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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Fond Reminiscences of Pete Carril

Tonight I'll take my son to Jadwin Gym at Princeton for the Princeton-Dartmouth game and for the half-time dedication of the basketball court, to be called Carril Court after Pete Carril, who coached at Princeton for 29 years and who made numerous contributions to Princeton and to college basketball.

I have many memories of Coach Carril, although I didn't know him well. I covered the team as a broadcaster during my time at Princeton, road on some buses with the team to games, got to know some players, and figured now would be a good time to share some favorite memories of him.

I read a good article once about Twyla Tharp, the legendary dancer and dance company founder, who said that she had many mentors in her life, although she had met none of them. Her mentors inspired her from afar -- she read biographies, read articles and saw interviews, and she gleaned wisdom from those articles to help develop the artistic inspiration and leadership skills she needed to develop and fulfill her vision. I thought that article (it might have been in the Harvard Business Review, but I confess that I don't usually read such lofty stuff) was insightful and helpful, and it got me to thinking about the people whose wisdom -- even from afar -- has helped me over the years. Among them was Pete Carril, whose sayings were many, and who's motto "play to win," inspires in its own right. Regardless of your circumstances, you're to do your best in every way, every day and, well, play hard and to win. It sounds simple, but it's not always so easy.

At any rate, I don't want to wax too philosophical in this post about the philosophies and sayings of Coach Carril (there will be plenty of other articles and posts about him in many publications). I would rather like to share a few stories about him from my personal experience.

The first happened late in 1981. The Tigers, whose junior-laden team included first brother-in-law Craig Robinson, a terrific forward, were playing Seton Hall at their old bandbox of a gym, Walsh Auditorium, one of the true pits for an opposing team. Walsh Auditorium seated about 3,000 people, all of whom seemed to be atop the teams' benches. At the time, Hoddy Mahon coached the Pirates. Mahon succeeded the popular and quotable Bill Raftery, who went on to a broadcasting career. He had a team of academic problems (three players were suspended after the Princeton game) and a star combo guard named Danny Calandrillo, who was averaging about 25 poins per game.

The good news for the Tigers was that they got out to a 42-24 lead by the half (or something close to that). Everything was going the Tigers' way, except that two different referees hit Coach Carril with technical fouls. One more and he would be history.

Seton Hall battled back, got some good calls, and beat the Tigers by one on a buzzer beater by Calandrillo, who had about 28 for the night. Needless to say, the mood of the players after the game was glum, and a frustrated Coach Carril entered the bus and sat in the row in front of me.

He turned to me and said, "What did you think of the game?"

I shrugged. What could you say other than the "bad way to lose a game," or something like that.

Coach Carril shrugged back and said, "You know, I spent the entire second half trying to get that third sonofabitch to give me a technical, and he just wouldn't do it." I smiled, so did he, and then he turned back to debrief the game with his top assistant, Tony Relvas.

My second story is about the game at Bucknell that same season. The Tigers traveled to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in the middle of the state, to face the Bisons around December 1, which happened to be the first day of deer hunting season in Pennsylvania. For those who are unfamiliar, Pennsylvania might have more hunters than any other state, and many school districts have off on the first day of deer hunting season. En route to Lewisburg (which also is home to a Federal penitentiary and is the birthplace of Hall of Famer and Bucknell alum Christy Mathewson), we saw deer carcasses splayed on the trunks of cars and in the backs of pickup trucks. No one on that bus had seen that type of display before, and the kids from the big cities were agape.

Bucknell also had a small gym, the fans were close to the action, and the Bisons had a bunch of big guys who didn't play with much finesse. The game was a bumping and grinding affair, the Tigers didn't find their rhythm for most of the night, and the place was loud. I was broadcasting the game courtside (a rare treat), and my broadcast partner and I were sitting right next to the Princeton bench, and, as a result, right next to Pete Carril.

At one point in the middle of the second half, when the game was in balance, Coach Carril called a time out. As the players were walking back to the bench, he turned to me and asked: "Are you telling them how bad this game is?"

Clearly, Coach was frustrated. His team wasn't in sync, and he knew that with their talent they could do much better. I gave a knowing nod (you're not supposed to do anything more and certainly not supposed to say anything) and went back to broadcasting. Thankfully, the Tigers pulled the game out, and that made for an okay bus ride back to Princeton. We concluded our broadcast that night by saying that despite the physical play of the hosts and the fact that there were thousands of Pennsylvanians in the area toting high-powered rifles, the Tigers came out of the game alive. I thought it was somewhat amusing that despite his intensity, he had the unpredictable ability to interact spontaneously. There was a lot more to him than being an intense basketball coach.

The third story involves his talking to the Princeton Club of Philadelphia over 20 years ago. He talked about this player on his team, a starter, and the challenges that a newer generation of players presented to him.

"So, I go to his house, and I sit down to talk with him. First, he tells me that his favorite shot is the dunk. Then he goes on to tell me that he doesn't like Larry Bird, doesn't think he his any good. And then I'm sitting there, a long way away from home, thinking to myself, 'Why am I recruiting this asshole?'"

Roars from the audience (and the player, while good, didn't win an Ivy title while at Princeton).

At the same luncheon, a well-heeled alum (you could tell the preps of all ages from the rest of us at this luncheon) asked him about the prospects of a freshman on the team, the son of a CEO of a multinational corporation.

Coach Carril responded: "Well, when I went to the house, the maid answered the door."

Coach Carril paused and let the comment set in. Some of us laughed, some of the audience didn't get it. (The kid didn't last too long in the program). He said nothing further and moved to the next topic.

There are many other stories, some second-hand, others perhaps apocryphal, but I'll remember the excitement of even routine contests, the energy Coach Carril brought to his work, his thinking outside the box, his honesty, seeing him on the course at Springdale Golf Club (he was in great humor there, and I have one particularly amusing memory of a friend of mine, an offensive lineman, who hit a hard perpendicular drive that Coach Carril leapfrogged to avoid getting hit while walking down an adjacent fairway), his achievements and, yes, evidence at times of his irascibility (he threw a good right cross that almost decked Columbia coach Buddy Mahar about a quarter century ago, and he could be very rough on certain players). I didn't know him well, I had only a few conversations, but all interactions were favorable, the playoff games in the early 1980's memorable, the games against Penn about as intense as anything I ever witnessed, and his body of work most impressive.

He was a 5'6" guard out of Lafayette who excelled against much bigger players, and he was reported to show people, on occasion, the box score of a Lafayette-LaSalle game from the early 1950's. LaSalle had the nation's best player, a 6'5" forward named Tom Gola, a two- or three-time first-team all-American. I don't recall who won that contest, but the box score reflected that Pete Carril had a triple double, something like 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

Somehow, that effort sums up Coach Carril's life's work -- doing the best with what God gave him and excelling. In essence, he scored the equivalent of that triple double with his life's work. I'm grateful for the exposure I had to him and the lessons I learned from him -- if not up close, then certainly from afar.

So tonight many former players, many fans, many alums and townspeople will gather at Jadwin Gym to honor this American original from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It should be a good time.


Blogger Escort81 said...

Great post, SportsProf. There are obviously a ton of neat stories about Coach Carill, but you literally had a courtside seat for a number of years to see some good ones. He was an icon at Princeton and deserves to have the court named after him. I am sure he was not particularly happy with the Tigers tonight, blowing a 9 point halftime lead.

Carill was loved by the local and national media, maybe not so much by a small number of athletes who played for him over the years.

In many ways, he is to hoops what Bill Walsh was to football -- a designer of an offense ("West Coast," "Princeton") that is often imitated but never perfected.

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