Reflections on a Legend
Sunday, February 22, 2009
WILE E. QUIXOTE
Reflections on Pete Carril
By: Alex Wolff, for Princeton Alumni Weekly [May 8, 1996]
In writing class long ago, we were taught that form should somehow mirror content:
An essay on, say, butterflies should not be rendered in the cadences of a jackhammer,
nor should news of atrocities be related by limerick. If that rule still holds,
the following will be to some extent a failure, for it will formally reflect
Pete Carril, who is leaving Princeton at the end of June after 29 years as men's
basketball coach, only in its slight dishevelment. It will not be of some grand,
overarching design, the way Carril's notions of the game are.
Under his direction the Tigers administered to opponents death by a hundred cuts. Here, a life in many fewer cuts:
There's an inexplicable wart on Carril's c.v., right at the top-a sub-.500 record in his first season as a college coach, at Lehigh, in 1966-67. Seeing it in the media guide each year, one lapsed into perennial wonder: What went on in Bethlehem that season? Was Carril, then 35, flailing about, still learning?
An answer came several weeks ago, shortly after the NCAA Tournament, from Dan Peterson, an expatriate American who has won a raft of European titles for various Italian club teams. Even in Milan the twin colors of Princeton's post-season-the orange of the Tigers' 43-41 first-round upset of UCLA and the black of Carril's retirement-had been emblazoned across the pages of newspapers. "I coached against him," Peterson reported. "His one year at Lehigh was my first year at Delaware. He took a 4-17 varsity and an 0-17 frosh team and went 11-12. It's the greatest coaching job I've ever seen in college basketball."
Other coaches might go out scouting and fix upon a high-schooler with great height or preternatural speed. Carril searched out something altogether else, which made recruiting (once he assured himself of a prospect's academic bona fides) easier in its way, for no other coach so highly valued this single thing. "The whole of life lies in the verb seeing," wrote Teilhard de Chardin, and in that verb, too, lies for Carril the whole of the game. "He just doesn't see it," the coach might say disgustedly of a player who has let some aperture in the defense close without taking advantage of it.
Carril was in many ways a basketball Darwinist. If a player didn't have, in Carril's judgment, the eyes or the guts, the coach could give up on him, sometimes cruelly so. But he was a Calvinist, too; if a player was blessed with such gifts, and if Carril had any suspicion that he wasn't trying his best to make the most of them, the coach could be even more withering. There is a story of a player whom Carril regarded as one of those wastrels of unfulfilled promise. Normally a guard, but moved by the exigencies of injury to the forecourt for one practice, this Tiger continued to run a simple play, out of habit, as if he were still a guard. The Princeton offense is a choreography of finely calibrated precision, and there was no way his teammates could cover up for this miscast stand-in. So Carril stood at the far end of the Jadwin Gym floor, watching, and with each errant cut he became more and more exasperated. Finally, his face contorted like a child's in full tantrum, he grabbed his sweatshirt at the collar with both hands and pulled, until the shirt ripped down its front as far as it would go. But it hadn't ripped far enough for Carril, so he kept pulling, even though his hands were now so far from his body that he had no torque left, and he was reduced to writhing and caterwauling, a straitjacketed man fit to be led away.
He saw things his way, did them his way, said them his way. If there was truth to be promulgated, he could crawl onto the ledge of political correctness before shouting it out. "I must be the only coach in America with a black guy who can't jump throwing alley-oop passes to a white guy," he said during the late Eighties, referring to John Thompson III '88 and Alan Williams '87, respectively.
"This is not a democracy," he told his players often. And Carril drained the color from the face of athletic director Gary Walters '67 when, during the press conference following the Tigers' 63-56 playoff defeat of Penn at which he announced his retirement, he tweaked equal-opportunity protocols-and alluded to the dynastic way he had been chosen to succeed his mentor, Butch van breda Kolff '45, 29 years earlier-by saying, offhandedly, "I have on my staff the guy who's gonna succeed me, Billy Carmody . . . after a brief search."
To his players he would boast of this contrarian streak, likening himself to Don Quixote (also of Spanish descent, he enjoyed pointing out), or to the protagonist in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. He was the holdout, the guy who refused to give in to the new way. Yet there was an element of the con in that claim, too, for ultimately he adapted splendidly. Through every rule change and every strategic vogue the game threw at him-man, zone, pressure, freshman eligibility, the three-point shot, the 45-second and then the 35-second clock-Princeton basketball under Carril traced one unbroken line of success.
