The Princeton men’s basketball players stood in a circle around the Carril Court lettering on Jadwin Gym’s floor as head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 read a poem Aug. 15.
“If you think you are beaten, you are;
If you think you dare not, you don’t;
If you’d like to win, but you think you can’t,
It’s almost certain you won’t.
If you think you’ll lose, you’ve lost;
For out in the world you’ll find
Success begins with a fellow’s will.
It’s all in the state of mind.
If you think you are outclassed, you are;
You’ve got to think high to rise;
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.
Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man;
But sooner or later the man who wins
Is the man who thinks he can.”
The poem was a favorite of Pete Carril, the Hall of Fame former coach of the Tigers for 29 years who died earlier that morning at age 92. Carril’s high school coach had first shared the poem with him (it was written by Walter D. Wintle in the early 1900s), and Carril would go on to create winning teams by teaching a brand of play that relied on teamwork, fundamental skills, patience, and precision. Carril’s style had his players prepared for most anything that competition and life could bring.
“The guys that played for Coach will never ever have a more demanding boss in their lives,” said John Thompson III ’88, who was head coach of Princeton and Georgetown. “And the level of excellence that was expected of you, and the level of giving and sacrifice that was expected of you as a player, that understanding, that carries over.”
Carril’s Princeton teams won 514 games, captured 13 Ivy League championships, won the 1975 NIT championship when that was a big deal, and made 11 NCAA tournament appearances. At a time when college basketball competition was deepening nationwide, Carril found a way for his Princeton teams to compete with big-conference, scholarship schools.
“Play to win — he defined it,” said Air Force head coach Joe Scott ’87, who also coached at Princeton and Denver. “It’s not ‘hate to lose.’ You want guys who play to win.”
A basketball visionary
Under Carril’s direction, Princeton became the Cinderella squad that no one wanted to play. He retired after a 43-41 win over defending NCAA champion UCLA on a signature play of what by then had become known as the “Princeton offense”: Gabe Lewullis ’99’s backdoor layup in the waning seconds of the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament.
“We always felt that five guys playing together was going to beat teams more dominant on individual stuff,” said former player Howard Levy ’85, now the head coach at Mercer County Community College. “You fight like hell and have a good plan, and just have to do it every single time. It made you think you had a chance.”
Carril went on to be an assistant coach for 10 seasons for the Sacramento Kings in the NBA, but he still had a presence at Princeton following his retirement, when he evolved from a coach with a hard-driving reputation into more of a kindly mentor. “It was such a gift to have access to him all the time,” Henderson said. “I mostly just listened. You’d pick up an awful lot.”
Henderson is part of a flourishing coaching tree that currently includes six Division I head coaches. Every coach who has followed Carril at Princeton either coached with him or played for him, but his influence extends beyond Jadwin Gym. Carril’s signature motion offense and its principles remain popular in high school and college basketball — and even at the NBA level.
No one, though, did it quite like Carril.
Upon his death, former players have been reacting to and reaching out to each other to share memories. Levy and Mike Brennan ’94 got together in a Jersey shore bar last week to reminisce. Both felt fortunate to have played for the coach despite his difficult demands.
“I know later in life he didn’t like hearing those stories and regretted some elements of how he treated some players,” said Levy. “There were a lot of laughs. We weren’t dwelling as much on that side of it, even though there are still so many funny things and great things.”
Friends said Carril left an indelible impression. His personality, histrionic sideline behavior, omnipresent cigars, and language that was more colorful than his wardrobe were as famous as his winning ways.
“He was a character with character,” said Gary Walters ’67, who played for Carril at Pennsylvania power Reading High School and then coached with him at Princeton when they won the NIT. At the tail end of Carril’s coaching career, he became Princeton’s athletic director. “Coach was, off the court, fun to be around. He was an observer of the scene, wasn’t afraid to share his thoughts, he was very astute and erudite when it came to the general sociology of life. A lot of that came from being the son of immigrants and growing up in a town like Bethlehem (Pennsylvania), as I grew up in a town like Reading. What happens is, I think, it broadens your vision.”
New players quickly got a dose of what lay in store from Carril at Princeton. With Henderson, a great athlete who was also drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school, Carril took him to Conte’s Pizza and assessed him as “fast, you can’t shoot, and you’re an OK dribbler with your left hand,” Henderson said. But he wanted him to come to Princeton.
“It was a culture of brutal honesty from the very beginning,” said Henderson.
