Anatomy of An Offense
A scattering of thoughts on Princeton, Pete Carril and basketball’s most deliberate system.
Pete Carril was born July 10, 1930, in Bethlehem, PA, a blue-collar town where his father, a Spanish immigrant, worked in the local steel mill. Pete was an All-State ballplayer at Liberty High School before moving on to Lafayette College in Easton, PA. His senior season at Lafayette, Carril was coached by Butch van Breda Kolff, future Princeton headman and NBA coaching icon. Van Breda Kolff was not a great tactician, Carril once said, but “he’s probably the best coach I’ve ever been around. What he did at Lafayette, and Princeton, is legendary.”
Following a brief career in the US Army (he just missed the Korean War), Carril began coaching at the prep level—first at Easton High School in 1954, then Reading High in 1958. His first college job consisted of one season at Lehigh University. In 1967 Carril succeeded his old mentor, van Breda Kolff, and was hired as head coach of the Princeton Tigers. He wouldn’t leave New Jersey for almost three decades.
He brought a certain back-alley toughness to the program, a hard edge. He was not the classic Princeton man—cultured, moneyed, educated at the finest prep schools in the East. Much to the contrary, Carril was a gritty Pennsylvania boy, the son of a steelworker who championed hard work and team play, who cared little for personal glory and abhorred selfishness. His program was really an extension of his personality, and he recruited players who embodied his own middle-class values. “You can’t win with a three-car garage guy,” Carril once said. “With a two-car garage guy, you gotta chance. To me the worst thing in life, is say you’re 60 years old, and all you can say is you have everything your father gave you.”
Carril’s Princeton Offense was the ideal system for the Tigers. It was perfect in the low tempo of the Ivy League. It stressed fundamentals, heady play and good shooting. Virtuoso talent was not required, but fundamentals were. Some teams win with power, some with speed; Princeton won with guile and precision. The offense was Carril’s brainchild, but it included some basic plays that Carril borrowed from various sources and modified to suit his particular needs. For example, he incorporated a few old Celtics plays from the Bill Russell era (Russell was a player he greatly admired). He created a motion offense well-suited to his personnel, and his teams had remarkable success.
Defense, too, was a common denominator of Carril’s winning teams. His Tigers guarded with ferocity, and often boasted the top scoring defense in the country. Even against the upper-crust, power conference teams, Carril’s Tigers were always a tough out. As PJ Carlesimo put it, “If you’re a coach, you don’t want to play against a Pete Carril team.”
Carril never doubted the potential of a hard-working team. He believed in dedication and perseverance. He believed in teamwork. His values were American values: honesty, integrity, loyalty to your school and your classmates. And even though he may have never said it out loud, I think he believed in the underdog—those young men brave enough, brash enough, to go out and challenge the established rule.
“Talent isn’t everything,” he said in a 1991 interview. “I’ve been here 25 years. I’ve had five guys go into the NBA. Working hard is so important, so damn important.”
His finest moments were on the grandest of stages. He had no fear against teams like Georgetown or UCLA, and neither did his players. If anything he enjoyed the riddle of it all, the tactics and preparation, as if he were playing a chess match without a full complement of pieces, just a knight and a bishop and a scattering of pawns, yet still finding a way to entrap the other man’s king. Whoever the opposition, Carril could always make a game of it.
At some point people started calling him “Yoda,” and the nickname stuck. It’s surely a tribute to Carril’s uncommon wisdom and erudition, but also, perhaps, a friendly jab at his physical appearance—with that bald head, those bulging eyes and a growing assortment of wrinkles, the now 81-year-old coach does bear a slight resemblance to the miniature green Jedi, if Yoda has ever worn frumpy sweaters and coached a basketball team. I mean that in the kindest of ways.