fire in his belly, love in his heart, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
Another Princeton player, John W. Rogers Jr. ’80, who has distinguished himself in the business world as the CEO of Ariel Investments, got an early taste of some of Carril’s off-court activities.
“I first connected with coach Carril when I called to give him my flight information for my recruiting visit,” said Rogers. “I thought I was calling the Princeton basketball office, but when the call went through, I heard two words on the other end of the line I will never forget — ‘Andy’s Tavern.’”
On court, Rogers soaked in Carril’s teachings. “I thought I knew basketball, but I wasn’t ready for the level of genius and direct feedback I would receive over the next four years,” said Rogers. “I told my friends in Chicago that playing basketball at Princeton was like going from second grade math to advanced calculus. All of us knew that coach saw the world through a different lens. His understanding of all aspects of the game was deep and obvious. During practice he would just say ‘yo!’ and we would instantly stop in our tracks as he slowly trudged on to the court with a cigar in his hand to explain what we didn’t see or what we didn’t understand, why we were in the wrong position or what we forgot from the scouting report of yesterday’s practice. He demanded precision and effort every moment we were on the court.”
That precision centered on getting five to play as one.
“Coach Carril had a way of teaching the importance of teamwork more effectively than anyone I have ever met,” said Rogers, noting that he had a conference room at Ariel named for Carril to honor his commitment to excellence and teamwork. “He showed us that the more we focused on helping our teammates succeed, the more we helped ourselves and the more the team would win. Ultimately, we learned to have as much satisfaction from making the right cut, setting the right screen, throwing the right pass as we did scoring a basket ourselves. It was such a joy to play this way.”
Over the years, Rogers became a chauffeur for Carril in Chicago when he came for recruiting visits and got special insights through that experience.
“Along the way I cherished the one-on-one time we had together and the thoughtful advice and counsel he gave me; he changed my life,” said Rogers. “He constantly reminded us that the lessons we learned on this side of Washington Road were at least as important as the lessons we learned on the other side.”
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 got a special lesson from coach when he took the helm of the Tiger program.
“Coach absolutely loved Princeton basketball,” noted Henderson. “A short time after I was hired as the basketball coach in 2011, he handed me a index card with three words on it — think, see, do.”
Playing for Carril served as a master class in teaching for Henderson.
“Coach was first a history teacher, heavily influenced by the teachers in his life,” said Henderson. “He would often say that the role of a coach is that of a teacher. If one of us didn’t know how to do something on a basketball court, make a hook shot, a left-handed pass to the corner, his job was to teach us how to do that. We would repeat the moves over and over until we got it right. His record here proved he was a master teacher.”
Carril also taught his players to stay in the present.
“Who will ever forget his mantra, the most important thing you are doing is the thing you are doing right now,” said Henderson. “He was practicing mindfulness before anyone knew what it was.”
Developing a motion style of play dubbed the “Princeton Offense,” and emphasizing an early and extensive use of the three-point shot, Carril’s influence extends to all corners of the hoops world.
“There is a notable influence coach has had on the game, from Steve Kerr to Brad Stevens,” said Henderson. “With so many of us former players and assistants now coaching, he has to have one of the most expansive coaching trees in the country.”
Despite all of Carril’s accomplishments, he maintained an understated presence, devoid of pretense.
“Coach understood that he was a dose of reality, he wasn’t the guy in the three-piece suit, not a self-promoter,” said Henderson of Carril, who wore sweaters, not suits, on the sideline. “He stayed true to who he was; this resonated. Thank you, coach. We think about you every day, we see you, and we love you.”
According to the final speaker, Carril’s daughter, Lisa Carril, that affection was reciprocated.
“You were important to dad, each one of you, whether you were the team’s manager, the star player, or one of my high school buddies who became a diehard basketball fan,” said Carril. “He left his imprint on you and in turn, you made his life better. You enriched his life, made it fuller, and gave meaning to his passion. You became his family. Each one of you had that special relationship with him that in many ways transcended basketball. No matter what you did, big or small, you were important to him, you mattered. I am here today to give you that message that he loved you very much, and you needed to know that.”
In a final expression of love to end the day, Thomforde led the Jadwin congregation in two full-throated shouts of ‘yo!’ in unison.