Capel ready for “daunting” task of rebuilding Pitt Hoops
PITTSBURGH — Jeff Capel’s firing at Oklahoma seven years ago left him shaken. He found solace, security and peace as an assistant at Duke, soaking up everything coach, mentor and friend Mike Krzyzewski offered, no matter how mundane.
Over time, jobs would occasionally pop up. Capel would take a look but never really came close to leaving.
Then Capel spent three hours with Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke and chancellor Patrick Gallagher on Monday. And all the boxes were checked.
An ACC gig. Desirable facilities. A program with a pedigree. A seven-year contract to build the Panthers the way he wanted. All of it was there.
Just in case Capel needed a nudge, he received one early Tuesday morning when he bolted upright thinking the feeling at the end of his bed was 5-year-old Elijah wanting to crash with his parents.
“That’s when I knew my dad was there, letting me know (Pitt) was the right decision,” said Capel, whose father Jeff Capel II spent more than 30 years coaching in high school, college and the NBA before his death last November.
So Capel called Lyke on Tuesday morning and accepted the challenge of taking over the only one Division I team to go winless in conference play this season, a freefall that cost Kevin Stallings his job and sent Lyke on an 18-day odyssey to find his successor.
It ended with Capel in a blue suit and gold tie standing underneath a banner at Petersen Events Center on Wednesday, eager at 43 to try and shake the Panthers out of a funk that has turned them from an NCAA Tournament fixture under Jamie Dixon to a cautionary tale during Stallings’ brief tenure, one that ended on March 8 after Pitt finished 8-24 and 0-18 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Capel is tasked with turning back the clock while simultaneously pushing the Panthers forward at the same time. He believes everything is in place. If it wasn’t, he would have stayed with the Blue Devils.
“It was about the right fit,” Capel said.
One that, at least externally, Lyke seemed to have trouble finding. Pitt made a lucrative offer to former Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley, who passed to take the same position at Connecticut.
While the opening appeared to be languishing, Lyke insisted it was not. She blocked out the noise on social media and went all in on Capel, who went 175-110 in nine seasons at Virginia Commonwealth and Oklahoma before the Sooners let him go in 2011 following consecutive losing seasons and an NCAA investigation into improper actions by one of Capel’s assistants.
Capel was never implicated but admitted the abrupt end of his tenure with the Sooners at 36 left him “rocked.” Krzyzewski offered a landing spot at his alma mater, and Capel absorbed what he could from the Hall of Famer while becoming one of the top recruiters in the country.
Though the insignia on his pullover has changed, Capel doesn’t think that should be an obstacle when it comes to cobbling together a roster talented enough to compete in one of the toughest conferences in the country.
“Do I think we can get in the door? Yeah,” Capel said. “We got in the door with guys that maybe were above us when I was at VCU. We certainly got in the door with guys — people didn’t think we could when I was at Oklahoma. So I have no doubt we can do that here.”
Capel started recruiting the minute he accepted the job. His first request after telling Lyke he would come was to ask for the phone numbers of the current Panthers, many of whom had asked to be released from their scholarship after Stallings was let go. They didn’t want to leave, exactly. They just wanted to protect themselves in case the new hire wanted to clean house.
That doesn’t appear to be the case.
Capel said every player will be given an opportunity to stay, but he won’t try to rush them into a decision. The Panthers had one of the youngest rotations in the nation this season, with seven freshmen averaging at least 17 minutes.
“I think they would be excited about how we play, the things that we do,” he said. “But I respect the fact that they have the freedom to make their decision. So we’ll go from there.”
The path ahead figures to be bumpy.