Other players tell the same story. While some recruits were turned off by the approach, others appreciated or even embraced it. Thompson, the son of late Hall of Fame coach John Thompson Jr., whose Georgetown team famously — and controversially for Princeton fans — beat Carril’s Tigers by one point in the first round of the 1989 NCAA Tournament, sat in the Jadwin Gym bleachers with Carril on his recruiting trip.
“Coach spends a good 30 minutes just telling me how bad I am and how much I need to work on, and I would probably end up playing JV for a couple of years and hopefully would make the varsity,” recalled Thompson. “I remember sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ At that point, he reminded me a lot of my dad.”
Richmond head coach Chris Mooney ’94 remembers Carril and then-assistant Bill Carmody visiting his high school to watch him play pick-up. Afterward, Carril dissected every Mooney miscue, even attributing a pick-up loss by Mooney’s team to a turnover by him.
“To be honest with you, I was sold,” said Mooney, “Everybody was a little bit surprised, but I loved it. ... It was spot on. He could just remember exact plays — like, ‘it was 6-5 and you threw that pass away on the left corner.’ It was incredible. It was so different and so honest and up-front.”
Once on campus, players were put through practices that routinely went over four hours. Carril’s teams spent 30 minutes warming up, and early in the year they might work on some offensive sets, but the remainder of the time was spent scrimmaging. Thompson recalls a Saturday in the fall when the football team came in well before their game to stretch on the Jadwin track while the basketball team was practicing. When the football team returned after finishing a full game, Carril’s squad was still practicing.
“That wasn’t a once-in-a-while thing,” said Thompson. “That was often. That was the norm.”
During Mooney’s junior year, the team practiced on Christmas from 7 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. When Carril finally called an end, instead of closing with, “Team,” or “Let’s go,” in the team huddle, he chose another message.
“Coach put his hand in and said, ‘Bah humbug,’” Mooney said. “Wawa was closed. We couldn’t even eat over there.”
Carril’s criticism of players rose to another level during practices. Some days he lined his team up and went down the row critiquing each player. It could last more than an hour.
“For me, it was very impactful,” Henderson said. “It was very hard hitting. I got so much better.”
Carril’s players developed significantly under his guidance. Henderson says that he was lightly recruited to colleges but left Princeton with invites to NBA training camps.
“He was probably the most direct person,” said Cornell head coach Brian Earl ’99. “Nobody acts that way anymore. He was different things to different people. He spent a lot of time trying to help me grow up a little bit and also basketball-wise. He wasn’t really cruel or harsh to me … . I was an 18-year-old freshman, and he spent a lot of time on me because I was a starter for most of the year and was contributing a lot.”
Carril found ways to use each player’s strengths. He told Thompson that his passing, not shooting, was the way onto the court, and Thompson, a forward, graduated second all-time in assists at Princeton. He also knew players’ weaknesses, and told them bluntly, and even at times humorously.
“When you’re in it, you’re probably not laughing so much,” Brennan said. “He was very, very hard on guys, but there was a lot of wit.”
Levy was working the prestigious Five-Star Basketball Camp, with Carril’s encouragement. But when another college coach offered to tutor the 6-feet-10 center on some post moves, Carril came charging over from three courts away.
“‘Yo, yo, yo, stay away from that guy,’” Levy recalled Carril saying with the punchline, “’You can’t teach him a power move because he’s got no power.’”
‘Think. See. Do.’
Players point out that Carril’s own practice drills were neither flashy nor overly complicated. He valued hard work over talent and wanted players doing simple things correctly, summarizing how to play best with three words: “Think. See. Do.”
“We rarely did traditional college drills, but if we did them, they were done so well because everybody’s skill level was so high and everybody was concentrating and competing so hard,” said Mooney. “That’s why I think me especially, but everybody, improved.”
Carril didn’t have players watch film, preferring they spend time on the court together. Scott said everything they did was about the team: “That’s what made it so special.”
When players figured something out, there were rare compliments. A long, “Yooooooooo,” — another trademark saying of his — or “Pretty good, pretty good,” or the kindest of words, “You can see,” or “You’ve got guts,” and a player knew he was getting it.
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“That was high praise,” Levy said. “You’re almost walking on air walking out of practice that day.” But it never lasted too long before Carril was back to his focus on improving.
