Pete Carril, the Hall of Fame coach who made the “Princeton Offense” famous during his 30-year tenure with the Tigers, died Monday morning at age 92.
“We kindly ask that you respect our privacy at this time as we process our loss and make necessary arrangements. More information will be forthcoming in the coming days,” the Carril family said in a statement released by Princeton. .
Using a deliberate, clock-draining offense that relied on backdoor cuts and precision passing, Carril led Princeton to 13 regular-season Ivy League titles during a time when the conference did not have a postseason tournament. Princeton also won the NIT in 1975, defeating Providence 80-69 at Madison Square Garden.
But it was the Tigers’ memorable March nights in their 11 NCAA tournament berths under Carril that featured the exasperated coach running up and down the sideline as Princeton tried to overcome superior opponents — in era of upsets and near-upsets on prime-time television — that left an indelible mark on college basketball.
“Anybody can coach basketball. I can tell you that right now. It’s not that hard to know about a pick-and-roll, a back-pick, the shuffle-cut, I mean, it’s not that difficult,” Carril said after he retired. “But what’s hard is to see how to build something, to have an idea of how your team is going to play. And that’s under the header of thinking.”
That logic was demonstrated in 1989, in Providence, Rhode Island. As No. 16 seed, Carril’s Tigers took the No. 1 Georgetown Hoyas in a thrilling 50-49 win over the Hoyas that captured the attention of the tournament.
In a news conference leading up to the game, said the ever-so-realistic Carril, who isn’t shy about making his audience laugh. “I think we’re a billion-to-one to win the whole tournament. To beat Georgetown, we’re only 450 million-to-one.”
ESPN analyst Dick Vitale agreed with his good friend Carril. In a studio segment in Bristol, Connecticut, leading up to the game, Vitale promised: “I’ll tell you what, I should be home for the weekend. If Princeton beats Georgetown, I’ll hitchhike. to Providence, which isn’t that far from here. I’ll be their ball boy at their next game. And then I’ll change into a Princeton cheerleading uniform and lead all the cheers.”
Even away, the Tigers actually led at the half 29-21 and used their patient offense to frustrate a star-laden Hoyas team featuring Alonzo Mourning and coach John Thompson. Despite mismatches at nearly every position — not to mention a 32-13 Georgetown rebounding advantage, led by Mourning’s 13 — the Tigers battled to the end as the eager Carril breathed and breathed from bench.
“They were putting us to sleep with backdoor cuts and running the shot clock,” Mourning said after the game. “As soon as we slipped up defensively, they took advantage.”
Several closer calls followed in the contest for the New Jersey school better known for producing Rhodes Scholars and Pulitzer Prize winners than athletes. In 1990, as No. 13 seed against No. 4 Arkansas, the Razorbacks defeated Carril’s Tigers 68-64.
Losses to Villanova and Syracuse by a combined 10 points followed over the next two seasons as the Tigers continued to dominate the Ivy League just to make the NCAA tournament. But Carril’s program finally won a March Madness game for the ages in 1996.
After winning the Ivy title in a one-game tiebreaker, defeating Penn 63-56 in overtime, Carril told his team he would step down after the NCAA tournament. After the victory against the Quakers, in fact, he wrote on a whiteboard in the locker room: “I’m going to retire. I’m very happy.”
A week later, facing the defending national champion, UCLA, Princeton, again a No. 13 seed, upset the No. 4 Bruins 43-41 at Indianapolis.
“We just knocked off a giant,” Carril said in the postgame interview, letting out a loud laugh.
Former UCLA coach Steve Lavin, who was an assistant on the 1996 staff, agreed. “It was,” he said, “one of the most memorable games in NCAA history.”
Indeed, the push and pull of a nail-biting NCAA tournament game proved the perfect stage for a frazzled Carril on the bench, whose white hair stood up in all directions as the Tigers hung on for a classic first-round shocker for real. Defines the essence of March Madness.
“I believe that in defining greatness in coaches, you must define if they get the maximum out of their TEAM personnel,” Vitale tweeted on Monday. “PETE CARRIL is a prime example of a brilliant coaching mind who has fully realized his talent. May Coach RIP !”
Carill, who also coached one season at Lehigh, finished his college career with a 525-273 mark, including a 514 victory at Princeton. In 1997, a year after the victory against the Bruins, he was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame as well as the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Let me just say that nobody starts out wanting to be a Hall of Fame coach or a Hall of Fame doctor or a Hall of Fame anything,” Carill said in his Naismith induction speech in Springfield, Massachusetts. “Nobody starts out that way. There are a lot of forces at work, and you don’t know where you’re going to end up, and you don’t know why it’s happening.
“Princeton was always half-decent in basketball. But we’re a national school now, basketball wise. And I don’t think anything is going to change that.”
Carril moved on to a career as an assistant coach in the NBA, serving three different stints with the Sacramento Kings before retiring in 2011.