Speakers remembered the Hall of Fame coach’s humor, perceptiveness, tough love, and devotion to basketball

Chris Thomforde ’69, a star center for Princeton men’s basketball who later became an ordained minister and the president of three colleges, delivered the opening prayer at a Sept. 30 campus memorial service for his former coach, Pete Carril. He noted, among other things, that “no one’s life can be comprehended by one story, however well told.” Then, after the amen, Thomforde offered the first of many well-told stories.

Thomforde’s last conversation with Carril was in July, when he called to wish the coach a happy birthday. He received a refreshing dose of praise for his work ethic as a player, followed by a critique of his abysmal high-post defense.

“Coach Carril, you’re 92. I’m 75,” Thomforde recalled telling him, as the audience laughed knowingly. “Let it be. There’s nothing we can do about that now.”

About 500 alumni, family members, faculty, students, staff, and basketball fans gathered at Jadwin Gym to celebrate the Hall of Fame coach, who died Aug. 15. A video biography and recorded tributes from former Tigers played on two large video screens and the basketball scoreboard while a spotlight lit the area near the sideline of Carril Court that bears his signature. The day’s speakers remembered Carril’s humor, perceptiveness, tough love, and undying devotion to the sport he cherished.

Thomforde’s teammate Geoff Petrie ’70, one of six Tigers from the Carril era who went on to play in the NBA, spoke about bringing Carril to the pros after his retirement from Princeton. Petrie was president of the Sacramento Kings at the time, and he saw a rejuvenated Carril working one-on-one with some of the league’s best athletes. “He would walk into my office sometimes and would go, ‘You know, I think I’m getting to that guy,’” Petrie said. “And other times he would walk in and go, ‘You know, you can’t carve rotten wood.’”

Other speakers also highlighted Carril’s brutal honesty, sometimes softened by clever turns of phrase. When defensive intensity sagged in practice, said John Rogers ’80, chairman and co-CEO of Ariel Investments, Carril “accused us often of signing non-aggression treaties with each other.” 

Current Princeton men’s basketball coach Mitch Henderson ’98 repeated a favorite Carril mantra: “‘The most important thing you are doing is the thing you are doing right now.’ He was practicing mindfulness before anyone knew what it was.”

Daughter Lisa Carril drew a pair of standing ovations, before and after her heartfelt and appreciative remarks to conclude the ceremony. “You were important to Dad — each one of you,” she said. “Whether you were the team’s manager, the star player, or one of my high school buddies who became a diehard basketball fan, he left his imprint on you, and in turn, you made his life better. You enriched his life, made it fuller, and gave meaning to his one real passion. … You mattered.”

But the final word belonged to the coach himself. Before the grandstands cleared, Thomforde led the audience in a full-throated shout of Carril’s favorite interjection, “Yo!”

A large group of alumni stand behind the current men's basketball team, who are on one knee. In the background is a large screen showing photos of Pete Carril.
The current men’s basketball team with a group of alumni who played for Pete Carril and came back to attend the memorial service.
Sideline Photography/Greg Carroccio