After 30 years of holding open basketball's backdoor, Pete Carril won't be doing so at Princeton anymore. He'll leave after this NCAA tournament because he has found himself wanting. Funny. Year after year Carril won with players who were wanting—players who were too slow, too distracted, too afflicted with basketball's most addling handicap: wealth. Still, without athletic scholarships, with daunting admissions standards, at a school where the price tag is now $27,076 a year, he won just the same.
Now, at 65, Carril says he doesn't have it anymore. Sure, he coached the Tigers into the NCAAs again last Saturday night; heeding a hunch, he started a 16-minutes-a-game reserve, a freshman named Gabe Lewullis, and in an Ivy League playoff with Penn, the kid led the Tigers with 15 points and held his assigned Quaker to 0 for 14 from the field. But there's more to coaching than game-day intuition. "The older you get, the less well you react to missed layups, even in practice," Carril said after Princeton's 63-56 overtime win. "I'm a little too rough, too severe for the kind of kid who comes to Princeton today. These kids are getting me at a time when I have less understanding."
It is not basketball that Carril no longer understands. The world changes—Andy's Tavern, the dive where Carril once took his lager, is now a sushi bar—but basketball is still a game of Shaker simplicity. Take care of the ball. Take good shots and make enough of them. Play defense with effort and pride. Princeton had done none of those things on March 5 at Philadelphia's Palestra, where Penn forced the playoff with a 63-49 victory. There was a moment in that loss that revealed what is forcing Carril out. An air ball from one of his players made Carril lean in the direction of the scorer's table, where in disgust he tried to shroud his face with the bunting. An understanding man doesn't hide from his players.
"There's a difference between understanding and compromise," Carril says. Bill Carmody, his longtime assistant and heir apparent, has that distinction in proper balance. But where Carril for years knew it too, in the old coach's head the two have now blurred. And so he'll move on, perhaps to Sacramento, where a former player of his, Geoff Petrie, is an executive with the Kings, and where Carril may have something to offer as an assistant coach.
Pete Carril in the NBA. The world does indeed change.
Carril related his decision to his players speechlessly after Saturday's game. I'M RETIRING, he wrote on the locker room blackboard. Then: I'M VERY HAPPY, and tears. He has only been partly successful in keeping to himself his frustrations—with an admissions office that turned down prospects who would go to other Ivy schools and torture him; with a student body so indifferent that he vowed to recruit a three-headed player so he might wave undergrads into the gym, like some circus impresario.
Carril never missed a practice, never copped a dishonest alibi, never professed false affection, never resorted to indirection. He made a sacrament of the truth. (On holding Dartmouth to 39 points several weeks ago: "They have guardable players, and we guarded them.") He would wince when he saw a member of his team eating candy. Kids eat candy; he wanted his players to be men, and men drink beer. Nor would he try to outkowtow his colleagues for a recruit. That cost him: Four years ago, while entertaining high school senior Tim Krug in the Princeton basketball office. Carril didn't like his attitude and asked him to leave. With Krug, Penn won three consecutive Ivy titles and eight straight games over Princeton until last Saturday.
The hardest thing about playing for Carril, says Chris Thomforde, who played center on Carril's first Princeton team and is now a Lutheran minister, was "being prepared for an assessment not just of your athletic ability but of your character as well."
Last Saturday Carril was asked what moment had made him happiest. He didn't mention winning the NIT title in 1975, when that event still meant something, or Princeton's upset of Oklahoma State in a first-round NCAA game in '83. "Tonight," he said. "Tonight is the highlight of my life."
You did not know this about Pete Carril: That when he saw the NBA team down the turnpike, the Philadelphia 76ers, sign a 6'11" 18-year-old of lavish promise named Darryl Dawkins in 1975, he wanted desperately to coach him.