If there is a recurrent theme to Carril's pronouncements, whether they pertain to basketball or to the world beyond, it is the gradual softening of society and encroachment of androgyny. "Hold on to your guts, fellas," he liked to say, although one could easily have substituted an "n" for that "g." Defensively, he believed in man-to-man, for in that scheme there was no dodging of responsibility; assignments were accepted, and either discharged or not. "You are a man," he liked to say, "if you play one." But he was too realistic not to switch to zone at the dawn of the Eighties, when he didn't feel he was getting players with the footspeed to play man-to-man.
Carril abandoned man-to-man defense reluctantly. He loved to tell how, shortly after the change, Bill Sickler '71, a defensive specialist during his playing days, had sent a check for $50 to the Friends of Princeton Basketball. Enclosed was a note: Go back to man-to-man, and I'll send $200.
But a funny thing happened after Carril installed his zone, a "matchup" in which each player has man-to-man responsibilities within a particular area. To this basic set the coach kept making successive refinements, adding wrinkles of responsibilities, until, by the early Nineties, Princeton was once again essentially playing man-to-man. Carril was coaching men again, almost in spite of himself. Or because of himself.
In this neo-Prohibitionist age, few things surprise people more about Carril than to learn that, believing beer to be restorative, he encouraged his players to drink it, even in season. He winced when he saw a member of this year's team eating candy. Kids eat candy; he wanted his players to be men, and men drink beer.
Andy's Tavern was the dive, literally on the other side of the Dinky tracks, where Carril once took his lager. It's where, after Pete Molloy '76 had missed a one-and-one free-throw opportunity that might have knocked off unbeaten Rutgers in the NCAA Tournament in 1976, coach and player drowned their sorrows together. If Carril was looking for a sign that the time had come to leave, this surely was it: Andy's is now a sushi bar.
In the end there was a tidy symmetry to the way Carril's final week as a college coach played out. The playoff defeat of Penn came at Lehigh, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-where he went to high school, where he coached his first college game, where as a kid he watched his father go off to work in the steel mills every day. (Perhaps that's why, afterward, when asked which of his many victories had meant the most, Carril said, without so much as a moment's pause, "Tonight. Tonight is the highlight of my life. Tonight . . . is . . . great.") And the victory America will remember him by came against UCLA-the school that, starting five future pros in a 1970 matchup with the Tigers, had trailed virtually the entire game on its home court before beating Princeton when Sidney Wicks bottomed out a jump shot at the buzzer.
"It's not going to be the most exciting game," UCLA's Toby Bailey said on March 13, the day before the defending national champions were to play the Tigers in this year's NCAA opening round. "There's not going to be too many dunks, I think, and it's not a game too many people will want to see." By the time Bailey's last-second attempt had glanced harmlessly off the rim, the largest crowd (31,569) ever to see a Princeton team play and a prime-time network TV audience of millions had looked on in wonder as the Tigers won the game on the play Carril's teams have made their own, the bounce pass to a player cutting backdoor for a layup.
That the Tigers capped their coach's career on a backdoor pass was a testament to Carril's stubbornness. The backdoor has become more and more difficult for Princeton to run. Ivy opponents permit its execution grudgingly, for they have now been on guard for it twice a year, every year, for nearly 30 years. "In practice it never works either," says Sydney Johnson '97, the Princeton captain. "Guys know it's coming. But big-time teams, they don't have a clue what we're doing. It's the dagger, you know? For other teams it's the dunk. For us, it's the backdoor."
Against nonleague competition the play has the same advantage that the old single-wing had for Princeton football under Charlie Caldwell '25 and Dick Coleman; there's no real way to prepare for something one sees so rarely. Perhaps that's why Carril made sure, during the timeout preceding the Tigers' final possession, that forward Gabe Lewullis '99, the backdoor cutter, would try again if he couldn't do what the Tiger coaches call "sell" the play to his defender, UCLA's Charles O'Bannon, on his first attempt.
Indeed, as Tiger center Steve Goodrich '98 cradled the ball in the high post, his back to the basket, O'Bannon at first shadowed Lewullis. But several years ago, perhaps out of his own hardheadedness, Carril had installed this second, if-at-first-you-don't-succeed option to the play. Lewullis drifted back out to the wing, than made one more hard cut to the basket. Goodrich dropped him the tidiest little bounce pass. The defending champions failed to defend, and Wile E. Quixote had done it again.
An hour later, Tiger guard Mitch Henderson '98 sat in the Princeton locker room, fingering the box score. "Wasn't that just perfect?" he said incredulously. "A backdoor pass to win the game. A backdoor!"
Over the years carril occasionally complained about Princeton's knack for making his job difficult. West College, home of the admission office, was Heartbreak Hotel, rejecting players like Ron Haigler and James (Booney) Salters, both of whom wanted to go to Princeton but, forced to go to Penn, were left no recourse but to torture the Tigers, and torture them they did. Carril detested players willing to use the curricular demands of the place as an excuse for extracurricular mediocrity. (The coach wanted players who fit these words of Dickens: "He did each single thing as he did nothing else.") Carril insisted that he didn't expect students to turn out to watch his team. Yet, like some circus impresario, he fantasized about recruiting a three-headed player to attract undergraduates to Jadwin.
