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

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.

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