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Catching up with...Frank Sowinski.

Frank Sowinski, also known as "The Polish Rifle," was the 1976-1977 Ivy League Player of the Year and a two time All-Ivy selection. While at Princeton his teams won two Ivy League titles. Sowinski is, as of this interview, 12th on Princeton's all-time points list, despite playing just three seasons and playing without a three point line. For his collegiate career Sowinski averaged 15.3 ppg, shooting .556% from the field. Frank took the time to answer your questions about his time at Princeton. Here are his responses.

This interview originally ran in June 2003.

What have you been doing since you graduated from Princeton?

After graduating with an engineering degree in 1978, I played basketball in Europe after trying out for the New Jersey Nets. In Europe, I played on a touring team of American All-Stars in Italy and later I played in Madrid, Spain. I then came back to the states and received my MBA from the University of Virginia.

After receiving my MBA, I worked at an oil company, Amerada Hess, for three years and then spent 17 years with Dun & Bradstreet, eventually becoming President of the company. Most recently, I joined the Price Waterhouse Coopers consulting business as Chief Financial Officer to take them public, but ultimately helped sell the business to IBM late last year. Currently, I sit on the board of a pipeline company and I'm looking at several business opportunities in addition to coaching a lot of youth athletics.

Are you still involved with basketball in any way?

After graduate school I essentially stopped playing because it stopped being fun. In most pick up games, few players passed or played defense and at times, the only way to get a shot was to get a rebound and bring the ball up the court yourself. I didn't get back into the game until my two children, Kate and Scott, began to play. I have coached both their teams and have been spending a lot of time in the gym and shooting at our driveway basketball hoop. It's fun to be back in the game and there are tremendous teaching opportunities in dealing with young people.

What made you decide to come to Princeton?

I wasn't heavily recruited out of high school and I was accepted at Delaware, Lehigh and Lafayette in addition to Princeton. From an academic and basketball perspective, I didn't have a hard decision to make.

What are your fondest memories of playing basketball at Princeton?

My fondest memories all focus around the players and people who were part of the program. The class of 1978 was composed of great people who knew how to play. Bill Omeltchenko, Bob Kleinert, Rich Starsia, Rich Rizzuto, Doug Snyder and I shared all the highs and lows associated with the academic and athletic challenges associated with Princeton. Our friendship was built not only on the success we achieved as a team, which won two titles and averaged 20 wins per season, but on the adversity we dealt with along the way. I suppose the single fondest memory I have is in our final home game against Brown our senior year when Coach Carril put Billy O, Bob Kleinert, Rich Starsia, Rich Rizzuto and me on the court together. I played center and our performance was less than stellar, but the opportunity to play the last 10 minutes of our careers at home together meant a lot. It was about teamwork, perseverance and commitment. We got a nice round of applause when we walked off the court and there were smiles all around.

I also have fond memories surrounding the people who made the program work and supported us over the years. Pros Cima our trainer, our equipment manager Hank Towns, the proctors Bill Duvall and Kenny Samuels, as well as, Georgie Buc down at Jadwin all provided support and advice throughout our four years. They made a difference. Every time I get down to Princeton I try to stop by to see as many of them as possible.

What do you recall as being the three biggest and best games you were involved with at Princeton and why?
That's a hard question because there were many memorable games, but three games that stick out in my mind are the Penn game my sophomore year, Notre Dame my junior year and the Rutgers game my senior year. The Penn game in 1976 was a huge test for us because Penn had won six consecutive Ivy League titles. We had a great team with Armond Hill and Mickey Steuerer at guard, Bob Slaughter and myself at forward and Barnes Hauptfuhrer at center. This was probably the most talented team I ever played on. Penn was very highly regarded and obviously our series was going to decide the 1976 championship, so our January match up was critically important. Being a sophomore, I had all the usual challenges in learning the offense that Fall with the varsity (freshmen were still not eligible to play on the varsity team), but I just had a good tournament in Maryland and felt ready to play.

I believe that the first half against Penn was the best 20 minutes of basketball I have ever participated in. We ran the offense exceptionally well even though Penn knew what was coming and we scored 36 points. More importantly, our defense was superb holding Penn to 14 points and they wound up with more points than they did good shots. We ended up winning by 24, but I can't remember who scored what or any indvidual's performance. It was entirely a team effort. All I remember is walking off the court realizing that Princeton basketball was something very special.

