“I am the teacher of athletes,
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own, proves the width of my own;
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher ...
My words itch at your ears till you understand them.”
– Walt Whitman
When asked about legendary men’s basketball coach Pete Carril, longtime Princeton athletic director Gary Walters ’67 points to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to illustrate his grief.
“For those of us that played for Coach Carril, I hope that we expanded the breadth and width of his own, while at the very same time being reminded that his words continue to itch at our ears,” Walters told The Daily Princetonian.
Carril, the former Princeton’s men’s basketball head coach who is known as one of the most influential minds in basketball history, died on Aug. 15 at age 92. After coaching at Princeton from 1967 to 1996, he joined the NBA’s Sacramento Kings as the assistant coach for 13 years. Carril’s “Princeton Offense” revolutionized the game, putting an emphasis on ball movement, backdoor cuts, and reliable outside shooting.
His core offensive philosophies are still embraced by a number of teams at all levels to this day, including the University of Richmond at the NCAA Division I level and the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers in the early 2010s.
Carril’s story started on July 10, 1930 in a single-parent home in Bethlehem, Penn. His father raised Pete on his own while working as a steelworker at Bethlehem Steel. Pete said that his father never missed a day of work in his 40 years employed.
That commitment to hard work was seemingly ingrained in the Carril genes, evident in Pete’s love for and dedication to basketball. Carril began his playing career in his hometown of Bethlehem for Liberty High School. He found early success, earning all-state honors for Pennsylvania before committing to continuing playing at Lafayette College.
Jerry Price, the senior communications advisor and historian for Princeton University Athletics, shared a 1950 article discussing a game between Princeton and Lafayette that saw Pete Carril’s name printed in The Daily Princetonian for the very first time:
“Little Pete Carril, former All-Stater from Pennsylvania, and Captain George Davidson were the only Leopards who were able to score against the tight Tiger defense consistently,” the article read.
There have since been over 2,400 editions of The Daily Princetonian that have mentioned Pete Carril. That was the last one to mistakenly address him as “Little Pete.”
“He was about 5’6”, but he was really a larger than life figure,” Price told the ‘Prince.’
Carril graduated from Lafayette in 1952. After briefly serving in the U.S. Army, he received a master’s degree in educational administration from Lehigh University. But it didn’t take long for Carril to find his way back onto the hardwood.
In 1954, his coaching career began through humble beginnings. He took the position of junior varsity coach at Easton High School, where he was mistaken for the school janitor on his first day. In 1958, he moved onto coaching varsity at Reading Senior High School.
The lack of glitz and glamor never phased Carril. In a 2007 article published on the Princeton Athletics website by Price, Carril reflected fondly on his early coaching experiences.
“I consider my time as a high school teacher and coach very valuable,” he said. “That’s where I first learned to teach things from a very basic perspective.”
In 1966, Carril took his first coaching gig at the collegiate level with Lehigh University. The following year, he opened the chapter to one of the greatest coaching stints in college basketball history when he took the head coaching position at Princeton University.
During his 29 years with the Tigers, Carril led the Princeton men’s basketball team to over 500 wins. In addition to his cumulative .663 winning percentage — the highest in Ivy League history — he led the Tigers to 13 conference championships and 11 NCAA tournament berths, as well as the National Invitation Tournament title in 1975.
“He was a cigar smoking, beer and pizza loving, barrel chested force of nature,” Geoffrey Petrie ’70 told the ‘Prince.’
Petrie, one of the earlier players in Carril’s college coaching career at Princeton, spent all three years of his varsity basketball career under Carril before being drafted eighth overall to the Portland Trailblazers in the 1970 NBA Draft.
“I had a fair amount of natural ability, but he’s the guy that really molded it into what it needed to be in order to be a pro player,” Petrie said of Carril. “I wanted to play in the NBA, and he was able to set my sails in the right direction.”
In 1994, Petrie was hired by the Sacramento Kings as president of basketball operations. Just two years later, Carril joined the organization.
“I played for him for three years, but I spent a lifetime with him,” Petrie said. “I was a gym rat, so I spent summers with him working on my game. We stayed in touch after I graduated and had some success in the pros. We spent another almost 15 years together after he retired from Princeton, working in the NBA.”
About a decade after Petrie played for the Tigers came a new wave of Princeton basketball, led by power players such as John Rogers ’80 and Craig Robinson ’83. By now, the famous Princeton Offense had developed into a well-oiled machine.
“When he coached us in 1967, there was no Princeton Offense,” Petrie explained. “That was something that he developed over time.”
