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.”

For many former players, Carril’s acts weren’t all that funny. To put it mildly, he was hard on many of them. “I don’t know if I was hard as I was demanding,” Carril says. I asked him to explain the difference. “Well, the difference is that when you are hard on someone, you can go over the line as to what you can expect from this person. And you might be expecting something that he can’t give. When you’re demanding, you see that this person can make it, and that there’s something missing in his effort or his focus or he doesn’t want to be that good. That’s a little different.”

By his own admission, Carril has mellowed since leaving Princeton, which has been wonderful to witness. “I think he realizes he had pretty good kids,” says Earl, who went on to hit more three-pointers than other player in Princeton history. He’s now an assistant coach at Princeton, under head coach Sydney Johnson, captain of the ’96 team. “He’d scream at them, but his worst kid is still better than most other kids you’d want around. He likes us, I think.”

Carril agrees. When Princeton named the Jadwin Gym court after Carril two years ago, he teared up when toasting old friends on campus. Dozens of ex-players returned to fete him. He loves going to Princeton reunions and watching his former players huff up the court in pickup games. He even reached a détente with Doyal, who admits that Carril, for the most part, was right about him. He could have put in more effort. Maybe he should not have gone out as much.

“It was weird,” says Doyal. “When he got to Sacramento, he’d send me a note saying, ‘Hey, I am going to be in San Antonio [Doyal’s hometown]. I’m going to leave you tickets to the game.’ Or, ‘Why don’t you come and hang out with the team in the hotel?’ You’d find yourself in this awkward situation where you would go meet him, and there’s this guy who, for four years, would do nothing but yell at you and ignore you. And he’d want to have a conversation with you. He’d take an interest in what you are doing. I like seeing him. He’s a good laugh to this day. You’d think you’d end up hating a guy for what he did to you. But you wind up respecting what he did.”

Because so often he was spot on. “The killer about him is that he was always right,” says Steve Goodrich, the starting center for the ’96 Princeton team that beat UCLA, who would briefly play for the Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets in the early 2000s. “He was right about me needing to work harder, be better and ask more of myself.” And his quirky motivational ploys worked. For example, Goodrich fondly remembers the “87%” story. “Carril was giving a pregame talk,” Goodrich says, “and he said, ‘I’m not an asshole. I’m not one of those guys who is going to tell you he is right all the time. But I am right about … 87% of the time.’ And he wrote ‘87%’ up on the blackboard to drive the point home, as if he had analyzed the results of how frequently he was right.”

For former players, assessing Carril and his impact on life is an intensely personal, even emotional, task. I can’t speak for the players who still despise him — most likely for some good reason. I can only speak for myself. I’m a huge fan of Pete Carril. I owe a lot of the best things in my life, including my wife, my career, my best friends, to relationships made through Princeton basketball. As a freshman, he could have cut me. I was a spare recruit — Carril’s assistant, Bill Carmody, now the head coach at Northwestern, did not come see my play until my final high school game. I was too skinny — in the physical world of Division I basketball, you don’t want “Bones” for a nickname (Carril slapped me with that moniker the day I arrived on campus. Most of my friends still don’t know my real name). And the offense completely baffled me.

But he changed my shooting form, which increased the range on my jumper; that move alone gave me at least a little hope of cracking the rotation. He never ripped me too harshly, likely because I didn’t play all that much, maybe because my dad was a cop from the Bronx. The worst thing he ever said to me was that I gave him nightmares, which is high praise compared to what others got.

I feel fortunate to be able to call him up occasionally, or pick his brain about basketball, a game I still love, when I run into him. I never helped him win one of his 525 games, but that doesn’t seem to matter when we talk. When he has come across my eldest son, who is almost 5 — he hasn’t met my youngest, who is 2 — he’s been nothing short of grandfatherly. I’ve seen him act the same way around children of former players. When he showed up at Earl’s wedding a few years back, all his former players flocked to him, talking hoops. Wives seethed as all the normal couples rocked out.

If you’re lucky, I think, you’ll encounter some person — whether it be a coach, a teacher, a boss — whom you live to please. While playing pickup ball in Jadwin in college, I’d peek up at the rafters after making a shot, hoping Carril was watching from his perch. See that, Coach? To this day, when I go back to campus for a game, I find myself doing the same thing, even though the shot means nothing, and even though he’s in Sacramento, 3,000 miles away. That reflex may not be healthy. But I don’t mind it. And I’d bet I’m not alone.

Near the end of the interview, I thanked Carril — not just for the time on this story, but for putting me on the team in the first place. It was a ride I’ll always cherish. “Bones, that’s about the silliest thing I ever heard,” he said. Maybe he was just being nice. But he has a well-earned reputation for brutal honesty. So I’ve got to say that felt pretty damn good.

See the top 10 sports moments of 2010.

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