In 1977, we knocked off Notre Dame, who was number two in the country the prior week, at Jadwin 76-62. There was an overflow crowd, most of whom came to see Notre Dame. During warm ups the crowd lined up three deep to get a glimpse of them. The thing I remember most was that they never really threatened us during the game as we steadily built a lead and easily handled their press. We played a very solid game and they got more and more frustrated as the game progressed. Digger Phelps kept imploring his team to run "33 motion," but I think our practice team ran it better than ND did that night.

The Rutgers game my senior year is memorable because I don't remember it. About six or seven minutes into the first half I had scored a couple of buckets when I got hit with an elbow on a rebound causing my head to hit the floor hard. I was out cold for about a minute and in retrospect clearly had a concussion, but when Coach asked if I was all right I must have mumbled "uh huh" because I stayed in the rest of the game. Rich Rizzuto tells me that during half time I asked him what the score was three times within a minute. Bob Kleinert told me I didn't look too good, but to "keep doing what I was doing." I would up scoring 26 points on 13 for 16 from the field and we won by 11. The game was televised and when I was asked to do an interview after the game, I had to turn them down because I couldn't remember much after the beginning of the game. It wasn't until I later saw the game films that I realized what happened.

Can you talk about some of your teammates at Princeton, some lasting memories and who you keep in touch with?

There have been exceptionally strong ties between the teams that played in the mid to late 1970's. Andy Rimol, who hosted me on my recruiting visit and played one on one in my driveway with me when I was a senior in high school, and I see each other every year either at Princeton games or Friends of Princeton Basketball functions. Recently, I've been in touch with Armond Hill and Mickey Steuerer. Barnes Hauptfuhrer and I remain very good friends to this day.

I see the guys from the class of '78 very frequently since we all continue to live in the New York metro area. WeÔve attended all of each other's weddings and baby christenings and usually get together several times a year. All of us currently coach basketball at some level. They were all good ball players, but they are all even better people. I'm proud to know them.

What do you remember about the NCAA games against Rutgers and Kentucky?

The 1976 Rutgers NCAA game was another in the line of Princeton classics where we faced off against a top ten team and wound up losing by a point. It was a great match up because we had been regularly in the top twenty throughout the year. We made a great comeback in the last six minutes of the game getting to within one from a seven point deficit. We were at the line with a 1 and 1, down by a point with 4 seconds to go. I guarded Rutgers' All-American Phil Sellers that game and he was standing at half court sure that their year was over. Although the foul shot didn't go down, the game didn't detract at all from a wonderful season.

The 1977 Kentucky game was a David versus Goliath match up as we faced Kentucky's Rick Robey and Mike Phillips who were known as the "twin towers". The newspapers ran a picture of me guarding Robey and I looked like a midget. Kentucky was a very deep team with 8 or 9 very physical, talented players. We made a run at them when we were down by 5 early in the second half making 5 of our first 7 shots. The only problem was that we got burned by a back up guard named Truman Claytor who hit four bombs enabling them to go 6 for 7 and we couldn't close the gap.

Can you compare the evolution of "the system" from your era to the mid-80s to the mid-90s to now?

Princeton basketball has always been built on hard cuts, screening away and players who could see the floor and pass well. The biggest difference between 1978 and the present day system is obviously the three point shot. Today's teams can play to get the three point shot effectively because as long as they can hit 33% of their shots, they're scoring as well as we did shooting 50% anywhere else on the floor. The three point line also spreads the defense, creating back door opportunities. We played harder to get the open 15 foot jumper which was our bread and butter.

Defensively we played man to man exclusively. I think people overlook the fact that good, tough man to man team defense requires as much communication and teamwork as our offense did. Over the years, zone and match up zone defenses have been used as well. I think this reflects both the players on the Princeton team, as well as the fact that the opposing teams continue to get bigger, stronger and faster. It's important to do what it takes to win given your talent and the opposition.

When you watch Princeton play today, do you recognize the sets and plays or has the offense changed since the '70s?

The offense has been modified over the years, but it's still fun to watch a game and see the opposing defense begin to overplay to the point where you can "see" the backdoor opportunity two seconds before it happens. Although some of the sets have changed the component parts remain the same.