Rogers was the captain of the 1979–80 co-champion Princeton Tigers. Before arriving on campus for the first time, however, he still remembers one of his first encounters with Carril.
“When I was arranging my visit to go visit Princeton, they had me call Coach Carril at Andy’s Tavern,” Rogers said. “That was pretty unique… To call up the head basketball coach at Princeton and have the head of a tavern answer the phone. To have to ask, ‘Is Coach Carril there?’ That was Coach. That was the norm.”
Sean Gregory ’98 further illustrated Carril’s quirks in a recent retrospective piece for Time Magazine that covered his own experiences playing under the coach. Gregory recalled his straightforward advice for putting on mass during the recruiting process.
“Yo, Sean, here’s what you need to do to get bigger: drink a six-pack of beer and eat a ham sandwich, before bed, every night. Got that kid?”
‘He’s like the Oracle in The Matrix’
One of the most notable recipients of Carril’s trademark candor is Robinson, who is the fourth leading scorer in Princeton basketball history. Standing at a towering 6’6”, he dominated for the Tigers in the 1980s. He shared his story of receiving Ivy League Player of the Year honors two years in a row under Coach Carril with the ‘Prince’:
“My junior year, I was the leading scorer on the team, and was voted Player of the Year in the Ivy League,” Robinson recalled. “Afterwards, Carril said to me in front of the entire team, ‘I don't know how you ended up winning that award, because I didn't vote for you. I don't think you're the best player in the league. You can't do this, you can’t do that…’ He went on a litany of things that I couldn't do — why he was surprised that I got Ivy League Player of the Year, and why I didn't deserve it.”
“He said, ‘If you want to be good, you have to do all of these other things.’ The next year, I went back and I worked on my game. I averaged fewer points, but did more of the other things. I won Ivy League Player of the Year again,” Robinson said. “For the first time, I thought he was satisfied with something I did. But, he waited until I was a senior on my way out to let me know that.”
John Rogers shared similar experiences trying to play up to Carril’s high standards:
“To have this genius telling you things about your weaknesses, things you need to work on, things you need to get better at, things that you never get better at no matter how hard you try,” Rogers told the ‘Prince.’ “That's the first time anyone ever told me, ‘Johnny, you’re legally blind, and I can't teach you to see.’ But he was right.”
“All of us knew he was a genius. So, when he was telling you the truth, it wasn't just a coach. It was a genius telling you the truth. You just knew that this genius and this future Hall of Famer was telling you things that were accurate,” he said.
Gregory shared one of his most memorable Carril stories with the ‘Prince’: having his entire game critiqued before even making it to college.
“I remember in my senior year of high school, Coach was driving me to the Princeton train station. He just kept reiterating — ‘You’ve got to work hard. It’s going to be really tough for you. You’re going to have to put on a lot of weight, and you’re going to have to lift a lot of weights. You’re not the best passer we’ve seen. Work on your long range shooting. Work on your dribbling.’”
“He’s like the Oracle in The Matrix,” Robinson said. “He'll tell you exactly what you need to hear.”
Candid. Bold. Unapologetically real, sometimes, so much so that the lines between tough love and counterproductive chastisement became blurred. The New York Times recently published a piece highlighting some facets of Carril’s philosophy that were harder to fall in love with.
“Practices, before the NCAA imposed limits, typically went for four grueling hours. Carril frowned upon stretching, grudgingly allowed water breaks and was even more parsimonious with compliments, afraid that his players would become complacent,” the Times wrote.
Playing for Carril required immense mental toughness and resilience. While reactions from his players differed based on underlying personalities, the pressures he imposed often strengthened the teammates’ relationships.
“We all have this special bond, and I think it's because we all persevered through some really tough moments,” Rogers explained. “All of us who played for him, we feel like we're part of some special club.”
“When he was coaching in the NBA, he happened to be in Atlanta at the time of the Final Four,” Rogers continued. “A bunch of the Princeton guys also hang out and go to the Final Four games together. All of a sudden, we're all in the same city again. There's about 12 of us that ended up in his room. We’re sitting on the floor, surrounding him in bed, all drinking beer together. We're all telling stories, and Coach is like, ‘No, I never said that. I never did that.’”
“These old players still wanted to be around, just telling stories. Just continuing to learn from Coach. I don't think you see that with [Former Duke Head Coach] Coach K. or [Former Indiana Coach] Bobby Knight,” Rogers added.
