Pete Carril, Princeton’s Textbook Basketball Coach, Dies at 92 – The New York Times

Pete Carril, Princeton's Textbook Basketball Coach, Dies at 92 - The New York Times

Pete Carril, who coached basketball at Princeton for 29 years and intimidated famous opponents with his undersized, often inept academics playing an old-fashioned textbook game, died Monday. He was 92.

His family announced the death in a statement posted on the Princeton Tigers website. It did not say where he died or gave the reason for death.

As the men’s head coach from 1967 to 1996, Carril (pronounced care-ILL) taught a thinking man’s basketball at Princeton. As an Ivy League member, Princeton could not offer athletic scholarships, and its academic demands were high, but Carril’s teams, almost invariably outmanned and outplayed, still won twice as often as they lost.

His record at Princeton was 514-261, with 13 Ivy titles, 11 appearances in the championship tournament of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, two in the National Invitation Tournament (his team won in 1975) and only one losing season. Fourteen of his Princeton teams led the nation in defense. In 1997, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

He emphasized a deliberate off-ball offense that kept players passing the ball and setting screens until a gun was opened or someone broke free to the basket in a patented backdoor play. The scores were low, and no matter how much opponents prepared, they were frustrated and often lost their cool.

“Playing Princeton is like going to the dentist,” North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano said who died in 1993 at 47. “You know that down the road it can make you better, but while it’s happening it can be very, very painful.”

The New York Times sportswriter Bill Pennington wrote: “The most unsophisticated basketball fan could admire and understand a Pete Carril team at first glance. The most devoted hoop junkie could be spellbound by a Pete Carril team in motion. It was basketball not of talent, but of a team. It might not be the way everybody should play, but it was the way everybody used to try to play.”

In the annual NCAA tournament, Carril’s teams might lose to national powers, but not before upsetting them and threatening an upset. In the first round alone, Princeton lost to Georgetown 50–49 in 1989, Arkansas 68–64 in 1990 and Villanova 50–48 in 1991.

Carril’s final college victory came on March 14, 1996, in Indianapolis, in the first round of the NCAA tournament against UCLA, the defending champion. Thirteenth-ranked Princeton, trailing by 7 points with six minutes remaining, scored on — what else? — backdoor with 3.9 seconds left and won. the next day, The Daily Princetonianthe student newspaper, ran this headline across Page 1:

“David 43, Goliath 41.”

Carril said he was under no illusions: “If we played UCLA 100 times, they would win 99 times.” (The Tigers went on to win, 63–41, in the second round against Mississippi State.)

Around the Princeton campus he was revered, a raspy-voiced figure in a well-worn sweater and baggy khakis (or, when he dressed formally, a bow tie). A colleague once described him as a “ragged Lilliputian who would look as out of place in an Armani suit as he would in a Vera Wang dress.” And during games he was known for a lively coaching style.

Every year at his first practice session, Carril gave the same speech to his players.

“I know about your academic load,” he said. “I know how hard it is to give up the time to play here, but let’s make one thing clear. In my book, there is no such thing as an Ivy League player. When you walk out of that locker room and step across that white line, you’re basketball players, period.”

But he also told his players:

“Princeton is a special place with some very special professors. There is something special being taught by one of them. But you’re not special just because you happen to go here.”

Pedro José (later known as Peter Joseph) Carril was born on July 10, 1930, in Bethlehem, Pa. His father, an immigrant from Spain, worked for 40 years at Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnaces and never missed a day of work, his son said.

In high school in Bethlehem, Pete was an all-state basketball player, and at Lafayette, where he played for Butch van Breda Kolff, he was a Little All-American. Then, for 12 years, he coached high school basketball in Pennsylvania earning a master’s degree in education from Lehigh University in 1959.

In the 1966-67 season, he coached Lehigh to an 11-12 record. Then, van Breda Kolff, who coached Princeton, left to coach the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association. Princeton considered Bobby Knight and Larry Brown successors. Instead, it took Carril.

He left college coaching after the 1995–96 season.

“I’ve been dodging bullets for 30 years,” Carril said. “I find I don’t see as much. I used to think the kids felt my coaching was worth five points a game to them. Maybe they were, but I have a feeling they don’t feel that way now. I think I’m making less of a difference.”

The next year, he became an assistant coach of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings under Coach Rick Adelman, spending most of his time breaking down game tapes. He remained with the team for most of the next decade, retiring in 2006, but three years later, at 78, he rejoined the Kings as a consultant.

“Being an assistant doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “The aggravation and the pain in your stomach and the headaches you get when you see things that are done badly or when you lose, or all those problems that you have as a head coach, I’ve had enough.”

With Dan White he wrote “The Smart Take From the Strong: The Basketball Philosophy of Pete Carril” (1997). His training methods were even the subject of academic article by Fordham University marketing professor, Francis Petit, titled, “What Executives Can Learn From Pete Carril.”

Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

But he will be remembered, even though none of his teams got the ultimate honor. He brushed that off too.

“Winning a national championship is not something you’re going to see us do at Princeton,” he said in his final years there. “I gave up on that years ago. What does it mean, anyway? When I die, maybe two guys will pass by 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.”

Frank Litsky, longtime sportswriter for The Times, died in 2018. William McDonald contributed reporting.

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