BOSTON — Asked if people he knew were incredulous about his perplexing career shift, veteran basketball coach Pete Carril responds, "Yeah, and not only that, they couldn't believe it."
Carril (pronounced cuh-REEL) delights in his small joke, the Yogi-esque rejoinder of a basketball lifer. For many years (29 to be exact) he coached with distinction at Princeton University. Now, in "retirement," he toils less noticeably as an assistant coach with the National Basketball Association's Sacramento Kings.
At Princeton, where he was one of the most revered figures on the New Jersey campus, he "won with kids who aspired to an M.B.A., not the NBA," one pundit has put it.
Carril is the only major college coach to record 500 wins (525, including 11 at Lehigh University) without rewarding athletic scholarships, which don't exist in the Ivy League. Offers to coach more high-powered basketball programs at the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I level came his way, but Carril always rejected them.
Basically he didn't want to compromise his principles. "It's a different life. I don't think I'd be good at that kind of life," he says choosing his words carefully. "I have to be vague about this. Too many times [big-time schools] are involved in defending things that are indefensible."
Carril offered this and other observations during last month's Basketball Hall of Fame induction. Entering the Springfield, Mass., shrine with him were Bailey Howell, Denise Curry, Don Haskins, Alex English, Joan Crawford, and Antonio Diaz-Miguel. Carril, who joined the Kings last season, says he doesn't miss the college game. But doesn't he feel a little out of place moving from the puritanical Ivy League to the glitzy NBA?
"Not yet," he says. "I notice all that, but I can't let it affect me."
Carril, who was known as a rumpled-shirt dresser on a J. Crew campus, serves as a Yoda-like "Star Wars" figure to the high-salaried pros, imparting nuggets of basketball wisdom.
"As an assistant coach what you do is advise more than direct," he says. "I'll get a guy and tell him what he ought to do. In college and high school you tell a guy what you want him to do and demand that he come along with you."
Much of Carril's outlook was influenced by Joe Preletz, his high school coach in Liberty, Pa. "He was the best human being I ever met," Carril says.
A good high school coach is "the salt of the earth" when it comes to teaching the game, Carril contends. "A college and pro coach can benefit from the work they did," he observes. "But the way things are run now in the US, with summer basketball camps all over the place, the value of the high school coach as a contributor to that kid's welfare is being eroded. Guys fly to this camp and that camp. Some are getting agents very young, then deciding to go to college for one year."
Carril says he always wanted to be around quality people as a coach and feels that he schooled and learned from many fine young men at Princeton. The academic environment, however, didn't make his job easier.
"I don't think there's a correlation between high grades and high board scores and smart playing," he observes. "When I coached in high school [13 years in Easton and Reading, Pa.] I had some special-education students who were at the bottom in the classroom but were star players. At Princeton I had guys who scored well on their board exams yet were not very smart [as players]. They were in the library all the time but culturally deprived on the court."
Carril missed coaching Princeton's most famous basketball player, Hall of Famer and former US Sen. Bill Bradley, by a few years, yet the two have grown close through their mutual interests. Bradley served as Carril's presenter at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
Although Carril did not tutor Bradley, who later starred for the New York Knicks, he did coach 13 players drafted by the pros. One, Geoff Petrie, became the NBA's co-Rookie of the Year in 1971. Petrie, now Sacramento's vice president of basketball operations, floated the idea of hiring Carril. Kings' head coach Garry St. Jean liked it and added the hoop sage to his staff.
In college, his well-drilled teams were considered dangerous underdogs at tournament time. In 1996 Princeton used a "backdoor" layup - a Carril staple - to defeat defending champion UCLA. Other trademarks were a patient, pass-oriented offense and a stifling defense.
The NBA's 24-second shot clock makes the pro game faster-paced, Carril acknowledges, yet he still finds much he admires.
"You watch the Chicago Bulls, the Utah Jazz, Miami, or New York and you see teams that play team ball," he says.
A summary of Carril's basketball philosophy can be found in the book he authored on the subject: "The Smart Take From the Strong." Among its 25 tenets are these:
* You want to be good at those things that happen a lot.
* On offense, move the defense.
* Whatever you are doing is the most important thing that you're doing while you're doing it.