After 30 years of holding open basketball's backdoor, Pete
Carril won't be doing so at Princeton anymore. He'll leave after
this NCAA tournament because he has found himself wanting.
Funny. Year after year Carril won with players who were
wanting--players who were too slow, too distracted, too afflicted
with basketball's most addling handicap: wealth. Still, without
athletic scholarships, with daunting admissions standards, at a
school where the price tag is now $27,076 a year, he won just
Now, at 65, Carril says he doesn't have it anymore. Sure, he
coached the Tigers into the NCAAs again last Saturday night;
heeding a hunch, he started a 16-minutes-a-game reserve, a
freshman named Gabe Lewullis, and in an Ivy League playoff with
Penn, the kid led the Tigers with 15 points and held his
assigned Quaker to 0 for 14 from the field. But there's more to
coaching than game-day intuition. "The older you get, the less
well you react to missed layups, even in practice," Carril said
after Princeton's 63-56 overtime win. "I'm a little too rough,
too severe for the kind of kid who comes to Princeton today.
These kids are getting me at a time when I have less
It is not basketball that Carril no longer understands. The
world changes--Andy's Tavern, the dive where Carril once took
his lager, is now a sushi bar--but basketball is still a game of
Shaker simplicity. Take care of the ball. Take good shots and
make enough of them. Play defense with effort and pride.
Princeton had done none of those things on March 5 at
Philadelphia's Palestra, where Penn forced the playoff with a
63-49 victory. There was a moment in that loss that revealed
what is forcing Carril out. An air ball from one of his players
made Carril lean in the direction of the scorer's table, where
in disgust he tried to shroud his face with the bunting. An
understanding man doesn't hide from his players.
"There's a difference between understanding and compromise,"
Carril says. Bill Carmody, his longtime assistant and heir
apparent, has that distinction in proper balance. But where
Carril for years knew it too, in the old coach's head the two
have now blurred. And so he'll move on, perhaps to Sacramento,
where a former player of his, Geoff Petrie, is an executive with
the Kings, and where Carril may have something to offer as an
Pete Carril in the NBA. The world does indeed change.
Carril related his decision to his players speechlessly after
Saturday's game. I'M RETIRING, he wrote on the locker room
blackboard. Then: I'M VERY HAPPY, and tears. He has only been
partly successful in keeping to himself his frustrations--with an
admissions office that turned down prospects who would go to
other Ivy schools and torture him; with a student body so
indifferent that he vowed to recruit a three-headed player so he
might wave undergrads into the gym, like some circus impresario.
Carril never missed a practice, never copped a dishonest alibi,
never professed false affection, never resorted to indirection.
He made a sacrament of the truth. (On holding Dartmouth to 39
points several weeks ago: "They have guardable players, and we
guarded them.") He would wince when he saw a member of his team
eating candy. Kids eat candy; he wanted his players to be men,
and men drink beer. Nor would he try to outkowtow his colleagues
for a recruit. That cost him: Four years ago, while entertaining
high school senior Tim Krug in the Princeton basketball office,
Carril didn't like his attitude and asked him to leave. With
Krug, Penn won three consecutive Ivy titles and eight straight
games over Princeton until last Saturday.
The hardest thing about playing for Carril, says Chris
Thomforde, who played center on Carril's first Princeton team
and is now a Lutheran minister, was "being prepared for an
assessment not just of your athletic ability but of your
character as well."
Last Saturday Carril was asked what moment had made him
happiest. He didn't mention winning the NIT title in 1975, when
that event still meant something, or Princeton's upset of
Oklahoma State in a first-round NCAA game in '83. "Tonight," he
said. "Tonight is the highlight of my life."
You did not know this about Pete Carril: That when he saw the
NBA team down the turnpike, the Philadelphia 76ers, sign a 6'11"
18-year-old of lavish promise named Darryl Dawkins in 1975, he
wanted desperately to coach him.
"When I'm dead, maybe two guys will walk past my grave," Carril
said in 1990, after the 400th of his 524 victories. "And one
will say to the other, 'Poor guy. Never won a national
championship.' And I won't hear a word they say."
What will be the most appropriate epitaph for that tombstone?
ONLY WHEN HE KNEW THE WORLD HAD IRRETRIEVABLY CHANGED ON HIM DID
HE RETIRE FROM IT? Or, HE ACTUALLY THOUGHT HE COULD MAKE DARRYL
DAWKINS A BETTER PLAYER?
The answer may be the supreme testament to this most principled
of coaches. The answer could be, should be, both.