In April of 1978 Lee Rose and Joe Barry Carroll struck a bargain that has served to return Purdue to the forefront of college basketball. At the time, Rose was the Boilermakers' newly appointed coach and Carroll their still-developing center. As Rose recalls the occasion, he had gone to Lexington, Ky. to watch Carroll play in a postseason All-Star game, and they were getting acquainted in the player's hotel room. Rose had heard that Carroll lacked spirit and aggressiveness, but he had also heard from his friend C. M. Newton, the coach at Alabama, that Carroll was the best center the Tide had faced that season. "Lee," Newton told him, "you can do for Carroll what you did at North Carolina-Charlotte for Cornbread Maxwell."
With Rose plotting the moves, Maxwell had led the Forty-Niners to the NIT finals in 1976 and the final four of the NCAA tournament in 1977. If Purdue were to have a chance at that kind of success, Rose would again have to be the architect, and Carroll would have to assume Maxwell's role as the foundation.
Unfortunately, there was little in Carroll's past performances to inspire Rose's confidence. His high school career in Denver had developed slowly: as a sophomore he couldn't make the varsity, and as a junior he didn't start. He finally enjoyed moderate success as a senior, but he wasn't highly recruited. As a freshman at Purdue he was only a part-time player and even turned down an opportunity to start. In his sophomore year he averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds a game, but he was primarily a complementary player on a senior-dominated team. And to some, Carroll was too timid and too aloof for anything but a supporting role.
But Rose had to rely on Carroll as his main man. He just about had no other choice. Carroll and senior Guard Jerry Sichting were Purdue's only returning starters, and it was too late in the recruiting season to sign up players who could provide immediate improvement. Rose knew that the best player available to him was Joe Barry Carroll—not Joe Barry as he was, but Joe Barry as he could be.
January 21, 1980
"I felt he had the capability to be a dominant player," Rose says, "but that meant nothing unless he wanted it. I needed a commitment from him. So I laid it out. I told him I wanted him to be the nucleus of the team. I told him I'd provide an environment that would enhance his opportunities. I said I knew he had the physical ability, but that I didn't know if he had the mental desire and motivation. 'If you have,' I said, 'I'll work with you, but it won't be easy.' "
Through all of this, Carroll had sat on his hotel-room bed, saying nothing. Rose had expected him to respond quickly, to answer, "Yeah, that sounds great. Let's do it." Instead, Carroll got up, walked to the window and reflected on the proposal. Finally, he turned to Rose and said, 'Yes. I would like that."
The rest, as they say, is history. With Carroll averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds a game, a Purdue team that was supposed to finish seventh in the Big Ten last season tied for first and, shades of Cornbread Maxwell, reached the finals of the NIT. This year the Boilermakers are 10-3 and Carroll is averaging 25.3 points and 7.6 rebounds a game. Last week he poured in 75 points as Purdue beat Illinois and Michigan, then lost a squeaker to unbeaten Syracuse.
Although the Boilermakers may not be of final-four caliber, Carroll is a leading candidate for an individual grand slam: All-America, player of the year, No. 1 pro draft choice and starting center on the U.S. Olympic team. Fred Schaus, the former Los Angeles Laker coach who preceded Rose at Purdue and is a member of the Olympic basketball selection committee, says, "Joe Barry has the potential to turn a pro franchise around, and he's perhaps the only center we havey. who can play effectively against Russia's 7'3" Vladimir Tkachenko."
Carroll is a thoughtful, intelligent and well-spoken young man with a dry sense of humor. But in his four years at Purdue he has chosen to hide these qualities from the media and, thus, the public. At Rose's urging, Carroll consented to talk about himself recently, and at various times he was coy and charming, secretive and expansive. The overall picture was one of a serious student-athlete. Carroll is the ninth of 11 children, and he takes pride in the fact that he will be the first in his family to graduate from college. He will earn his degree in economics with above-average grades, partly because he often takes his books on road trips and often goes straight to the library after practice. "When I lived in a dorm as a freshman," he says, "I was the guy on the hall who was always telling people to turn their stereos down."
Carroll has avoided the media because "to me, the term 'interview' suggests something very intimate, 'a view of the inside.' I like to be discreet. I have read articles on guys—not necessarily athletes—who disclose stuff that I wouldn't even tell my friends. When people give intimate details as to the hows and the whys of their motivations, that can be very personal. To disclose those things leaves you naked. If I disclose my private life, my life past the spotlight after I close my door, then it's no longer private. It's public, and then what do I have?"
Of course, Carroll has never chosen to disclose much about his life in the spotlight, either. He has even avoided post-game interviews because, he reasons, "What's there to discuss? Your performance speaks for itself. There's nothing to it but to do it. If you excel, then that's it. If you bomb out, well that's the other side of the coin."
Carroll's reticence is not reserved for the press alone. "He's a quiet leader," says Guard Brian Walker, "but when he does say a few words we listen." One such occasion came earlier this season when Rose had to miss practice. Carroll called the team together and reminded everyone that even with the coach absent there should be no fooling around.
Carroll doesn't need such admonitions. "If we see him smile on the court we point it out to him because it's so unusual," says Walker. In fact, a smile is about as likely to appear on Carroll's face as a frown. On the court he follows Rose's philosophy of "reason over emotion" so thoroughly that many observers have wondered if he has any emotion at all.
"I'm not a rah-rah, fist-up-in-the-air guy," Carroll says, "but I enjoy the game. Only, when I'm out there, I tend to keep things inside me. I think a lot, and that may be why some individuals perceive me to be timid."
Opponents and teammates agree that Carroll is much more physical than he appears to be. Ohio State Center Herb Williams considers Carroll "by far the best big man I've played against" and cautions. "Maybe you don't realize he's pushing, but I do. He's so strong he doesn't have to push that much." In practice, at which Carroll doesn't have to worry about the referee's whistle, he can be positively destructive. "People say he ain't aggressive because he ain't growling and snarling," says Forward Arnette Hallman. "But in practice he's been known to knock a few people down and not look back."
During games Carroll cannot afford to be too aggressive. "We're not a greatly talented team," says Rose. "We need him in the game, and if he gets two fouls in the first half he's coming out."
At his best, Carroll can be devastating. His assortment of hooks, dunks and fall-away jumpers has put him in double figures in 54 consecutive games, with a career high of 42 points in last year's NIT semifinal against Newton's Alabama team. But no matter how well he plays, Carroll says, "I don't pat myself on the back as much as I look at the errors. I strive for excellence. The expectations I have for myself usually exceed those that others might have for me."
This desire for excellence is as far as Carroll will go in describing his goals. "My desires are private," he says. "If you verbalize what you desire, or what you're going to do, and then fall short of those goals, you have to contend with outsiders, and it creates conflict."
Carroll finds enough conflicts in the combat zone beneath the basket. He is winning that war and, for now at least, it's the only one he cares to fight.