I played in the alumni game in June and even though I've been away for 25 years, it was like riding a bicycle. The passing, the cuts, the eye contact you make as you read what your teammate is doing is all there. It reminds me of when Bill Bradley would occasionally come down and work out with us when we were in school. Joe Heiser and John Hummer played with us as well. There was no greater compliment than when those great players told Coach Carril that "we could play." Basketball is never as much fun as playing with guys from Princeton.

Do you follow basketball now? How do you think the game has changed?

I follow Princeton throughout the year and usually get down to a game or two each season. Overall, I'm amazed at how the athleticism of college basketball players continues to improve. On the other hand, there has been an ongoing drop off in the ability of players at all levels to execute the fundamentals of the game. I think it's function of the game becoming more and more a form of entertainment where the top ten plays on ESPN Sportcenter highlight dunks and blocked shots but never allude to the importance of a hard back door cut or good team defense. The only time Tim Duncan was a nightly highlight was during the NBA finals where his solid fundamentals won San Antonio another NBA championship. All the other human highlight reels had already packed their bags and gone home. The fact that a US team made up of NBA players came in 5th in the 2002 World Championships and that a growing number of #1 NBA draft pick are international players should be a wake up call for basketball in the states.

How long did it take before you felt you mastered the Princeton offense well enough to run it without thinking about it? Was there a moment when a light went on or did it come gradually?

Actually the challenge was to master the Princeton offense well enough where you could think about it. This enabled you to see the play that was two passes away and to take advantage of what the defense gave you without compromising the integrity of the offense. I think most players when they are first exposed to the offense are too mechanical about it focusing on what they do and where they go. It's almost as if they're looking for footprints on the gym floor to tell them where to go next. The key to the offense is learning the component parts and understanding the dynamic of how to execute those parts when reacting to your teammates and the opposition. It's like a great jazz ensemble where everyone knows the notes, but the real beauty comes from the ability of the group to improvise off each other within the context of the music.

Guys with good fundamentals and a team orientation tend to pick up the offense faster. It took a year to where I was comfortable that I was in the right place at the right time. It probably took another year to get to the point where Billy Omeltchenko and I could improvise a back door just using eye contact.

How did the players get along with Coach Carril? Was there tension between the coach and some of the players?

You had to deal with a lot of adversity to play basketball at Princeton. The academic environment is challenging and when you stepped on the court your opponent couldn't care less what your board scores were. Coach Carril challenged every player to be better than they thought they could be. Some players saw these demands as unreasonable and left the team. Others focused so much on avoiding mistakes that they couldn't reach their full potential. However, I think all of us recognized that if we wanted to compete to the maximum of our capability playing Division I basketball, Coach Carril was one of the few coaches in the country who could get us to perform at that level. People can argue with Coach's approach, but he instilled in all of us a recognition that the quality of our work was paramount and that playing to win meant making the sacrifices and doing the little, unselfish things that ultimately make the difference between winning and losing.

What was the most difficult thing playing for Coach Carril?

I think that the idea of playing as a team became so ingrained in our teams that we didn't play as much for Coach Carril as we played for each other. No one on any of our squads would do anything to let another guy down. Once you got by the fact that you were going to get yelled at - a lot - and focused on what you needed to do to improve, you realized that all you needed to do was to give your best effort every day to get over the bar that Coach set for us each practice. When you did that consistently over time, you were prepared to take on all comers.

Do you have a favorite Coach Carril story?

I think everyone has dozens of Coach Carril stories, but one that sticks out happened during my sophomore year. It was probably two weeks before the start of the season and I was making my share of mistakes in learning the system. It had gotten to the point where Coach hadn't called me by name for a month. He only called me by my number. It was "25 this..." and "25 that...". In one practice we were working on defense and I made a good steal and broke into the open for a lay up. As I crossed half court, Rich Rizzuto, who was on the other team, came up from behind and tripped me. I went down hard and as I got up Coach was in my face screaming, "How can I play you 25 if you can't stay on your feet? What good are you when you're down on the floor?"

I couldn't believe it, but I kept my mouth shut and went back to the drill.

