The wheels began to come off with a four-point play. As Penn's Eric Osmundson rose up for a three pointer on the right wing, Princeton's Andre Logan came charging into his chest. The ball swished through the net. The packed Palestra crowd erupted. The seemingly insurmountable Princeton lead that had been as much as eighteen with seven and a half minutes left to play, was cut to ten.
Princeton wasn't supposed to suddenly find themselves in a game that cold February night in 2005. Then again, Princeton wasn't supposed to have entered the always-crucial match-up with Penn a paltry 1-3 in league play, fighting to stay relevant in the race that sent the regular season winner to the NCAA tournament. The senior-laden team was coming off an Ivy Championship, had returned all but one rotational player, boasted All- Ivy caliber starters in Judson Wallace and Will Venable, and was led by a new coach who had received National Coach of the Year votes a year before.
None of that mattered. The Quakers would claw their way back and win by eight in overtime, putting the nail in the coffin in their rival's once promising season. Fans who were there that night will tell you about the way Penn's full court press drew energy from the crowd or recall the gutsy shots by Osmundson and Jan Fikiel. But I will never forget one moment late in the game that told me that the Tigers were doomed.
It came with 1:03 remaining, and Princeton clinging to a one-point lead. Judson Wallace received the ball in the low post and attempted a quick drop step to the baseline past Penn's Steve Danley. The ref blew the whistle and called Wallace for a hook, ending his night with five fouls. The crowd roared the way it does when sensing a massive momentum shift right before its eyes. It was exactly the kind of moment that tests the strength of a team; when all hands are needed on deck to navigate a crisis. There was no brief huddle, no impassioned screaming from the seniors save Wallace's cries of protest. The coach couldn't even muster a word of encouragement. It was as if every single Princeton Tiger was thinking the same question: What just happened?
"'In this life,' he would say, 'the big, strong guys are always taking from the
smaller, weaker guys but... the smart take from the strong.'"
Princeton Basketball, like Notre Dame football, UCLA basketball and most winning (and self-important) sports traditions, prides itself on family. It is not hard to see why. Success can breed the desire to keep things in house and the hubris that the secret sauce has been found. Fans of these programs like to speak of an overall ethos, usually referred to by placing the team name in between the words "The" and "Way." The shallowest of these philosophies have less to do with playing style--after all, Dean Smith's teams never ran the way Roy Williams' versions do--and more to do with selling business books in the airport. However, Princeton may be the rare exception where the style matters most of all.
The Tigers' approach--AKA "The System," or as it is most commonly known, "The Princeton Offense"--has changed little in the last few decades. The offense is methodical and patient, a complex read-and-react system that aims to get backdoor lay-ups and open three point jumpers. Defensively, where the program gets less fanfare but is equally as successful (albeit a benefit of the slow pace of play), the team mixes principled man-to- man defense and the occasional irritating match-up zone. The architect of The System is Pete Carril, who patrolled the sidelines for 29 years overseeing what writer Alexander Wolf described as the epitome of team basketball: "If its constituents can all pass, move, and shoot, and no one cares who ultimately scores, a team running a backdoor offense will press against the limit of its potential, while the opposition suffers death by a thousand back cuts," Wolff wrote in Big Game, Small World. Alexander Wolff is a graduate of Princeton. So are four of the five coaches who followed Carril's footsteps.
Carril's immediate successors translated their success with The System into more high profile gigs across the red line. First Bill Carmody left for Northwestern, then John Thompson III followed in his father's footsteps at Georgetown. Yet no matter who was on the sidelines, Princeton was in contention for the league title year after year. It was like watching a perfectly calibrated relay team, each coach taking the baton and passing it on to the next runner without a hitch. That is, until the baton reached Joe Scott.
Scott was a member of the Princeton family and a celebrated hire from the beginning. Like Thompson, he co-captained one of Carril's teams and was noted for his intensity and leadership. "It'll be a sad day when he leaves," Carril told The Daily Princetonian after a particularly gutsy effort from his senior point guard. Scott was not gone long. He returned five years after graduation to serve as Carril's assistant before taking the head job at Air Force, where he introduced The System to the service academy's dormant basketball program. In Scott's final year, the Falcons earned a top 25 appearance and an NCAA tournament bid.
Taking the Princeton job meant leaving a resurgent team that was returning much of its talent. But the opportunity to coach at his alma mater was a sentimental shoe-in for the former Tiger point guard. "This decision was about my heart and my feelings for this place," said Scott at his first press conference, which the local Princeton paper Town Topics
described as both a "lovefest" and "a homecoming." "Last night, driving down Washington Road and seeing Jadwin Gym, right then I knew with 100 percent certainty that this is the right place."* * *
"Losing does not build character. If the players want to lose, here is all they have to do: drink, smoke, lie, be lazy. I guarantee the team will lose every time and you will have a team of characters."
