Billy Omeltchenko tells the story best, although any of his teammates seated around a table at The Pub, Princeton's on-campus watering hole, could relate a similar encounter. This one took place several years ago when Omeltchenko, now a starting guard on the Princeton basketball team, was a senior at Great Neck (N.Y.) North High School and was being recruited by a few colleges in the East.
"One night I was told that Pete Carril, the Princeton coach, would be in the stands to watch me play," Omeltchenko recalls. "During the game I noticed this bald little man lying down on the bleachers with his head propped up on one elbow. He looked like a bum. He was wearing gray corduroys with suspenders and Hush Puppies with white socks, and he was sucking on a cigar butt that was maybe an inch long. After the game, my coach came by my locker and said, 'Billy, I want you to meet Coach Carril.' And it was him, the guy in the bleachers! I mean, he looked like Columbo. I didn't see how he could be from Princeton. He said, 'Nice to see ya, nice to see ya,' and then spent the next 20 minutes tearing my game apart. I couldn't get over him. He was wonderful. So here I am at Princeton, paying $6,500 a year to play basketball for him."
Omeltchenko's recruiting tale describes the predicament that Pete Carril finds himself in while trying to foster winning basketball at a rich man's school. It also hints at how he has gone about assembling such successful teams as his present group, which is attempting to make the Tigers the stingiest defensive team in the nation for the third season in a row and which will be aiming for Princeton's third straight Ivy League championship when conference play begins this week.
First, Carril stuns a prospective player with his "I'm no Clark Gable" appearance (though he does have Gable's ears). Then he gives the recruit an honest—some might say brutal—appraisal of his talent. "When Barnes Hauptfuhrer came here," says Carril of a former Princeton center who was drafted by the pros in the third round, "I told him all he had was a good handshake." Next. he mentions the fact that freshmen are too busy studying to play varsity ball in the Ivy League (although they will be eligible next season) and that the annual tab for a Princeton education is $6,500, not counting any crew-neck sweaters a player might purchase at one of those quaint little clothing shops along Nassau Street.
As a parting shot, Carril will throw in some poetry, usually something about the struggles of life that he can relate to his arduous task at Princeton. One of his favorite lines comes from Thomas Hardy's The Convergence of the Twain, which is about the sinking of the Titanic: "And as the smart ship grew/In stature, grace. and hue,/In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too."
Carril likes to pose as an intractable, if somewhat bumbling, sidewalk philosopher who is at once a congenial and rigid advocate of conservative values. But he is a little too aware of what's going on to pull it off. He is sophisticated enough to appreciate both sides of almost any argument—whether it involves a fight between him and the admissions department over getting a good high school player into Princeton or something more substantial, like the mining of Haiphong Harbor—and this torments him. As a result, Carril, who is a genuinely funny man when he wants to be, goes back and forth between comedy (a willingness to poke fun at even his most sacred ideas) and tragedy (a foreboding that the world is going to pot around him) so often that nobody around him thinks anything of it. He worries about everything, including who is going to go out to pick up the vegetable soup for lunch. When Princeton beat a good St. Bonaventure team 59-55 to win last year's Kodak Classic, Carril came to the big alumni victory party in Rochester, N.Y. wearing a frown. "Aren't you ever going to be happy, Coach?" asked his star player, Frank Sowinski. "I don't know, Frankie," said Carril. But then he ordered the new trophy filled with beer, and everybody got a little drunk.
This is hardly the stuff of which ordinary basketball coaches, most of whom are unabashed backslappers, are made, but Carril's odd personality must be persuasive, because the Tigers have won 35 of their last 36 Ivy League games while continuing a Princeton tradition of knocking off a couple of powerhouses, a Notre Dame or an Alabama, every season. The Tigers have done all this despite a recruiting budget of $3,800 a year, which, as a North Carolina assistant coach recently told Carril, "is what we spend on telephone calls." Also working against Carril's chances for consistent success are Princeton's entrance requirements, which would prevent most good players from going there, even if they were inclined to. Sowinski, the leading scorer, maintains close to an A average in engineering. His college-board scores coming out of high school were 1,230, good enough so that few admissions departments outside the Ivy League would have thought twice about his qualifications. But, of the three categories—likely, probable, unlikely—into which Princeton puts applicants during the initial phases of the admissions process, Sowinski was listed as a probable.
The case of Bill Bradley notwithstanding, the Tigers have uncovered few athletically skilled intellectuals over the years. To be sure, since he took over as coach in 1967, Carril has produced four first-round pro draft picks—Geoff Petrie and John Hummer (1970), Brian Taylor (1972) and Armond Hill (1976)—but even with those players in the lineup the Tigers had to scratch and claw for everything. They succeeded because of the passion Carril instills in them for defense (they held their opponents to 51.7 points a game in 1976-77, relying mainly on old-fashioned half-court man-to-man) and the brilliance of his tightly disciplined offense. Since the speedy Taylor signed with the Nets, Carril has become even more conservative, slowing the pace of his offense to a walk.
"Depending on how much talent the other team has, we might run through a series of plays three or four times before we even look for a shot," says Omeltchenko. "It isn't that we can't get a shot the first time through. Coach Carril's philosophy says that we should make our opponents play defense longer than they're used to. That makes them anxious; they commit dumb fouls on defense and mental mistakes when they get the ball back. The only thing wrong with our system is that it puts quite a lot of pressure on the player who finally takes the shot for us. He better make it."
Princeton's simple style of picks and rolls, screens and back-door plays lulls a lot of people to sleep—and not just Tiger opponents. "Some of our games are pretty boring," says Center Bob Roma. "I remember when I was on the freshman team I didn't even go to all the varsity games."