Feature: May 8, 1996
TELLING ON THE COACH
I met Pete when he played at Lafayette, where I had my first coaching job out of the pros. He was this 5-foot-6 guard, and I thought to myself, "What am I gonna do with this guy?" But Pete was a helluva good player, a very smart player. He had a great set shot, a little running hook, and a good jump shot. And he was good on defense, especially at rebounds-anything that was kicked out he would get. He had a real nose for the ball, and he could go for steals. If he'd been 5-10, Pete would have made it as a pro. He had a quick mind and a quick mouth-if you did a little zinging, he'd zing you right back.
As a coach he teaches an offense that's slow, with a lot of passing. But as a player he went up and down the floor and played a fast-break game. He wanted to score and score. You could see that whenever you played him three-on-three at the gym. He never turned down a shot.
Pete was the captain of the team in his senior year, and the night after our last game, I asked him, "Pete, do you drink beer?" He said, "Yeah." The first place we stopped, he pulled out this big cigar, and I thought to myself, "What the hell's this little guy doing smoking this big thing?" He said, "Oh man, they're good, try one." So I did, although at the time I didn't smoke. I must have chain-smoked five. After that, I was just as bad as Pete.
Pete once told me a story that I've used for years with my players. Sometimes, in the last minute or two of a game, when you have players that you want to put in for mop-up time, you'll get one that doesn't want to go, like it's beneath him. Pete told me, "When I was in high school, maybe 10th grade, I sat on the bench. And when it came to the end of a game, the coach would look down the bench. I'd stick my head out as far as I could, so he could see me. Because even if I got in for just a minute or a minute and a half, if I could do something good, the next time I'd play more."
-Butch van breda Kolff '45
Butch van breda Kolff coached the Tigers from 1962 to 1967.
When I was in eighth grade in Reading, Pennsylvania, the high school hired a new coach, Pete Carril, who'd been the coach at Easton High. I had a friend who played on the team, and when I asked him what practices were like, he said, "We spend a whole lot of time working on the two-handed chest pass. If you can't do it right, you're in trouble." So for the next two years I worked for 15 minutes every day on my two-handed chest pass, and you can be sure that by 10th grade, when I tried out for the team, I could throw it as well as anyone. Then as now, Pete stressed the fundamentals. As a consequence, when I came to Princeton the transition to college basketball was a lot easier for me than it was for many players.
In high school I also had Coach Carril as my civics teacher, and he was as demanding in the classroom as he was on the court. His class was called Problems in American Democracy, and every day he gave us a quiz with five or 10 questions. One day in the spring of my senior year, when I was waiting to hear from the colleges I'd applied to, we walked into class and found the overhead maps drawn down over every blackboard. We figured, "Wow, This is some major test he's springing on us!"
He let us worry a little bit, then said, "I guess you want to know what's going on. Well, I've got some momentous news." Then he raised the maps, and there, written in big letters all the way around the room, was "GARY WALTERS HAS BEEN ACCEPTED BY PRINCETON." He must have heard directly from the admission office or from Butch van breda Kolff, the Princeton coach. I spent the rest of the class in a daze. His pride in seeing one of his players accepted by a school like Princeton was a measure of how much he valued education.
My relationship with Coach Carril goes back over five decades, and I feel blessed to have learned from him as a player, a student, an assistant coach, and a colleague. Through all those years there's always been this paradox about him: I've never known anyone so fastidious, such a perfectionist, when it comes to basketball-he is a savant of the sport-but who's so unkempt about so many other aspects of his life. In that respect, at least, he's always reminded me of Albert Einstein.
-Gary Walters '67
Gary Walters is the director of athletics.