But to have shot spitballs across Washington Road, as Carril said on the night he retired, would have been to play the duck in Peter and the Wolf: "You know, the duck who gives the cat a lot of crap. Quack, quack, quack. But he does it from the middle of the pond."
Carril never swam in the middle of the pond. He stayed on the littoral, his feet on terra firma. He offered praise grudgingly. ("The cheapest form of reward," he called it.) He made a sacrament of the truth. (On holding Dartmouth to 39 points this season: "They have guardable players, and we guarded them.") And virtually alone in his profession, he would not kowtow to a recruit. That cost him: Five years ago, entertaining a high-school senior named Tim Krug in the Princeton basketball office, Carril thought Krug was laughing during the screening of a Tiger game tape and asked him to leave. Krug went to Penn on a variation of the Haigler-Salters plan and led the Quakers to three straight Ivy titles.
As we now know, Krug did not win a fourth. And sometime between the end of that playoff with Penn and Carril's announcement of his retirement, the coach had affixed to his standard cream-colored pullover (or someone had affixed for him) an orange-and-black button with the word ONE gracing it-a bauble from the university's fund-raisers. This was perfect: In the working world retirees are customarily given their "pin" for years of service, and by rights this pin should have read TWENTY-NINE. But here Carril had turned that convention on its head, wearing a totem of unity with an institution he has at times regarded with much ambivalence.
In fact, by the end, Carril seemed to have made his peace with the place. Surely to a man as down-to-earth and committed to education as Carril, Princeton must have worn well next to the whoopee and oiliness and dandyism that now mark college basketball. Coaches elsewhere light out for big-ticket speaking engagements, or assignations by Lear jet with some high-schooler who may or may not wind up matriculating, and to do so they'll think nothing of leaving practice to their assistants. Carril never-never-missed practice. It's felicitous that the occupant of Princeton's Cappon-Green endowed coaching chair worked at a school that has long prided itself on its professors teaching preceptorials. And it would be there, in class, thanks to Carril's exacting review of the syllabus, that Tigers of every stripe prepped to pass 525 examinations. "The best part of his coaching was Monday through Thursday," says Matt Henshon '91, who played forward on three Ivy championship teams. "After we went through the other team's offense in practice, we'd know it as well as they would. There were no games that we weren't prepared to play."
Carril's favorite story from his time at Princeton, the one he goes back to again and again as if to a touchstone, is the one about that game with Virginia in Charlottesville in 1975. Moments into the second half, the coach was assessed the second of two technicals and banished from the premises. With one assistant off scouting, and the other somewhere coaching the freshman team, Carril turned the Tigers over to one of his players, Molloy, then a junior. And Princeton won, 55-50.
For eight straight seasons, and 14 of the past 21, Princeton has held opponents to fewer points than any other team in the nation. The Tigers' dominance in this category has given rise to the accusation that their defense doesn't so much deserve credit as their offense deserves blame-their "attack" being nothing but a fancy-Dan form of keepaway. This is a slander. Against UCLA, Carril points out, "It took us an average of 25 seconds to shoot the ball. And it took them an average of 26 seconds to shoot the ball. Come by my office and pull out any Princeton game tape and put down $100 to see who took more time to shoot the ball, us or our opponents, and I'd take your money every time. We do not hold the ball. Working the clock is overstated. I voted for the 45-second clock and the 35-second clock."
Did someone call Princeton's offense slow?
"Not slow," Carril says. "Judicious."
(The last basket a team of Carril's ever scored on the Princeton campus came on a breakaway dunk by Henderson, a 6-foot-2 guard. Afterward he hung briefly on the rim.)
Why have some schools - Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth-gone generations without winning an Ivy crown, while Princeton and Penn have split 30 of the last 33 between them?
The answer may lie in a moment at the end of the 1985-86 season. The editors of Sports Illustrated, imputing newsworthiness to the simple fact that a team other than the Tigers or Quakers was about to win the league, had dispatched me to Jadwin to file a report on the climax of the Ivy race. Princeton beat Cornell that night, depriving the Big Red of a share of the title and allowing poor, misbegotten Brown, which had never before won anything, to take the crown outright. Afterward I gently suggested to Carril that, if Princeton couldn't be this year's champ, did he not think it-this was a horrible word, but it had already slipped out-nice that Brown was?
