He used his time well
If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em. At least that’s how things regularly worked with Pete Carril’s basketball tactics. Coaching at one of the nation’s elite universities, where athletic scholarships were banned and only rich nerds could get in the door, Carril eschewed the folly of mimicking the standard high-flying, muscular NBA blueprint. He instead trained his players to out-think their taller, faster, stronger and more gifted opponents; to be deliberate, exacting, patient.
And in 29 years at Princeton University, Carril, who died this week at 92, experienced only one losing season.
“My strategies,” he said, “are forced on me by the things my players can’t do.”
He was known for his curmudgeonly mien, which mostly was a cover for sly humor. No airs. And he wasn’t so much a heretic as an improviser, making do with the materials at hand. No other men’s basketball coach won 500 games without having the use of athletic scholarships. He’s in the sport’s Hall of Fame.
In many ways, he wasn’t a logical fit. He was not a Princeton man himself, having played college ball (small-school All-American) at Lafayette, and got his graduate degree at Lehigh. Whatever truth there is to the Princeton cliché of a haughty, moneyed lot, Carril appeared in his small office, the one time I had a long conversation with him, his hair unkempt and wearing a golf shirt that appeared to have coffee stains and crumbs on it.
Conditioning his players to stifle the urge to shoot was not merely a desperate stalling device. He wasn’t simply playing keep-away to minimize the opponent’s number of shots and rebounds. Rather, the point was to run through his complete repertoire of offensive patterns, without seriously considering a shot, so that the other team was forced to work on defense longer than it was accustomed. Over and over, it was a test to see how long before the other team lost interest or got lazy.
When, halfway through his career, Carril was faced with the 1985 NCAA imposition of a shot clock — 45 seconds to hoist an attempt — the pervasive theory was that Princeton would lose the one edge it had. He considered the rule one more step toward “the disappearance of the cerebral or mental element” of the game.
Yet the shot clock didn’t stop Carril from having Princeton continue to use its time wisely. Exploring and feinting until the most makeable shot presented itself. And in the 1989 NCAA tournament, when his 16th-seeded lads came within one point of shocking top-ranked Georgetown, Sports Illustrated called it “The Game That Saved March Madness” because it provided compelling drama when a dull foregone conclusion had been assumed.
And seven years later, perennial underdog Princeton’s two-point tournament victory over defending national champion UCLA was a delightful shocker to any fan this side of UCLA, summed up by the Daily Princetonian headline: “David 43, Goliath 41.” That was another triumph of time management, of movement without the ball, spacing, passing, misdirection, teamwork. Riveting basketball. Not just following the fashionable trend.
Carril understood the realities — that a lesser team is handicapped by a being in a compulsory hurry, because the team that can run, jump and shoot will spend almost all of its time running, jumping and shooting. So Carril’s Princeton offense — in the face of opposing fans chanting “Boring! Boring!” — in fact provided grand entertainment by bamboozling and discombobulating superior foes.
“I’m not against the 45-second clock,” Carril said when the rule was introduced. “What I’m trying to protect is whatever mentality is left in the game. To be permitted to probe, to look around, to set up, to use your head a little bit. When you put a time factor of, say, 24 seconds, on it [as the NBA had done in 1954], then there’s such a thing as eliminating strategy. Or, maybe ‘eliminating’ isn’t the right word. ‘Reducing.’ Reducing the styles, not only within one game itself, but in making each game different from the next.”
It turns out that Carril’s high school coach in Bethlehem, Pa., believed the best approach was to have a team attempt 100 shots per game, minimum, so Carril had experienced a helter-skelter style. The other dichotomy in his biography was that, while Carril preached at Princeton that “passing is a lost art,” a fellow coach, Paul Westhead, couldn’t resist revealing how, in pickup games with colleagues, “all [Carril] did was shoot 20-foot set shots. He never, never gave up the ball.”
Bottom line: Whatever it took.