The Coach Goes Surfing
Near the end of the final game of the 1970-71 season, Carril substituted for his captain, Bill Sickler '71, so he could receive the ovation customarily given senior athletes at their last performance. Carril admired Sickler immensely, for he had achieved all that an athlete with moderate skills could. Carril had pushed Sickler harder than his teammates, knowing that he needed to work to get the playing time he wanted. It left Sickler with love-hate feelings toward Carril, but he became Princeton's best defensive player, who always took the toughest opponent. Now, as Sickler came to the sidelines, Carril took his arm and raised it in the traditional gesture of a champion boxer. Then he hugged him. Surprised, the modest Sickler tried to step away, but Carril clung to him with one arm while encouraging the crowd with the other.
Carril tells about visiting Sickler a few years later at his home in California. The former player took his old coach surfing, and they drifted out so far that Carril became anxious and said he'd need assistance getting back in. When Sickler didn't respond, Carril again asked for help. After another long pause, Sickler said, "I'm thinking about it."
-Dan White '65
Dan White is the director of the Alumni Council and the author of Play to Win: A Profile of Princeton Basketball Coach Pete Carril (Prentice-Hall, 1978)
Communing with Jadwin
I guarded him once in a while in the noon basketball in Dillon Gym. He didn't go to his left, and he didn't go to his right, but he easily managed to get off shots. The cigar may have helped him, the blown smoke. The cigar crazed me on the tennis court as well. We played regularly through the summers, and he was better than I was eight times out of 10. As I struggled against him and went down to defeat, in the middle of his face there was always that stump-contemptuous, glowing. If the cigar disappeared, I felt a shiver in the bones, knowing I was playing over my head.
One very hot summer evening, near dusk, while Jadwin Gymnasium was under construction, I called his house, and asked for him, and his wife said, "He isn't here. He's down at the new gym." The new gym was a large hole in the ground, girders rising. "The what?" I said. And she said, "The new gym. He goes there every night. He communes with the new gym. If he has to be away from town, he sends one of us."
I dropped whatever I'd been doing, bought two 16-ounce cans, drove to what is now the Jadwin parking lot, and walked in the half light toward the skeleton of steel. He was sitting on the retaining wall between Caldwell Field House and the construction site. As I approached him and sat down beside him, he neither looked at me nor said a word. I handed him a can and he opened it. He continued to say nothing. He just gazed into the interior of the future gym. I was not about to speak, I can tell you. If anybody broke his silence, he was going to do it, not me. For a very long time, he said nothing and he never glanced my way. It could have been half an hour. The sky was all but dark. Finally, without turning his head, he said, "Can you imagine putting a bad basketball team in there?"
I told that story to Dan White, who used it as the opening anecdote in Play to Win, his biography of Carril.
One year, a basketball player submitted an adroitly written and charming essay in application for my spring-semester writing course, which would begin on February 1. I picked up the telephone and called Pete.
"One of your basketball players has applied to my course and I'd like to take him, but it's an all-afternoon seminar and I'm not going to take him if he has to get up and leave and go to the gym."
In Pete's only tone of voice-his gust-driven toad baritone-he broke in and said, "What's his name? What's his name?"
"He can do it. He can do it. What time does your class end?"
"He can do it. What's more-let me tell you-if that fucking kid ever walks out early, if he ever misses so much as one minute of your class, he will never play another minute of basketball for Princeton."
Matt Henshon '91 became a starter on a championship team.
Now that I no longer play tennis, I see Pete much less often, and therefore look forward all the more to talking with him and catching up with him on the long, fast walks we sometimes do together from Jadwin. Evidently, he looks forward to these occasions, too. As we go down the towpath, he has earphones on his head and listens to bullfight music on a Sony Walkman.
-John McPhee '53
John McPhee, the Ferris Professor of Journalism, was a rear guard on the 1949-50 freshman basketball team.