The venom with which Carril sputtered his reply abides with me still. But so does an understanding: Princeton had failed to win the league-he had failed-and that eclipsed any other consideration. What Brown did was irrelevant; what was relevant was what Princeton didn't do. Surely finding losing so intolerable goes a good measure toward explaining Princeton's habit of winning. Winning really is a larger habit one can acquire by developing and marshalling many sensible, lesser ones. At Princeton and Penn there is the expectation of excellence; a mid-March trip to an NCAA subregional site is no spring-break holiday.
Sure enough, a week after Brown won its title, happy-to-be-here laughter rose from the Bruins' bench, even as they were losing to Syracuse by 49. That's why Princeton's 63-41 breakdown against Mississippi State in the second round of this season's NCAAs so distressed Carril. "We didn't honor our victory," he said. His players, from their captain on down, felt the same way.
The power in college basketball today rests with the teams in the top six or seven conferences. They play each other within their leagues or, with the aid of the yenta of television, get fixed up on dates with opponents from other conferences of similar peerage. Money, exposure, and an impressive "strength-of-schedule rating" all accrue to this clannish upper crust. Then, when it comes time to pick the 64 teams for the NCAA Tournament, members of the Tournament committee, a dozen men virtually all plucked from these same conferences, look sneeringly upon teams from lesser leagues-the fuddy-duddy Ivy or the backwater Southern Conference or the impecunious Southwestern Athletic Conference-unless they have wangled the single automatic bid allocated to each. That a Princeton stands for the purity of the student-athlete ideal by refusing to grant athletic scholarships is quaint but, to the committee, irrelevant. That a Davidson actually graduates its players, while the typical basketball factory does so at a rate shamefully below 40 percent, is not on the computer printouts the committee peruses. That a Mississippi Valley State can scarcely hope to add a "quality win" to its record because teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference never consent to play in Itta Bena, Mississippi, holds no truck at all with the panjandrums of the NCAA.
Still, those automatic bids smuggle a few have-nots into the field each spring, and it's these urchins who account for the public's great love for the Tournament: the Georgetowns and UCLAs must play the Princetons and the Mississippi Valley States, with minimal preparation and on some strange, neutral floor, in front of a crowd ready to throw its support to the underdog if given the slightest reason to do so. Carril is still embarrassed that the Tigers' 50-49 loss to Georgetown in 1989 received as much attention as it did - "Nobody's ever been congratulated more for a loss," he has said dolefully-but it drew ESPN's largest audience ever for a college basketball game, and this had huge implications for the Tournament. Few people knew it at the time, but the committee was on the verge of taking away from leagues like the Ivy their automatic bids. Only after Princeton, a No. 16 seed, came within a hairsbreadth of upsetting the No. 1 Hoyas-an upset the likes of which has yet to occur-did the committee not dare to do so.
For saving the Tournament for everyone who loves to take an Ides-of-March frolic in the office pool, the Georgetown game was Carril's great gift to college basketball.
Carril touches off much ring-kissing within the profession. Coaches claimed they preferred four hours of oral surgery to engaging Princeton for 40 minutes. But given a choice, no big-time coach would have traded his talent for Carril's system, regardless of the mystical powers ascribed to it. And so there has always been a whiff of disingenuousness to the valentines his colleagues sent Carril's way-something vaguely patronizing about them, even.
To a sport that seems now to have a collective memory of perhaps a decade, Carril had lately become known as the gruff Professor Almost-a pitiable conflation of the bridesmaid and the troll-as the public and his peers fixated on Princeton's NCAA Tournament near-misses against Georgetown, Arkansas, and Villanova. This was a shame, for it overlooked Princeton's NIT Championship in 1975, when that tournament still meant something; and ignored stunning regular-season defeats of North Carolina (in 1971), Florida State (in '72), Alabama (in '75) and Notre Dame (in '77), when those teams were all highly ranked; and forgot the Tigers' first-round NCAA ousting of Oklahoma State in 1983. Why, it even missed the NCAA Tournament near-miss that haunts the most, the one-point loss to Rutgers in 1976, when a victory would have put the Tigers on a clear path to the Final Four.
Carril never complained that his back pages seemed to go unread. "Ancient history," he called games whose final buzzers had long since sounded; praise, remember, is that cheapest form of reward. After Princeton beat UCLA on March 9, Carril refused to go back to his hotel room. "I hate it," he said, "when you get phone calls from people you don't even know."
Following the Mississippi State game, as Carril took his last walk from a locker room to a bus as college coach, a member of the minicam brigade made it his business to chronicle every step. "Will you look at that?" Carril said to no one in particular. "He's in the habit of walking backwards everywhere he goes."
To witness this scene was to be reassured that there had been no better match of man and campus. Some spotlit place where people jostle to get in front of you so they might hold cameras on their shoulders and walk backwards? Carril would not have known what to make of it.