“Because we all were going through the same thing and practices were so tough, we all felt like if we could get through it — we had sort of been through this hazing period,” Robinson explained. “It made everybody who's been through it even closer. Some of my best friendships are guys who I played with at Princeton.”
“He ended up with a great love affair with a lot of his ex-players,” Petrie told the ‘Prince.’ “He certainly wasn't politically correct by today's standards, but he was very honest, very direct, and just believed in hard work and commitment. It wasn't for everybody, but for a lot of them, it gave them life lessons that carried over into the rest of their life.”
At times, Carril’s willingness to bluntly speak his mind may have been difficult to endorse from the receiving end. Throughout his career, however, he would earn national attention for what his gritty style produced on the court. His popularity rose on a monumental scale as his Princeton teams consistently performed at a high level during March Madness.
In 1989, one of the biggest games of Carril’s career took place in the first round of the NCAA tournament. His Tigers matched up against the star-studded lineup of the Georgetown Bulldogs, featuring future NBA Hall of Famers Alonzo Mourning at 6’10” and Dikembe Mutombo at 7’2”.
Carril knew that the powerful post presence could present matchup difficulties for his outsized Tigers offense; no Princeton player stood taller than 6’8”. To prepare accordingly, in the practices leading up to the match, he gave his assistants broom sticks to hold up high for his smaller players to practice shooting over.
Carril’s clever preparation proved extremely effective. Although in the end, the Tigers came up short 50–49, the unexpectedly intense matchup sent shockwaves through the NCAA. The effects were two-fold.
First, the entertaining back-and-forth between a No. 1 and No. 16 seed helped persuade CBS to sign a deal with the NCAA to televise every game of the tournament — not just the later rounds.
Perhaps even more important for schools like Princeton, the attention the showdown garnered proved that the underdogs deserve a chance. At a time when discussions of removing automatic bids for smaller conferences (like the Ivy League) were gaining traction, Princeton’s impressive performance squashed the chatter. Sports Illustrated dubbed the Princeton-Georgetown matchup “The Game that Saved March Madness.”
‘Coach’s fingerprints are all over the modern game’
Carril’s final victory as an NCAA head coach would come seven years later. In 1996, Princeton defeated UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament in what is today known as one of the greatest upsets of all time.
ESPN included the 43–41 victory in their list of the greatest upsets in March Madness history, writing, “You know why the backdoor [cut] was invented? So 13 seeds could sneak by the defending champs in the first round.”
At the time of his retirement, which came after a second-round loss after the win over UCLA, Carril was the only active NCAA Division I head coach to reach 500 victories without the opportunity to offer scholarships to his players. “Without the ability to recruit,” Petrie reflected, “he was such a creative mind, figuring out how to compete with a different type of player.”
For Carril, “different type of player” usually meant wealthy Princeton students, who he didn’t think were cut out for the hard work he demanded. The Coach once said, “Basketball is a poor man’s game, and my guys have three cars in the garage.”
“It’s no secret how acerbic Coach Carril could be when he was admonishing his players,” Robinson told the ‘Prince.’ “He felt like he had to toughen us up because we were Ivy League kids going up against some of the better teams in the country.”
“It's not every guy like that,” Price explained, “but he could take guys who came from more privileged backgrounds and show them it doesn't matter where you come from. You have to work hard. You have to improve. You have to be a teammate and you have to do what's best for the team. We're all equal here.”
These were two of his most clear-cut values: equality and grit. One of Carril’s favorite maxims was “you can’t separate the player from the person.” Looking back at the legacy he left behind, the same can be said about the coach.
You could see equality in the Princeton Offense, all five players sharing the ball to get the best shot for the team. You could see it in practice everyday, him criticizing each player’s weaknesses regardless of talent or accolades. And, you could see it in the way he was raised.
“I think the way he grew up in Bethlehem with his father working in the steel mills, clearly had a profound impact on him as a person,” Rogers told the ‘Prince.’ “When you’re at Princeton, you know, you don't have a lot of folks who have that kind of background.”
“He talked about his dad a lot,” added Price. “He talked a lot about growing up poor and the impact that that had on him. There's no question that that drove him and fueled him.”
In 2009, Princeton named Carril Court in Jadwin Gymnasium in his honor. After retiring from his role as an assistant with the Sacramento Kings in 2011, Carril could not scratch the itch that called him back to Jadwin Gym. “He came to practice for almost 10 years straight,” current Princeton men’s basketball Head Coach Mitch Henderson ’98 told the ‘Prince.’
