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En Route to Becoming Pitt’s Basketball Savior, Capel Learned the Hard Way

Jeff Capel brings more than an impressive resume to the Pitt Panthers.

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Jeff Capel has the resume.

But what might allow him to become Pitt’s long-awaited basketball savior, beyond his bonafides, is his perspective.

Former captain at Duke for Mike Krzyzewski? Check.

Seven years as an assistant under Coach K? Check.

Head coaching experience spanning a combined nine seasons at VCU and Oklahoma? Check.

Yet what separates Capel — what, potentially, makes him appear to be the right guy in the right place at the right time at Pitt is the step back he had to take before once again moving forward.

“Going from a head coach for nine years back to an assistant, it was interesting,” Capel acknowledged during his introductory press conference last week at the Petersen Events Center. “But it was necessary.”

Capel was once a hotshot, the youngest head coach in Division I. He achieved that designation when he was hired by VCU at 27 in 2002, following two years as an assistant at the school.

Capel’s only other experience at the time had been a season as an assistant under his father at Old Dominion.

“It wasn’t a very popular thing,” Capel recalled regarding his meteoric rise up the coaching ranks. “People thought that the people at VCU were crazy, and so I always coached with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder — to show ’em, ‘Hey, these people weren’t crazy, they did see something.’

“So there was always a little bit of fear there.”

Capel got VCU to an NCAA Tournament, which got him to Oklahoma, where he got the Sooners to the Elite Eight. But eventually he got fired, which necessitated a return to Duke for graduate-level studies under Krzyzewski.

Capel’s dissertation regarding the significance of that experience, snippets of which he revealed upon taking over at Pitt, suggest he couldn’t be more ready for such an undertaking.

“Duke was necessary for me,” Capel insisted. “It was something that had to happen. When you get fired from a program, which I did at Oklahoma, that’s not fun. It’s something that I probably always feared.

“I think I’ll have better balance now as a head coach. I think I’ve learned not to take myself as serious as I once did.”

A college basketball coach who doesn’t take himself too seriously? Sounds about 180 degrees from Rick Pitino and a bunch of self-absorbed others in the profession, doesn’t it?

Capel, at first glance, is a refreshing exception. He came to Pitt not to prove himself, but to do a job.

And the suspicion, this time, is that he’ll coach not with fear but with conviction.

That’s the difference when you have the type of understanding and self-awareness Capel exuded from the podium while addressing who he is — and why he sees such vast potential in Pitt.

He talked nuts-and-bolts basketball, too, emphasizing, among other things, his desire for the Panthers to play fast, his appreciation of man-to-man defense, the significance of the point guard position and the need for players to be able to defend more than one position.

But what should be most encouraging to Pitt fans is all that Capel absorbed beyond X’s & O’s during his second tenure at the right hand of Krzyzewski, a legend for what he’s done, how he’s done it and how long he’s been able to remain perched at the very top of the college game.

“I knew Duke as a player but I didn’t know the ins and outs,” Capel explained. “I think I’ve learned how to run a program better. I know I’ve become a better coach.

“I think the biggest thing is how to really run a program. I thought I was good before but I know I’ll be better now because I’ve had a chance to sit beside, and be with every day, and have these intimate conversations with a guy that I think is the best that’s ever done it.”

Pitt wasn’t going to get that with its admitted first choice, Rhode Island’s Danny Hurley (who has since taken over at Connecticut).

Capel was even comfortable enough in is own skin to admit he doesn’t yet have all the answers as it relates to Pitt’s intended resurrection.

His arrival was preceded by multiple reports of players asking for and being granted releases from their scholarships in the wake of the firing of predecessor Kevin Stallings, to the extent that it was unclear how many players were actually on the team Capel inherited.

“I don’t know,” he conceded. “That’s the nature of college basketball right now, unfortunately. I’d like for it to be different. And hopefully, as we build this thing and as we go forward, it will be different. But right now that’s something I’m not exactly sure of.

“Is it daunting? Yes, I knew that when I took the job.”

Capel took the job, anyway. Upon doing so, he couldn’t have come off as more genuine.

Don’t bet against the job getting done eventually.


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