Commentary

Carril as crusty and lovable as ever

Originally Published: February 24, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PRINCETON, N.J. -- His David team had once more gotten one over on Goliath, upsetting Florida State only months after the Seminoles had played in the national championship game, when Princeton coach Pete Carril retired to the hotel bar to celebrate.

As he chatted with a Boston Celtics scout, Carril felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around to find a stranger standing there.

"Can you give me a ride downtown?" the man asked.

Perplexed, Carril asked him what he was talking about.

[+] EnlargePete Carril
AP Photo/Tom StrattmanCarril looked as surprised as anyone when his Tigers shocked defending national champ UCLA in the 1996 NCAA tournament.

"A ride downtown," the man continued. "Isn't that your cab parked outside?"

That was 1972, long before Princeton went toe-to-toe with Georgetown or upset defending national champ UCLA in the NCAA tournament, and just five years into what would become a Hall of Fame career. So the stranger could be forgiven for his confusion.

Not that it bothered Carril. Fame, glory and recognition have never been high on his wish list.

He was a teacher whose classroom happened to be the hardwood, a man who wasn't afraid to undress his athletes with withering criticism in order to achieve his version of basketball nirvana -- a perfectly choreographed offense that relied on cooperation, not one-on-one iso.

So on Saturday night, when Princeton decided to name its court after Carril, feting him with a halftime ceremony that included the unveiling of two banners in his honor, Carril was desperately longing for the anonymity of that 1972 barroom.

"Frankly, this whole thing annoys the crap out of me," Carril said a few days prior to the court naming. "I've done a lot of things for [Princeton athletic director] Gary Walters over the course of his career. I wrote him a letter about it and I told him to do this one thing for me -- don't name the court after me until after I'm dead and buried; that way I won't have to endure it."

The ever-crusty curmudgeon played the good sport Saturday ("Methinks he doth protest too much," Walters said). Wearing a sweater-vest, shortsleeved shirt, khakis and sneakers, Carril shuffled on the court with his children, grandchildren and an assortment of his former players at halftime of the Tigers' game against Dartmouth (the current consultant and former assistant to the Sacramento Kings ditched the Kings' baseball hat just before he walked out).

He endured the lengthy review of his career with his head bowed and shook his head as the black curtains on the new banners were dropped, one a list of his accomplishments, the other a sketch of Carril in action, rolled-up program clenched in his fist, pained grimace on his face.

[+] EnlargePete Carril
Beverly Schaefer/Princeton OACHe doesn't like to be the center of attention, but Carril was just that in a ceremony Saturday at Princeton.

"Two things have happened here," he said pointing to the court logos and new banners. "People are going to step all over me when they play on this court and now they decided to hang me."

"He deserves this and much more," said Bill Bradley, a three-time All-American and national player of the year under Carril's predecessor and mentor, Butch van Breda Kolff. "I'd like to see them make a statue."

The former Senator from New Jersey winked as he spoke, knowing the idea would make Carril apoplectic.

Vowing not to force the players to linger in the locker room any longer than normal, Carril spoke just two minutes before heading back to his seat in the rafters.

"He's out there in his old sweater and sneakers, no prepared speech," said Kit Mueller, who, as a sophomore, went toe-to-toe with Alonzo Mourning in that 1989 game against Georgetown. "If it were any different, I would have been disappointed. That's Coach."

In Carril's opinion, he was just another guy who did the job he was paid to do, not nearly as special as others on campus. He mentioned Bradley and van Breda Kolff, faculty members and administrators, a longtime fencing coach and George Boccanfuso, the man who has kept Jadwin Gym immaculate since it opened in 1969, as people who should have been honored before him.

But those people weren't on national television, coaching the ultimate underdog to a near-upset of Georgetown or the backdoor play that took down UCLA in 1996. They didn't turn a school with strict academic demands and no athletic scholarships into a household name in Division I basketball.

"Princeton is such a powerful and successful institution and there are a lot of people who have helped mold that power and success," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III, who played for Carril and started his coaching career as an assistant on Carril's staff. "But to a large extent what Coach did has helped shape the perception and image of Princeton to the outside world more than anyone else. I don't know that this sort of honor is overdue, but it's due."

Carril was everything that coaches today can no longer be. He never wore a custom-made suit, favoring instead a rumpled sweater or worn-out sweatshirt or at times an out-of-style coat and bow tie. He never withheld his opinions, political correctness be damned. And he never told kids what they wanted to hear.

As Carril struggled with the microphone during the ceremony, the crowd yelling, "We can't hear you," Mueller joked, "That's the first time I couldn't hear him in this building."

[+] EnlargePete Carril
Andy Hayt/NBAE/Getty ImagesIt occassionally changed, but Carril's look on the bench was always charmingly unique.

"My first impression of him? Here's a guy who looked like he never played a game in his life telling me how bad I was, what part of my game was the worst and what needed work," said Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year at Princeton. "That was his recruiting pitch. He didn't say one positive thing to me and that kind of honesty is pretty intimidating because no one is brutally honest these days. Coach was honest with us every single day of the year, and we're all better players and people for it."

Robinson and Thompson are just two of a collection of former Carril players to join the coaching ranks. None have waltzed into easy jobs. Thompson went to a Georgetown program in shambles; Robinson took over an Oregon State team that went winless in the Pac-10 a year before. Bill Carmody presides over Northwestern, the lone BCS conference program that has never made the NCAA tournament; Chris Mooney inherited a team with virtually no experience at Richmond; and Joe Scott turned around Air Force and now is trying to make something out of Denver.

It's what they learned at the knee of a man who never had anything handed to him. The son of a steelworker, Carril got his first job at Easton (Pa.) High School, serving as the school's junior varsity coach.

He held the first practice of his career at night, with about seven or eight players coming to the darkened gym.

Tom Curley, who would go on to become president and publisher of USA Today, stopped Carril and asked him to turn on the lights.

"I'm trying to find out where they are," Carril replied.

Curley looked at him funny.

"Wait, aren't you the janitor?" he said.

Carril's eyes twinkled as he retold the story.

Cab driver, janitor, basketball coach -- it's all fine to him. Just an honest man earning an honest dollar.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball