One of my college roommates texted me the ESPN news story that Pete Carril had died. Carril was 92 years old, and although I played for Coach, I didn’t keep in touch with him after leaving Princeton. I’ve nonetheless been very sad and glum about it and have found myself craving Carril content. I’ve been watching interviews with him that I can find on the internet. I’ve watched his Basketball Hall of Fame acceptance speech now 10 times. So many memories are flooding back.
I’ve reflected on what it was about Coach Carril that was so impactful for me (and I am sure countless others). I was not a star player for him; never was responsible for any of his 500-plus wins at Princeton. I was a walk-on who really was only officially on the team for two seasons — my freshmen year 1986-87 and my senior year 1989-90. Primarily a JV player, I was essentially a practice player for Coach Carril.
During the fall of my sophomore year, when it became clear I wasn’t going to be one of the top 12, I gave it up and tried gain glory as an intramural player. My father got very sick (pancreatic cancer) right before the start of my junior year and passed away in November. I returned to school a little lost after Christmas. I went to see Coach Carril and his assistant coach Bill Carmody, both of whom I had stayed in touch with during my hiatus from the team sophomore year. Occasionally I would go practice with the team when they needed extras for whatever reason, or I would play half court 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 games with whomever was around, including Coach Carril. I think I was Coach Carril’s favorite match-up because at 58 or 59 years old (as he was then) he wasn’t that much slower than I was, and he could get off his two-hand set shot without me trying to block it. We sort of had an unspoken pact about that.
So I went to see him in his office. He asked me how I was doing. I said fine, made up some fake line that it was good to be back at school. He shifted gears pretty quickly, giving the rundown on how the team was doing. Looking back on it, I think he sensed I needed something. I did, I suppose, whether I knew it or not. Then he said, as I was about to leave: “Yo, yo, yo, Flynnie (he called me “Flynnie” or “Jersey City”), can you come down to practice tomorrow. Hank (the longtime equipment manager for the sports teams) will have practice gear for you. You can help us with some of the younger guys who still don’t know the offense.”
“Are you sure? I haven’t played much recently,” I said.
“Flynnie, you couldn’t have gotten any slower, and I know you don’t make shots. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
So I started going to practice. Not officially on the roster, but a couple of months later we won the Ivy title and I became part of that run that culminated in the famous 1989 Georgetown game. Coach took me on the trip to the NCAA tournament as an injured, non-rostered player, along with another guy who was actually injured.
My senior year rolled around. I hadn’t officially been on the team for two years. There was another talented group of freshmen vying for spots on the team. I decided not to bother trying out. I wasn’t going to be one of the top 12. I didn’t think it made any sense for seniors to play JV, so off I was again to intramurals. October came around and I got a message that Coach Carril wanted to see me. I went to see him.
“Yo, Flynnie, can you come down a couple days a week to help Coach (Jan) van Breda Kolff with some of the young guys who are going to play JVs until they can figure things out?” I said sure, and then 6 months later I was on the roster for the first-round NCAA tournament game against Arkansas in Austin, Texas. A couple days a week quickly became every day, and soon I was part of the team again. Senior year was a blur, practice every day, another Ivy League Championship.
Since I heard the news of Coach’s passing, the world seems a little more muted, less colorful. That is because Coach was such a bright, colorful light. He used to tell us that some of the guys he coached were like lightbulbs. When they came into the gym, he’d say, the lights would go on. In the late ’80s, he told our teams that Billy Ryan ’84 was a lightbulb. I am sure he told other teams about other guys. The point was that excellence was the goal, and that the most excellent (the lightbulbs) made it easier for people around them. They made everybody better. They lit the way.
I think Carril appreciated the lightbulbs among us because he himself was one. His light was the most unique combination of intelligence, determination, humor, and caring I have ever seen. The saying “broke the mold” was never truer for anyone, ever. “Jesus Christ, Bobby (or Jerry or whomever), don’t you see that?” he would bellow. At times, he was so aggrieved by the failure of the person to see what it was he saw — whether that was to go back door, to throw the ball into the post, to make a skip pass, whatever was so obvious to his advanced basketball mind — that he would rip his own shirt in frustration. The lack of vision was that exasperating for him. His own built-in reading light made it so obvious. He spent years trying to get so many of us to see what he saw. “Can’t you see that?” he’d yell. And, when you did, the satisfaction was clear: “Yo, yo, yo. Good, kid, good.”
Generations of his players have Carril stories. One is better than the next. Sometimes, it was as if he was speaking in riddles, but he was always entertaining. His ability to use expletives in unique combinations was, in my book, praiseworthy, and in any event unparalleled. I hope anyone with a Carril story will remember it and share it loudly because it will both make you laugh and make you appreciate the one-of-a-kind the world has lost.
As a non-impact player, I am so fortunate to have crossed paths with this legend. After some initial condolences, Coach Carril never really brought up my father. What he did, instead, was give me something back that I missed when I needed it most. Coach had a mantra of sorts that he mentioned in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech: “Think, See, Do.” The way you “think” about things, he would say, affects what you are able to “see,” and what you “see” impacts what you “do.” “Think, See, Do.” Thirty-five years later I understand better now that he thought about me, saw what I needed, and did what he did. There will be countless other lightbulbs no doubt, but none with quite the same hue and intensity as Coach Pete Carril. Thanks, Coach … for everything.