“Ivy League Player of the Year, huh? I didn’t vote for you.”
Those were the words men’s basketball coach Pete Carril told Craig Robinson ’83 after Robinson averaged 17 points, six and a half rebounds, and nearly two assists during the 1981–82 basketball season.
For Robinson, Carril’s words fueled change in his philosophy both as a basketball player and as an individual.
“You have to sacrifice to be good,” explained Robinson in a recent interview with the ‘Prince.’ “Less is more sometimes, especially in a team sport. [Coach Carril’s comments] had a profound effect on me.”
“Certainly, Coach Carril was tough,” Robinson continued. “He was honest. He said things that would help your game, but he also said things that might hurt your feelings if you took it the wrong way.”
Robinson went on to lead the Tigers to an Ivy League Championship the following season. Throughout his college basketball career, the forward finished as a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year — leading the conference in field goal percentage in both years — and is currently Princeton’s fourth all-time leading scorer.
Carril’s mentorship and gritty model of coaching would leave a lasting imprint on Robinson as he transitioned into his pro career. He was drafted in the fourth round of the 1983 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, but instead played for the Manchester Giants of the British Basketball League for two seasons.
In England, Robinson developed a love for coaching after he helped implement the Princeton Offense — Carril’s famed methodical system of passing and cutting — as a member of his professional squad. Upon his return to the United States, he stopped by Princeton to visit his younger sister, Michelle [Robinson] Obama ’85, Carril, and the team.
“I went to his office and I said, Coach, I figured it out,” explained Robinson. “I think I want to be a coach.”
In keeping with his hard-nosed yet sincere nature, Carril offered Robinson his honest advice.
“You don’t want to be a bleeping coach,” Robinson recalled Carril saying to him. “Here you are a kid from the South Side of Chicago with a Princeton degree. You should get a job on Wall Street somewhere — leave this basketball alone.”
“He talked me out of coaching,” Robinson continued. “Coaching then isn’t what it is now. He viewed it as beneath me ... that I was destined for bigger things.”
Carril couldn’t dissuade him forever, though: Robinson would have a short stint in investment banking before eventually returning to the basketball world, going on to serve as assistant coach to former Princeton men’s head coach Bill Carmody at Northwestern University, and as head coach at Brown University and Oregon State University.
Throughout his time as a coach, the lessons Robinson learned from Carril were invaluable. One technique Robinson implemented from Carril was “going down the line” — a scene in which Carril would sit every player down on the bench and provide “a report card on how [they] were doing vis-à-vis the other guys on the team.”
Another idea Robinson took from Carril, he explained, was that “the person you are on the court is the person you are off the court, and vice versa.”
“Not only did I use that in my own coaching, I use that in my life,” added Robinson. “I use that in picking partners; I use that in finding people to work with ... I find myself thinking about Coach Carril on a daily basis.”
Today, Robinson is the executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), an advocacy, education, and professional development organization for coaches at all levels of the game. One of the initiatives of the NABC is to tell the stories of coaches. Robinson is carrying out this mission by partly assisting with a documentary on Carril, who passed away last year.
“It’s a little bittersweet, but it’s really an honor to be a part of this and to be able to share this with people,” said Robinson. “Only people in the basketball community really have an idea of who Pete Carril is. To be able to share this with a wider breadth of folks who didn’t know him, didn’t get to play for him, and didn’t know anybody who played for him [is an honor].”
The half-hour documentary about Carril, titled “Think. See. Do. — The Legacy of Pete Carril,” will chronicle the philosophy that Carril developed over his 60-year coaching career. It will feature interviews from the likes of current men’s basketball head coach Mitch Henderson ’98, and other college basketball legends like Alonzo Mourning, Jay Wright, Bill Raftery, Jim Boeheim, and Robinson himself.
As Robinson explains, there are things for those outside of a basketball audience to learn from the film.
“Everybody knows you have to work hard, but Coach Carril really focused on the precision of what you were doing,” Robinson said. “And he used the term that I use to this day: everything is important. Everything you do is important to being successful. Not just part of it — everything you do.”
And of course, no impartation of Pete Carril wisdom would be complete without a little bit of tough love, and, in the words of Robinson, “being able to have thick skin and take information for information’s sake.”
But for the overall Princeton community, Robinson says the film is about more than the lessons learned. It’s a eulogy for a Tiger legend, presented on national television for millions to absorb and reflect upon.
“By telling this story, it allows us to talk about Princeton and get people to understand that Princeton is not just one thing, it’s all these wonderful things,” Robinson explained. “It’s plasma physics, it’s arts, it’s humanities, it’s diversity. I get to talk about all the really cool things that I had been a part of, and how Princeton changes folks’ lives.”
The documentary will air ahead of the start of the Elite Eight on Mar. 25 at 2 p.m. eastern time on CBS. The trailer for the documentary can be found here.
Yousif Mohamed is a contributor to the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
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