“I dunked in transition against Harvard,” said Henderson, “and we went into the locker room at halftime and he was like, ‘You jump out of the gym, and you’re flying all over the place, but you’ve only got two rebounds.’ Right when you felt, ‘I’m doing pretty well,’ he would remind you that you can’t stop working. The quest to be great is ongoing; there’s more.”
‘The man who thinks he can’
Hardened by Carril’s challenging style, his teams were confident they could beat anyone. Princeton either upset or put a scare into scores of favored opponents over his tenure, though he frequently looked equally pained on the sidelines by winning or losing. He fiercely defended his teams. After losing to UNLV in their second game of the 1984 NCAA tournament, the players found beers in their hotel rooms and stayed up with Carril joining. In the morning, there were still beers left over, and Carril told the team to take them back to Princeton. Several players hid cans of beer in pillowcases on the plane home, but were caught by a flight attendant. Carril stepped up and feigned annoyance.
“Coach says, ‘Don’t worry, those are bad boys, and we will reprimand them as soon as we get back to Princeton,’” Levy said. “We got back to Princeton and put them on ice, and I think that was the first time I ever had Conte’s Pizza. We had a big party at Jadwin.”
Over Carril’s 29 seasons, the Tigers had plenty to celebrate. They took down bigger schools and big-name coaches. Legendary Temple coach John Chaney famously wouldn’t schedule Princeton while Carril was there.
“Coach Carril was savvy enough, clever enough, to figure out a way to maximize his talent and to control the tempo of the game in such a way as to enable Princeton with its sui generis style to effectively compete,” said Walters. “That, for me, probably distinguishes his coaching.”
After he stepped down from Princeton, Kings vice president Geoff Petrie ’70, a former player of Carril’s, convinced him to continue coaching as an assistant for Sacramento in the NBA. The Kings won the Pacific Division twice and reached the 2002 Western Conference finals with a brand of ball that noticeably had Carril’s direction to it.
“With his vision, he’d see the floor in a little different way,” said Walters. “While he learned a lot while he was in the NBA, within the coaching staff his voice was heard and Geoff was really happy to have him out there. Not only for his coaching, but for his friendship.”
Carril softened after moving away from coaching for good in 2009. He became even more of a mentor to his former players and the Princeton program, happy to share advice with those now making their own mark as coaches.
“There are so many guys that have gone into coaching,” Brennan said. “He had a huge impact on that. The way he coached, and the way he saw the game, and the things he taught us — a lot of us felt like we need to continue spreading the teaching in this fashion. I think our experience as players inspired us to go into coaching.”
When Thompson left Princeton to accept the job at Georgetown, where his father had become a legend, he was nervous. He called Carril.
“I remember thinking, I know the impact that my dad had on all of his players, I know the impact that Coach has had on everyone that has ever played for him. I felt like, how can I be that person?” Thompson said. “That was the weight I felt taking the job. The pressure to live up to that is, can you impact and affect and be a positive influence in these young men’s lives?”
Carril never reveled in his burgeoning coaching tree, former players said, but tried to be there when they needed his support. They’ve kept his philosophies in mind while adding their own twists and personalities.
“I always point to his mantras — the skill parts of the game and the life parts of the game,” Scott said. “You don’t just have the skill parts without the life parts. It’s both. What you find out is it’s the life parts that make the difference. That’s what puts you over the top.”
Earl was a young new assistant when Carril returned to the Princeton area. He would visit and watch film with Earl, letting him analyze what he saw and offer further insights. Earl soaked up the tutelage.
“I learned a lot,” Earl said. “I don’t think many people had a chance to see that side of him where he didn’t have the competitiveness that drove him to be as hard as he was as a coach.”
Thompson didn’t realize how much Carril had changed in that regard until one year when he had him down to look at his Georgetown team. Thompson asked Carril to go down the line, expecting him to criticize each Georgetown player as he had at Princeton.
“Coach starts praising every kid, one by one,” recalled Thompson. “And halfway through, I stopped it. And the next day before practice, I said to him, ‘That’s not the guy that coached me. That’s a different person. That’s an old man trying to get into heaven right now because that’s not the way it was when I had to sit there.’ He mellowed and changed. But his insights were spot on.”
At his retirement party, Mooney caught Carril coaching several former players’ children in Jadwin.
“He was in there smoking a cigar putting them through a basketball workout,” Mooney said. “For him, that was an ideal way for him to spend his retirement party… They’re just little kids and he’s telling them, ‘Try that with your left hand.’ There was none of the swearing, but he was coaching. I just think he loved basketball so much.”