Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Coach Carril and Mr. McPhee

There is a hallway in Caldwell Field House that goes from the entryway to the athletic training room.

If you were to walk down that hallway, you'd pass by the conference room and then, once through the double doors that begin the men's-only section, the locker room for coaches and staff on the left. As you continue, you'll go past locker rooms for men's track and field, men's lacrosse, men's soccer and finally men's basketball on the right.

On the left side, in the middle, is the cage for the athletic equipment room, which is flanked on either side by the bathrooms, with stalls, sinks and urinals in the front and a huge shower room in the back.

Opposite the cage are two benches, wedged against the wall, with one of those big old-fashioned scales next to it. The scale and the benches have been there, unchanged, for as long as TigerBlog has been around here, which is more than a quarter-century.

Yesterday afternoon, that little piece of ugly gray real estate was the best place, by far, to be on the beautiful Princeton campus.

And why would that be? Because there sat, together, two of the most iconic figures in the history of the University. Chatting it up on a Tuesday afternoon. About old times. About their health. About people they knew. About Princeton basketball. About fish.

It started a little earlier, when TigerBlog went to D level of Jadwin to ride the bike with John McPhee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and longtime writing instructor at the University. The two will ride together indoors when the weather prevents Mr. McPhee from his usual outdoor loop around town.

When their ride ended, the two headed back to the locker room. That is when TigerBlog saw Pete Carril, Princeton's Hall of Fame basketball coach, at the far end of the hallway. TB called ahead to Carril and said he had someone he wanted to introduce him to, knowing full well that the two went back decades.

As Carril slowly - he walks very slowly these days - made his way closer, he figured out who it was.

"Johnny McPhee?" he called out. "Is that Johnny McPhee?"

With that, the two sat down next to each other on the bench. The next 15 minutes or so were somewhat magical.

How else can TigerBlog describe it?

Here was Pete Carril - Coach, as so many call him. TigerBlog has heard Carril speak so many times in so many different settings. He covered him as a sportswriter in his newspaper days and has the distinction of being Carril's last athletic communications contact.

Carril grew up in Bethlehem. His father worked in the steel mills there for 40 years. His high school coach was a man named Joseph Preletz, whose nickname was "Pickles." He played for three different coaches at Lafayette College, including Butch van Breda Kolff. He coached at Easton High, Reading High and Lehigh University before he came to Princeton, where he won 514 games and 13 Ivy League championships.

Here was John McPhee, - not Johnny, at least not that TigerBlog had ever heard before. TigerBlog has spent hours riding the bike with Mr. McPhee, as well as in his role as Academic Athletic Fellow for the men's lacrosse team.

McPhee grew up in Princeton. His father was the team physician for Princeton Athletics, and McPhee grew up on this campus, attending games in pretty much every sport, though his favorites were football and basketball. He went to Princeton High and then spent a post-grad year at Deerfield before returning to Princeton, this time as a student at the University. He graduated in 1953 and then spent more than 10 years as a writer at "Time," before he finally got his big break with "The New Yorker." And what was that break? A story about Bill Bradley as a Princeton senior, entitled "A Sense Of Where You Are."

That would become his first book. He's now at 28 - all non-fiction - and counting.

TigerBlog knows all of that and way more about both men. They go way back, the two of them. They're both unassuming men, even if they could be forgiven if they weren't, given all they've accomplished. They are genuine, no BS men. At a University that prides itself on its pomp, these two are much more about circumstance. 

They're both nearing their 85th birthdays. They both have lost a step or two from when they used to go at each other in tennis, squash, basketball - one of TB's favorite McPhee stories is when he told TB that he knew he was pushing Carril hard in a tennis match when Carril actually had to put his cigar down.

They are each walking, talking volumes of Princeton history. They are beloved throughout the campus, for what they've accomplished and how they've accomplished it. They are both in the 5-7, 5-8 range, but to TigerBlog, each man is somewhat larger than life.

And there they were, sitting on a bench in a locker room.

They talked about all kinds of subjects, including where they would meet up for lunch one day soon - Conte's of course. And they talked about an old picture of Carril that McPhee has for him. They talked about one of Carril's former students and players at Reading who recently passed away, and that led Carril to relate the story of the time Reading beat Bethlehem in front of 12,000 fans. Bethlehem had beaten Reading by 35 the first time they played, but Reading won this one 49-48. It was Gary Walters' sophomore year at Reading. Carril punctuated the story by pointing out that Reading's win made his father unpopular at work the next day.

Eventually, Mr. McPhee mentioned he was heading to the supermarket to get something for dinner. Carril suggested salmon and gave him his own special recipe. They talked about food. And fish. Kinds they liked. Kinds they didn't. Cod. Carril really doesn't like cod.

TigerBlog sat there, an observer of this fascinating dynamic. It was a little before the time when the room would begin to fill with athletes, down for that afternoon's practices. There were a handful who walked by, some on the way to and from the training room, including a track and field athlete with a black Princeton hat, with an orange "P" on it.

"I have one just like that," Carril told him. "Only mine is 29 years old."

They play off each perfectly, Carril and McPhee. It was like watching an old-time movie duo, Martin and Lewis, something like that, two men who know each other so well and who have for so long that their interaction is seamless.

But these aren't just any two friends. They are Pete Carril and John McPhee. It has been one of the singular best moments of TigerBlog's time here that he's had the great fortune to get to know each of them.

TigerBlog wondered if the young men in the locker room had any idea what they were watching, who these two men were. Yeah, they probably recognized Carril. They probably didn't recognize McPhee.

But did they know what these two men are? Could they begin to understand their depth, their drive, their shared work ethic, the genius behind each of their bodies of work, regardless of how different they were?

TigerBlog knew it. That's for sure. This might just have been two buddies who ran into each other and spent a few minutes together, but TB knew what he was watching was something very special.


Anonymous said...

Thank you sharing this. These are as iconic as they come, and a succinct answer to Princeton's sustained greatness.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post today...McPhee and Carril. I didn't know either one personally, although having been on the receiving end of their greatness, I am a true admirer. Having seen John on the cover of the PAW a few months ago, I was reminded that I had always intended to send him a thank you note, letting him know how his books had enriched my life. I sent him that note, never expecting to hear back. Well, several weeks later, I did get a very nice personalized letter back from him. Needless to say, I was very touched. Thanks again for sharing this account of two legends.