In just the past few decades, so much about basketball has changed, with the transition towards positionless play, the movement outwards towards the three-point line, the need for all five players on the court to be able to pass, dribble, and shoot. Carril envisioned and implemented these principles long before they became the standard. With his typical stubbornness, Carril didn’t capitulate to the pull of the norm, but instead molded the norm into his own reality.
In 1997, Carril was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He is just one of two Princeton-affiliated figures to ever be inducted. The other was former NBA player and New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley ’65.
“Coach’s fingerprints are all over the modern game,” Henderson continued. “He was a visionary. Sometimes it's hard to separate my own thinking from what Coach saw.”
‘A coach’s teaching is his immortality’
The sheer number of people Pete Carril impacted is incalculable. While his teaching primarily was done on the court, it seems the lessons passed down directly translated to life altogether.
“Were it not for him, I probably would not have gone to Princeton,” Gary Walters told the ‘Prince.’ Walters’ lifelong journey with Carril began early, when he played under Coach at Reading High School. “He taught the game in such a way as to enable his players to understand that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
In 2008, Rogers was awarded the Woodrow Wilson award for embodying the school’s famous motto, "Princeton in the Nation's Service." The award was given in Jadwin Gym.
“When I spoke at the event, I said, ‘Coach, you are the best teacher that I ever had,’” Rogers shared. “I'll be watching the game now — NBA game, WNBA game, high school game, whatever — and watching on TV, I’ll see someone who's running down the ball. I’ll see someone who throws a pass that’s off. I’ll see someone that didn't cut back door when they're overplayed. I can see it before it actually happens. I can almost feel it in my stomach.”
“That's what a great teacher does. They teach you something that is so embedded in you, you know it for the rest of your life.”
Today, Rogers is the founder, chairman, and co-CEO of Ariel Investments, the nation's largest minority-run mutual fund firm. He says that he’s instilled the values of teamwork and cooperation into the company culture because of the lessons he learned from Carril.
“We have a conference room here named after Coach Carril. It’s to remind everyone that works here that you think about your teammates first.”
“When Barack Obama got elected president, we were the temporary transition headquarters for three days,” Rogers continued. “For three days, President-elect Obama was in the Coach Carril room, calling world leaders and starting to form the government. It just shows you the impact that it's had for us to build our firm around those values of thinking about your teammates first.”
After playing for Princeton, Robinson went on to a lifelong pursuit of coaching basketball himself. He held positions at five different schools across a 26-year career before settling into his current role as Executive Director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Robinson reflected on how Carril shaped his own perspective as a coach.
“I learned sort of how to play basketball cerebrally, as well as the philosophy of playing against guys who are as good, if not better, than you are,” Robinson said. “That served me well when I got into coaching, because I was able to take some of those tenets that I learned from playing for Coach Carril into my own coaching toolbox.”
Petrie said that playing for Coach Carril was not a gift which could immediately be appreciated.
“You didn't know it at the time, but you realize it later. For Coach, every day in practice, every game,” he said, “it was a reflection of who you were, what your character was, how competitive you were, how willing you were to sacrifice, how committed you were to getting the most out of your ability.”
In teaching the X’s and O’s, the defensive schemas, and the principles of a free-flowing motion offense, Carril knew exactly what he was doing. Carril was giving his players the tools they needed to live life the way it should be lived, by the ethics he valued most: teamwork, strong work ethic, and a never-ending commitment to excellence.
And, when the job was finished? A little bit of fun, as well. In 1975, after a 55–50 victory against Virginia — a game that saw Coach Carril ejected in the second half — he let his team go crazy in the hotel following the big win.
All of the commotion got the attention of one annoyed guest. When the woman confronted the rowdy group of college kids, the man in charge stepped forward, donning a T-shirt and black boxers. According to Sports Illustrated, the woman snapped, “May I ask what you’re doing?”
Carril puffed a cloud of cigar smoke her way before answering plainly: “I’m wallowing in success.”
“He loved to dance, he loved music, he loved good food,” Petrie said. “He would go up to the piano bar at this one Italian restaurant and sing this Frank Sinatra song … He loved life. I will miss him terribly, but he was a lifetime gift to me and to so many that crossed his path.”
“Coach's legacy will always live on,” Gary Walters said. “At the end of the day, a coach's teaching is his immortality. The whole concept of passing it on — it’s what he did, and it’s what those players who played for him will continue to do.”
Matt Drapkin is an Assistant Editor for the ‘Prince’ sports section. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @mattdrapkin.