The horrific loss to Penn sent Princeton toward an embarrassing 6-8 finish in 2004-05, the first time the program had ever finished below .500 in the Ivy League. It was a stunning result for a talented and experienced team that was the unanimous pick to return to the Big Dance. But it wasn't the nadir of the Joe Scott tenure. Most Princeton fans would agree that rock bottom came during a three-week stretch the following season. Princeton welcomed a weak Monmouth team to Jadwin in mid-December and promptly set the NCAA record for offensive futility, mustering only 21 points the entire game. After two listless losses to superior opponents in Wake Forest and Stanford, the Tigers then lost by five, at home, to Division III Carnegie Mellon.
The Princeton family panicked. Stories began to leak about how Scott's dictatorial style--praised mere months before as "hard nosed" and "no-nonsense"--was turning off many members of the team. Players quit and attendance plummeted. The Internet responded accordingly. FireJoeScott.com became a popular hangout for the disenchanted while message boards were peppered with furious rants and, yes, even philosophical debates about the merits of The System. It was only a matter of time. After the Tigers finished in the Ivy basement at the end of the 2006-07 campaign, Scott stepped down and accepted the head job at the University of Denver, escaping back to the mountains of Colorado, his alma mater's program in tatters.* * *
"When you teach basketball, it has its technical parts and its life parts. It has to be that way because it's played by humans. You'd be surprised by how many people forget that."
There are a lot of theories about what went wrong. Unlike the majority of instances when a coach is forced out, the Princeton family could not blame Scott for incompetence with the X's and O's. To assail his clipboard was to attack The System. Instead, critics began to coalesce around the way Scott treated his players. His brand of tough love might have worked for service academy kids, the theory went, but not at Princeton.
Statements from some of Scott's former players seemed to corroborate this line of thinking. "He treated people extremely poorly, and I think it definitely showed up on the basketball court," former center Mike Stephens told The Daily Princetonian. Judson Wallace, speaking to the student newspaper from his pro team in Europe, went for the jugular. "For the last three years, I've tried to maintain a degree of class when referring to Joe Scott despite everything inside me telling me to expose the type of person he was toward me," the former All-Ivy Center revealed. "I can easily see how [he] could talk and talk about having guts and character and always be talking down to people, then run like a scared child from the pressure of a tough situation." The words of family can cut deepest.
Yet to put the blame squarely on Scott--or on any coach for a team's failure--reflects the human desire to find a scapegoat. Stephens' and Wallace's feelings were not universally echoed by other members of the team. What's more, this interpretation removes the players from culpability. It was not the coach that missed open jump shots or threw the ball away. What of the dwindling cupboard of talent left behind by JTIII?
At what point does assessment of a team move beyond the coach to the collection of men who actually put on the uniform and take to the court each night? In Big Game, Small World, Alexander Wolf noted how the Princeton offense represented an evolution from the overreliance on one player--Bill Bradley--to that of a true team effort. When faced with failure, the Princeton family reverted to its emphasis of the individual over the collective.
Yet when I think back to that pivotal moment in the Palestra when Wallace fouled out, I can't help thinking that I witnessed the unraveling of a team worn down by the pressures of family. The benefits of a winning tradition are obvious, none more important than the accrued cultural capital concerning how to win. But the double-edged sword of a successful past is the pressure to live up to it.
It is the kind of weight that can feel heavier when the situation seems too right (like a rising star coach coming home to lead a talented team) and when things begin to go wrong (such as allowing a four point play). Then all the years of success, all the past greats, all the philosophical musings from coaching legends, all the offensive sets and counters and counters to the counters, are not lifeboats but icebergs pulling everyone down swifter and quicker than before.* * *
"If you have a good strong heart, you can overcome your environment, whatever it is."
In March of 2011, a talented team again found itself on its heels. Every run seemed to be countered by a deflating defensive lapse and the crowd grew louder with each minute, sensing something special was about to happen. But this time, it was the Kentucky Wildcats on the ropes, and Princeton back in its usual place as the pesky NCAA tournament spoiler. Though an off balance Brendan Knight runner would save the day for the Wildcats, the game seem to signal that Princeton basketball was back. Under the guidance of Sydney Johnson and now Mitch Henderson (yes, two former players), the Tigers have risen back to the top of the Ivy League and most preseason publications have them as this year's favorite to return to the Dance.
Some might say this story has a happy ending. For a brief time, arguably the most distinctive program in the country--a normally cohesive, tough, pain-in-the-ass unit you definitely did not want to play--sputtered and bickered, collapsing under the weight of expectation.
But just as a family may be ultimately judged by how it treats its misfits and outcasts, Princeton has not yet reconciled itself to the Joe Scott era. If and when that opportunity comes, it will only be when an aged former point guard and coach can drive down Washington road, walk into Jadwin, and hear what fellow fans, alumni, and friends of the program have been holding back for years: "Welcome home."