About a week later we were in just about the same situation. I made another good steal and I was breaking out of the pack when I got fouled hard again and I went down. This time I jumped up and glared at Carril expecting another tongue lashing, except this time he was standing with his arms crossed, cigar in hand with a smile on his face. This time he said, "Frankie, I saw you got tripped there. And I saw you got tripped last week too but you were feeling sorry for yourself so I yelled at you anyway."

Can you list some of the well known guys you played against?

Rick Robey and Jack "Goose" Givens of Kentucky, John Lucas and Brad Davis from Maryland, Eddie Jordan and James Bailey from Rutgers and Toby Knight from Notre Dame were all players who went on to the NBA. When I played in Madrid, I played against Walt Szczerbiak who played for Real Madrid. I first met his son, NBA All Star Wally Sczcerbiak, when he was two and was dunking a Nerf basketball in his living room.

Is there any player from the past 10 years that reminds you of yourself?

I guess I see a little bit of myself in all the players out there. You have to go back to Brian Taylor and Bill Bradley to see the last All Americans at Princeton. Most successful Princeton players were not highly recruited elsewhere, might be a little too slow or short, but were team players who competed very successfully through dedication and teamwork. In many ways, the history of success at Princeton is driven by players who believe in the system and continue the tradition of hard work and commitment to the team concept.

There has been discussion on of late about the degree to which the Princeton offense shifted in response to the introduction of the 3-point shot in 1986. As a first-rate shooter, would you say the offense in your day tried to create as many long shots for only 2 points?

Our offense worked the ball to find uncontested open shots. Most of these shots came in the form of medium range jump shots off screens or lay ups coming off back door cuts. While a lot of us had 3 point range, that shot didn't make sense because we would shoot a better percentage closer in. We also had guards, Armond Hill in particular, who could penetrate which freed up open 15 footers. Our comfort zone tended to be a full stride within the three point line although I would have loved to have played a couple of games where 20 foot shots were worth three points.

The lack of a three point line did have a positive aspect. With the strength of our defense it made it tough for teams to come back against us when they could only make up two points each trip down the floor. That tended to make teams overplay even more on defense which opened up the back door.

Can you share your impressions of these teammates?

Armond Hill - The best guard I've ever seen. The last first round NBA draft choice out of Princeton. Armond made it look so easy, but he worked very hard on his game. I use him as an example whenever I coach young kids. He was a quiet leader who made others better because he was on the floor.

Barnes Hauptfuhrer - A very hard worker who has been successful at everything he's done. He refused to let anything get in the way of becoming a better player.

Mickey Steuerer - Mickey was one of the smartest players I've ever met. He was All East in his junior year even though he was not considered terribly talented. He broke his wrist going into his senior year, but never felt sorry for himself and did everything he could every day to help the team win. Mickey, along with Peter Molloy, taught my class a lot about what it meant to play basketball at Princeton.

Bob Slaughter - A fantastic defender. Bob modified his game a lot to fit within the Princeton system and was an integral component and captain of our 1977 team.

Bob Roma - One of the most talented big men I had a chance to play with at Princeton. He chose Princeton despite scholarship offers from around the country because it would give him the academic opportunities to be a more well rounded person.

Bill Omeltchenko - Omo did all the little things well. As a guard, he ran the offense as well as anyone and he had a knack for making the key steal or grabbing the key rebound. He was incredibly tough and resilient, coming back from an appendicitis operation in two weeks.

Bob Kleinert - When Coach Carril first saw him, he told Bobby to stick with tennis and forget the basketball team. Bobby was small, slow and couldn't jump, but boy could he shoot. He simply refused to lose. He was the worst guy to practice against. He would grab, hold and do anything he could to get an edge. He was a starter our senior year and has been a winner throughout his basketball and business career.

Any final thoughts?

Princeton basketball has come to mean a lot of different things to all the players who have passed through the program over the years. There were the great teams of the 1960's, the NIT championship and two NCAA appearances in the 1970's, four NCAA visits in the 1980's and the terrific teams of the 1990's. Under the leadership of Butch van Breda Kolff, Pete Carril, Bill Carmody and now John Thompson, all those teams found a way to win using great defense, passing and the team concept. There aren't many universities so readily identified with a way of playing that have had such a long tradition of winning. "Princeton Basketball" and what it has come to stand for is something special.

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