Pete Carril, Princeton’s Textbook Basketball Coach, Dies at 92

Pete Carril, who coached basketball at Princeton for 29 years and scared big opponents with his undersized, often under-educated scholars playing an old-fashioned textbook game, died Monday. He was 92.

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

As the men’s head coach from 1967 to 1996, Carril (pronounced: care-ILL) taught basketball for a thinking man at Princeton. As a member of the Ivy League, Princeton couldn’t offer athletic scholarships, and academic demands were high, but Carril’s teams, which were almost always too strong and outnumbered, still won twice as often as they lost.

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

He emphasized a deliberate off-the-ball offense where players passed the ball and set screens until a shooter was open or someone broke to the basket in a patented backdoor game. The scores were low and no matter how much opponents prepared themselves, they were frustrated and often lost their balance.

“Playing Princeton is like going to the dentist,” said Jim Valvano, the North Carolina state coach who died in 1993 at age 47. very painful.”

New York Times sportswriter Bill Pennington wrote, “The most inexperienced basketball fan might admire and understand a Pete Carril team at first glance. The most devoted hoop junkie can be enchanted by a Pete Carril team on the move. It was basketball, not talent, but team. It may not be the way everyone should play, but it was the way everyone tried to play.”

In the NCAA’s annual tournament, Carril’s teams could lose to the national powers, but not before making them nervous and threatening disruption. 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 last college win came on March 14, 1996 in Indianapolis, in the first round of the NCAA tournament against UCLA, the defending champions. Thirteenth-seeded Princeton, 7 points behind with six minutes to go, scored on – what else? — a back door with 3.9 seconds to go and won. The next day, The Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper, ran this headline on 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 then defeated Mississippi State 63-41 in the second round.)

Around the Princeton campus, he was a respected, raspy figure in a threadbare sweater and baggy khaki (or, if he was dressed formally, a bow tie). A colleague once described him as “a crumpled lilliputian who looks as out of place in an Armani suit as he does in a Vera Wang dress.” And during matches, he was known for his animated coaching style.

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

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

But he also told his players:

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

Pedro José (later known as Peter Joseph) Carril was born on July 10, 1930, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His father, an immigrant from Spain, worked in the blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel for 40 years and never missed a workday, 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. He then coached high school basketball in Pennsylvania for 12 years, while 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 Breda Kolff, who coached Princeton, left to coach the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association. Princeton considered Bobby Knight and Larry Brown to be successors. Instead, it cost Carril.

He left college coaching after the 1995-96 season.

“I’ve been dodging bullets for thirty years,” Carril said. ‘I notice that I don’t see much. I always thought the kids thought my coaching was worth their five points per game. Maybe it was, but I have a feeling they don’t feel that way now. I think I make less of a difference.”

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

“Being an assistant doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “The annoyance and the pain in your stomach and the headaches that you get when you see things done wrong or when you lose, or all these 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 coaching methods were even the subject of an academic article by a marketing professor at Fordham University, Francis Petit, entitled, “What Executives Can Learn From Pete Carril.”

Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

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

“Winning a national championship is not something you will see us doing at Princeton,” he said in his final years there. “I resigned myself to that years ago. What does it mean anyway? When I’m dead, maybe two men walk past my grave and one says to the other, “Poor boy. Never won a national championship.’ And I won’t hear a word they say.”

Frank Litsky, a longtime sports journalist for The Times, died in 2018. William McDonald contributed reporting.

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