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Column: The blueprints of the Princeton offense

Feb. 11, 1983: Pete Carril secures his 273victory as Princeton’s head basketball coach, becoming the Tigers’ all-time leader in wins. Carril, whose name is now synonymous with Princeton basketball, currently holds the highest winning percentage of any Ivy League head coach ever (.658). Much of his success was due to his capacity to develop less-than-stellar players within his system, as well as his stalwart defensive scheme, which, at one point, allowed the fewest points of any team in the nation for eight years in a row.

Though he was a master of all aspects of the game, Carril’s legacy will forever be tied to the Princeton offense. For the unfamiliar, the Princeton offense is, at heart, a game of constant motion, where players never hold the ball for more than a short period of time. The constant passing and movement of the players leads, in theory, to one of three outcomes: an exploitable mismatch of position (big on little guy, for example), an open midrange jumper or, should a defender lose track of his man, a simple backdoor cut leading to an easy layup.


In a school generally lacking in NBA-caliber talent, such a system is ideal. Instead of relying on one dominant superstar, a coach utilizes the talents of five high-quality players and keeps a defense off-balance. As Georgetown coach (and former Princeton coach) John Thompson III once noted, “When I say the Princeton offense, you know, I just think of guys playing together, sharing the ball. Talented, unselfish players.”

Certainly, Carril was a genius. How else could a coach working with such a pool of talent defeat a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, as Princeton did against UCLA in 1996? He was a great coach, but it should be understood that the Princeton offense Carril set up already had roots here on campus. Another man, Franklin Cappon, had already set the groundwork for the program’s future success.

Cappon – almost always referred to as “Cappy” – was a star in both basketball and football at the University of Michigan. After coaching stints at the University of Kansas and University of Michigan, Cappon found his final and longest coaching stop at Princeton in 1938. During his tenure as coach, according to former player Selden Edwards ’63, “[Cappon] was Princeton basketball to anyone vaguely familiar with the teams of that era… His personality had come to dominate East Coast basketball. Though his six conference championships in his last 12 years of coaching speak for themselves, more striking to me was the game plan he employed.”

Cappon’s success was primarily built on two cornerstones: his “Iron Five” and the five-man weave. Cappon was never one to draw from his bench. He believed that his starting five ought to be well-conditioned enough to last throughout the game without missing a beat. Whether out of conviction or necessity (Princeton's roster rarely lends itself to a Miami Heat-style offense), Cappon forged from his shallow talent pool a perennial league powerhouse.

His second main weapon, which he had used since his first days at Princeton, was the five-man weave. In the weave, a player dribbles with his outside hand and passes to an approaching teammate, with whom he basically swaps places on the court. Cappon’s style of offense syncs totally with his emphasis on excellent conditioning, for it’s impossible to execute a weave throughout the game if the players wear out after the first quarter. Of course, the idea is that the opposing team will get exhausted. In efforts to conserve energy, defenders found themselves either giving up mismatches, dropping too far back to defend the basket (and thus allowing easy midrange jumpers) or just allowing simple layups.

By these two core principles, Cappon was able to maximize the potential of his players and elevate Princeton basketball to the next level. The tales of Cappon and Carril, when placed together, certainly look like parallel tales. I look at the styles of these two men not to suggest that Carril got all his tricks by looking at what Cappon had done. Nothing I can write here could ever detract from the career of a coach who belongs in the Hall of Fame. I merely wish to point out that for most success stories, like Carril’s, there are successful blueprints lying behind them.


Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated UCLA's seed in 1996. The team was a No. 4 seed. The 'Prince' regrets the error.

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