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IT ALL STARTS HERE
Grant Wahl
February 17, 2003
Hatched in New Jersey decades ago by irascible genius Pete Carril, the intricate ballet of the PRINCETON OFFENSE is suddenly the height of hoop fashion, winning games and converts from sixth grade to the NBA
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February 17, 2003

It All Starts Here

Hatched in New Jersey decades ago by irascible genius Pete Carril, the intricate ballet of the PRINCETON OFFENSE is suddenly the height of hoop fashion, winning games and converts from sixth grade to the NBA

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Though Samford's surge drew some small-scale media attention, it hardly spurred a national wave of converts to the Princeton offense. Tillette simply honored Carmody's request to keep it in the family. At one point Tillette even rebuffed Birmingham Southern coach Duane Reboul, a friend of 40 years and his former boss at De La Salle High in New Orleans. "I'm very aware of my loyalty to Princeton," Tillette says. "If you want to watch practice and glean some things on your own, that's fine. But I'm not one for sharing."

To find a coach who is, you need to fly to Columbus, Ohio, rent a car and drive 90 minutes east, to the tiny, brick-paved burg of New Concord, proud home of Senator John Glenn and Division III Muskingum College.

The Connector

For the Princeton offense to really start spreading, it needed someone like Tillette, who had mastered its manifold intricacies. Only, that someone had to be well-connected in the coaching world and—most important—willing to share. In other words it needed someone like Jim Burson.

Few basketball fans know of Burson, the coach at Muskingum for the past 36 years, but his colleagues do. Burson worked with Bob Knight on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. His son, Jay, starred at Ohio State in the late '80s under Gary Williams, now the Maryland coach. Each summer Burson visits and learns from one of his brethren, from Knight to Cincinnati's Bob Huggins to Michigan State's Tom Izzo. "I've had a great life, and I've done it in anonymity," Burson says, "but if you got down to Duke and asked Coach K if he knew Jim Burson, he'd say, 'Yeah, I know Coach.' " At 61, Burson looks a lot like Hugh Hefner, and he is just as social (though not, he'll have you know, with the ladies). He gives clinics each summer for his former players who are still involved in the game, has presided over the Division III Men's Basketball Committee and in three years is slated to become president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

In the summer of 1998 Burson traveled to Princeton to view the offense up close. " Pete Carril's offense is absolute genius," Burson says. "They'll give you some of the raw information"—game tapes, mainly—"but it's like they're giving you the parts to a new car and saying, 'Now put it together.' Well, we took the time to put together all the parts." Two years and several hundred hours of tapes later, Burson and assistant Greg Morland had, as Burson puts it, "cracked the code." They called their version Optional Phasing—a nod to its sequences of reads—and they gave the offensive sets fishing terms (befitting the school's mascot, the Fighting Muskies) like rod-and-reel and bait-and-tackle. Their center stationed himself in any one of four post positions: hook (high), line (low), sinker (side) or bobber (top of the key). "It was a forgery," Burson says, "but we felt good about it, like we had discovered gold."

Like Tillette, Burson had instant success running Princeton (Muskingum went 15-11 in 1998-99, its first winning season in seven years), but his national impact would come as a Connector. Simply put, he shared—an approach Burson had adopted in '67 when he visited a practice conducted by legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp. " Rupp gave me the seven diagrams of his offense," Burson recalls. "[Back then] I never could run them because I wasn't smart enough, but he gave them to me."

In the spring of 2001 Burson got a call from N.C. State. Larry Hunter, a Wolfpack assistant, had known Burson from his days at Wittenberg and Ohio, and Burson had helped Hunter prepare for a game against Princeton in '99. N.C. State had fallen on hard times, and coach Herb Sendek was desperately seeking a way to compete against his more talented ACC rivals. Sendek had already lost twice to Princeton, and the offense fascinated him. Yet there were still parts that he couldn't fathom. "There's not much secrecy anymore because of clinics, camps and TV, but a lot of coaches have watched this offense a long time and still can't figure it out," Burson says. "I didn't either, the first Hundred hours."

Burson hopped a plane to Raleigh. "The first thing I did there was sit down and say, What have you done?' " he says. "Herb said he had looked at 12 tapes and broken them down. His notes looked like my scribbled notes did, back in '98. I said, 'Good, now explain that.' He showed me, and I said, 'Now what?' He said, 'That's where I am.' And I told him, 'You're really close, but you don't have any idea of what you're doing.' Larry laughed at that, and I said, I'm not saying that to be pompous. I'm just telling you, you can't run it with what you know. Let me show you.' "

For the rest of the afternoon Burson beguiled Sendek with his presentation, which included a 15-minute videotape and a boiled-down 20-page playbook he calls the Holy Grail, whose principles are distilled on the opening page. Sendek fell for it hook, line and sinker. "He said, 'Oh, my God, I didn't even understand it. I didn't understand it!' " Burson says of Sendek's Eureka moment. The Wolfpack coach had known most of the Princeton sets; he just hadn't solved the puzzle of how to link them. (As Burson put it, rod connected to reel, while bait went with tackle.) "Would he have done that eventually by himself?" Burson asks. "I think so. What we did was save him a year's work."

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