Pete Carril knows in his dark Castilian soul that the gods are malicious and never sleep. Why else is he doomed to teach a poor man's game to gentle lads who arrive complete with doting parents, misshapen bodies, and diplomas from effete suburban schools with "country," "day," "academy," and even "école" in their names? This knowledge saddens but does not defeat him; a closet romantic, he believes that 50 magical days can redeem a lifetime. There have been nights when his teams played the game as he imagined it and triumphed over national powers like Duke, Florida State, North Carolina, Providence, and UCLA. These rare moments of pure joy were earned by players who acknowledged that games are won when mind and muscle remember what was learned during long months of arduous practice. A player does not play, he works.
The coach is thus especially fond of players who transcend their limitations. Richie Rizutto '78, a rugged and brainy guard who occasionally tried fancy moves that exceeded his talents, was reminded by Carril that "we can win with what you can do, don't try what you can't do." Recalls Rizutto, "Then he explained that what I couldn't do was rebound, pass, dribble, or shoot." Carril could radically revise his messages in the course of a single play-from watchful waiting ("Do a little something, Barnes!") to restrained enthusiasm ("Nice move, Stretch!") to disdain ("Number 40, why can't you make a simple layup?"). An errant player could not only lose favor, but even his name.
Since to whom much is given much is expected, the coach asked most from his most gifted athletes. But during one postmortem at Andy's Tavern, he brooded that his half-time critique of Armond Hill '85, whom he much admired as a player and a person, had been too harsh, personal, and public. I suggested that since he had berated Hill in front of the other players, he should apologize to him in their presence. At the next team practice he delivered an extended mea culpa to the effect that Armond Hill was the best point guard in the Ivy League, that even Larry Bird sometimes threw a bad pass, and that since nobody was perfect he regretted his remarks of the previous weekend. This much concluded, the coach moved quickly to restore order to the universe. Turning to Hill, he said, "When I yelled at you at Maryland for passing up easy shots, you deserved that. And when I lit into you at Michigan, you deserved that. And when I . . . ."
The players, who had earlier seemed disoriented, appeared oddly comforted by his reversion to type. They somehow understood, as have others before and since, that if Coach Carril denounces sin, it is because he pities the sinner, who for want of craft or resolve would never discover that he is better than he knows.
Marvin Bressler is an emeritus professor of sociology.
Respecting the Game
Good Times. Following Princeton's win in the 1975 NIT, Pete was interviewed on national television. When asked how his motley collection of slow, small students could possibly have beaten bigger, faster holders of athletic scholarships, Pete was reflective. He replied, "My father came to this country from Spain, and he worked in the steel mills all his life. He taught me many things, and one of them was that in this life, 'The strong take from the weak, and the smart take from the strong.' " This saying I will always associate with him. His highly disciplined team had in fact won by knowing what to do, and doing it.
Aggravating Times. In an important game near the end of this past season, the Princeton team did not seem to Pete to be working hard or really putting out. In the locker room afterward, he was berating the players. After one pause, he said, with more than a little emphasis, "This isn't about basketball. It's about CHARACTER!" Life, for Pete, is about character. I was reminded again, that evening, of what a great teacher he is-and of the values that matter so much to him. If only more of us, including those who preach most loudly about the "work ethic" and "values," had anything approaching his understanding of what those easy words really mean. Later that same evening, at his post-game press conference, Pete told the assembled reporters that Ginger Rogers had once complained to Fred Astaire that he forced them to practice so much that she just hurt all over. "Why do we have to work so hard?" Pete quoted her as asking. Astaire replied, "We work so hard to make it easy."
Ordinary Times. Pete has given me more T-shirts than I can ever remember (or use), with the exchange usually occurring after one of our lunch-time tennis encounters. He asked me to pass a particular shirt on to Kevin Guthrie '84, a former Princeton football star who likes to play pick-up basketball. The message on the back of the shirt reflects the coach's attitude toward his sport and his sense of humor. It reads, "Respect the game. Leave the court." Pete himself has always respected the game, and now he too has decided to leave the court.
-William G. Bowen *58
William Bowen, Princeton's president from 1972 to 1988, is president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.