Pete Carril, who coached men’s basketball at Princeton for 29 years and scared big-name opponents with his little, often underskilled scholars playing an old-fashioned textbook game, died Monday. He was 92 years old.
His family announced the death in a statement posted on the Princeton Tigers website. He did not say where he died or give the cause of death.
As the men’s head coach from 1967 to 1996, Lane (pronounced care-ILL) taught basketball to a thinking man at Princeton. As a member of the Ivy League, Princeton could not offer athletic scholarships and its academic demands were high, but Lane’s teams, almost invariably outnumbered and outmatched, still won twice as often as they lost.
His record at Princeton was 514-261, with 13 Ivy titles, 11 National Collegiate Athletic Association championship appearances, two National Invitation Tournament appearances (his team won in 1975), and only one losing season. Fourteen of his Princeton teams led the nation in defense. In 1997, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
He emphasized a deliberate off-the-ball offense that kept players passing the ball and setting up screens until a shooter was open or someone ran to the basket on a proprietary backdoor play. Scores were low, and no matter how much the opponents prepared, they became frustrated and often lost their balance.
“Playing at Princeton is like going to the dentist,” said Jim Valvano, the North Carolina State coach who died in 1993 at age 47. , very painful.”
In the annual NCAA tournament, Carril’s teams could lose to the national powerhouses, but not before unnerving them and threatening an upset. 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 victory came on March 14, 1996, in Indianapolis, in the first round of the NCAA tournament against defending champion UCLA. Princeton, the 13th seed, 7 points behind with six minutes left, scored in…what else? — a backdoor with 3.9 seconds remaining and he won. The next day, The Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper, carried this headline on page 1:
“David 43, Goliath 41”.
Carril said he was under no illusions: “If we played 100 times at UCLA, they would win 99 times.” (The Tigers were defeated, 63-41, in the second round against Mississippi State.)
On the Princeton campus he was a revered, raspy-voiced figure in a worn sweater and baggy khakis (or, when dressed formally, a bow tie). A colleague once described him as “a wrinkled Lilliputian who would look as out of place in an Armani suit as he would in a Vera Wang dress.” And during matches he was known for his lively training style.
Every year, at his first practice session, Carril would make the same speech to his players.
“I know your academic load,” he said. “I know how difficult it is to give up time to play here, but let’s get one thing straight. In my book, there is no such thing as an Ivy League player. When you walk out of that locker room and cross that white line, you’re a basketball player, period.”
But he also told his players:
“Princeton is a special place with some very special teachers. It is something special to be taught by one of them. But you’re not special just because you pass by.”
Pedro José (later known as Peter Joseph) Carril was born on July 10, 1930 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His father, an immigrant from Spain, worked for 40 years in the blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel and, according to his son, never missed a day of work.
In high school at 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. Then, for 12 years, he coached Pennsylvania high school basketball 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 van Breda Kolff, who was coaching at Princeton, left to coach the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association. Princeton considered Bobby Knight and Larry Brown as successors. Instead, he took Carril.
He left college coaching after the 1995-96 season.
“I’ve been dodging bullets for 30 years,” Carril said. I realize I’m not seeing as much. I used to think the kids felt like my coaching was worth five points a game to them. 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 for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings under coach Rick Adelman, spending most of his time analyzing game tapes. He stayed with the team for most of the next decade, retiring in 2006, but three years later, at 78, he rejoined the Kings as an adviser.
“Being an assistant doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “The aggravation and the pain in your stomach and the headaches that you get when you see things being done wrong or when you lose, or all those problems that you have as a head coach, I had had enough.”
With Dan White he wrote “The Smart Take on the Strong: Pete Carril’s Philosophy of Basketball” (1997). His training methods were even the subject of an academic paper by Fordham University marketing professor Francis Petit titled “What Executives Can Learn from Pete Carril.”
Information on his survivors was not immediately available.
Lane was ambivalent about his success. He once said, “People ask me, ‘How do you want to be remembered?’ I tell them no.
But he will be remembered, even though neither of his teams earned the top honor. He also ruled it out.
“Winning a national championship is not something you’ll see us do 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 guys walk by my grave and one says to the other, ‘Poor guy. He never won a national championship. And I won’t hear a word they say.
Frank Litsky, a longtime sportswriter for The Times, died in 2018. William McDonald contributed reporting.