Keeping Score

The Power of Pete Carril

One former player reflects on the Hall of Fame coach who led Princeton to the 1996 upset over UCLA

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Tom Strattman / AP

Princeton coach Pete Carril leaves the court after upsetting UCLA 43-41 in the first round of the NCAA Southeast tournament in Indianapolis on March 14, 1996

When I reach Pete Carril in Sacramento, the Hall of Fame coach from Princeton and current consultant for the Kings is doing what he loves, and does, best: breaking down tape, in his office, of a Sacramento–Miami Heat game. He’s happy to talk, as usual. In the years since he has retired from the sidelines, no one is a better conversationalist than Coach, for whom I played during my freshman and sophomore years at Princeton, from 1994 to ’96. Still, he’s not overly excited about the purpose of the call, to talk about the memorable Princeton upset of UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA basketball tournament. He’s just not the reflective type and, if pressed, would probably prefer to break down past losses than revel in a previous victory, even one as monumental as the tournament shocker so many sports fans still remember.

After he left Princeton in 1996 for an assistant coaching position with the Kings, who are run by Geoff Petrie, one of Carril’s ex-players, Carril seemed to shed a few years, Benjamin Button–style. The California sun, and the loss of head-coaching headaches, did wonders for him. He survived triple-bypass surgery in 2000, and Carril’s memory does fade at times. During our discussion, Carril, 80, at one point calls me Brian, though that is actually a good sign. After all, he did the same thing in ’96.

(See “March Madness Selections: Let the Humans Prevail!”)

In his years since retiring from Princeton, his imprint on the game has only grown. In Sacramento, the Kings installed some of Carril’s offensive principles, and deft-passing big men like Chris Webber and Vlade Divac nearly led the Kings to the NBA finals in the early 2000s. Other teams, like the New Jersey Nets and the Washington Wizards, also enjoyed success while running a professional version of the Princeton offense. A few former Carril players are now spread out in the college coaching ranks, and his style has produced winners at more places, like at Georgetown, under John Thompson III.

When Carril does reflect on Princeton, he prefers singling out the players who overachieved, and the teams, in his view, that accomplished greater feats, but receive less attention, than the ’96 squad. In 1969, Princeton lost by one point, 70-69, to a UCLA team, coached by John Wooden, that would go on to win the national title. That UCLA team had NBA players such as Sidney Wicks and Henry Bibby, and was more talented than the team we beat. He brings up the ’75 squad that won the National Invitation Tournament, back when that tournament still meant something. He discusses the ’89 team that lost to Georgetown 50-49 — remember, those guys almost toppled the top team in the country.

(Read “Princeton vs. UCLA: Reflections on a Historic Upset.”)

The truth is, Carril never loved the ’96 team. By his own admission, he was starting to feel disconnected from the new generation of players. That’s part of the reason he retired. And certainly Carril’s hard-charging style didn’t exactly make him easy to love. But everyone on that team, like so many of his former players, has come to appreciate what a unique honor it was to play for Carril.

What stands out most for many of his former players, from those on his first teams in the early ’70s to those who played for him in later seasons, is the pure educational experience of having Pete Carril as your coach. In his singular voice, which combined a trace of a Spanish accent — his father was an immigrant from Spain — and years of cigar-smoke husk, Carril spoke in rhetorical questions. Instead of saying “You do nothing,” Carril would bark, “What do you do?” His answer, you knew damn well, was “Absolutely nothing.” A weak shot around the rim elicited a familiar, “Yooooo … don’t give me that happy horses—.” Everyone was “that guy.” “Can you guard that guy?” “You gotta watch that guy.” If two players were scoring on each other in practice, you’d get, “Yooooo, yooooo. You didn’t sign a nonaggression pact with that guy, did ya?”

(See the Princeton-UCLA game in the top 10 NCAA tournament first-round upsets.)

He offered some gems to the press. “Winning a national championship is not something you’re going to do at Princeton,” he said back in 1990. “I resigned to that years ago. What does that mean, anyway? When I’m dead, maybe two guys will walk past my grave, and one will say to the other, ‘Poor guy. Never won a national championship.’ And I won’t hear a word they say.”

But Carril saved his most compelling performances for practices. During the 1994-95 season, a senior teammate collected some of Carril’s most memorable words. I have them attached to a wall near my desk, at the ready when I need a chuckle. “I know you hate me,” he said to one player that year. “And I’ll bet that you’ll take a swing at me before the end of the year. But I’m not worried at all. I’m going to write layup on my chest, and I know that you’ll miss!” Carril was fond of kids from blue-collar families. He always feared that players from suburban homes, with three-car garages, would be too pampered. “That’s the problem,” he yelled one day in practice. “We play like we’re Christophers and Richards instead of Chrises and Ricks.” Carril then employed his snooty voice. “Richard! Christopher!” We stuffed our shirts in our mouths, trying not to laugh.

Nothing, however, could match Carril’s ripping of the shirt. He would pull this stunt once a year, enraging himself to a point at which he’d feel the need to tear apart a sweater or T-shirt, exposing tufts of gray chest hair to his speechless players. “The little things would worry him,” Chris Doyal, the starting power forward for the ’96 team, explains. Doyal almost quit the team around Christmas because of Carril’s endless berating. “You’d miss a layup, he’d get very upset. He was probably 5 ft. 3 in., and had as much hair as a bear. And he’d rip his shirt off and stand under the basket, and he’d tell the trainer to get another shirt. So for the next 10 minutes you had to continue scrimmaging with this little midget, this little gnome under the basket full of hair, and try not to lose concentration when you went in for a layup.”

And after doing the deed, Carril would shuffle around the court with a satisfied grin. In 1996, Carril seemed most interested in impressing Brian Earl, a somewhat meek freshman. He asked Earl if he’d like to keep his shirt for a souvenir. “It was amazing,” says Earl. “He made cracks like, ‘Hey kid, ever see a hairy chest like this before? Bet you haven’t.’ Then he’d walk away. You’d be like, ‘This is overload, man.'”

Carril chuckles when reminded of ripped shirts. “It was pretty good acting, I’ll tell you that,” he says. “There were a lot of times I pretended I was mad. And it worked.”

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