Pete CarrilThe Smart Take from the Strong: The Basketball Philosophy of Pete Carril by Pete Carril

Bad shooters are always open.–Pete Carril

Dr. Pete Carril is a bit of a snob. I emphasize the “Dr.” because last year Princeton, the school at which he coached basketball for twenty-nine years, awarded him the honorary degree, Doctor of Humanities. I emphasize the “snob” because one of his cardinal rules is, “The ability to rebound is in inverse proportion to the distance your house is from the nearest railroad tracks.” He doesn’t believe that “three car garage guys” are tough enough to get rebounds or loose balls. Having grown up in a no car garage family in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Pete has never quite gotten over the neighborhood saloon snobbery of the steel mill where his father worked for almost four decades. But despite himself, Pete earned that doctorate, and is today a retired Princeton professor in the best sense.

I read his book (published in 1997, written with Dan White) at the suggestion of a good friend and former student, Kevin Shinkle of Philadelphia, who saw things in it that reminded him of good teachers and good coaches. I am struck by Pete Carril’s dedication to the calling of teaching  even more than by his obvious ability to coach young men in what is my third or fourth favorite sport. He won 525 games in his career (not counting high school)—no other Ivy league coach comes close—and has the universal respect of the top men in his profession (Bob Knight wrote the introduction to the book), but it is as a teacher that he should be remembered.

Pete Carril

Pete Carril

He likes to win. “A coach’s job is to put his team where it can function effectively and win,” he says. Winning is the “only objective standard” for coaches of team sports. One of his other cardinal rules is, “Hardly any players play to lose. Only a few play to win.” One of the epiphanies in his life was when he realized after being at Princeton a few years: “I would not know how to behave if we started losing.” This attitude is one that often has seemed to separate teachers from coaches in my own academic experience. There was even a highly rated college, Swarthmore, which fired its football coach after an undefeated season for “an undue emphasis upon winning.” Academic people will often say (usually contemptuously) something to the effect that “mens sana in corpore sano” means only that the body should be kept in shape for higher things, none of which have to do with winning athletic contests. Pete Carril, although he doesn’t put it exactly this way, would argue that there is no incompatibility between excellence of the mind and excellence of the body. Why play, except to win? Why study, except to learn?  In both cases, “Every little thing counts. If not, why do it?”

“I can teach a guy basics,” Pete says. He started as a junior varsity coach in Easton, PA, after graduating from Lafayette, and he had mostly tenth graders who had to be taught to dribble (the kid “couldn’t dribble a ball across the street”) and pass ( he “couldn’t throw apples into the ocean”) as well as to shoot and pivot. He didn’t particularly like teaching the basics. My first teaching job was eleventh grade American history, but I had to take on a tenth grade English class halfway through the year. I told them we were going to diagram sentences for ten weeks, because they didn’t know an adverb from an ad lib. Pete didn’t get a college job for a few years, so he could teach young men who already knew the basics. It took me just about as long, because I had to go to graduate school. But both of us, I think, profited from starting out doing something that, however tedious, we knew how to do.

“The truth about fast players,” Pete says, is this: “Wherever fast players go, they always get there faster than slower players.”  All teachers know this.  Brighter students pick up hard concepts quicker than those who are less gifted. If Pete had a team of fast players he would run and shoot. if I had a class full of high achieving scholars I could cover much more material than otherwise. Pete Carril knew, however, that not only was he not going to have fast teams at Princeton, but he would have to find ways of compensating for what he didn’t have. That meant being smarter, better prepared, paying more attention to detail, and asking more from the players that were given to him. I have understood the same thing in teaching history for fifty years  Pete says that “I prepared my team to win every game they played regardless of where they played or whom they played.” I always felt that I could find ways to teach good history to my students regardless of who they were or in what they happened to be interested.

One of the great teachers in American history, the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, who made Princeton into a great university, said that many boys of “moderate capacity have been useful in their generation, respected by the public, and successful in life, while those of superior talents by nature, by mere slothfulness and idle habits, or self-indulgence, have lived useless and died contemptible.” This is a profound truth in life and teaching. Pete Carril believed that “there is a relationship between athletics and life. Sports do not build character. They reveal character.” How hard you work and how much you contribute to what Robert Frost called your “gangs” (team, fraternity, family, college, profession, country) makes you worth something, not just pure talent.  I would add a note here: it has been my observation that A students are not the ones who tend to be very loyal to their institutions. Hard working B and C students are grateful, and athletes especially seem to be willing to promote and give back to their colleges. I think that Pete would agree.

There is much more of practical and moral value in this book. It all adds up to the fact that you can do a lot with a little, if you are willing to work and be loyal. A coach or teacher who does not read it will be poorer for the omission. Pete retired too early from Princeton, but before his bosses and the alums wished he had. He lasted so long there, he thinks, because a few people in the right places seemed to thing that there were young men who were better off from having been coached by him. Can any teacher hope for more?

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