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New Pitt coach Jeff Capel: ‘It just felt right’

Former Duke assistant talks about what led him to Panthers, the lack of black head coaches and the first time he saw Tupac wearing his jersey

For Jeff Capel, it was the start of one of the most hectic weeks of his life.

One day he was an assistant coach at Duke, preparing for a regional championship game against Kansas with hopes of taking the Blue Devils to the Final Four.

The next day, less than 24 hours after Duke’s season came to an end, he’s with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski discussing a head coaching opportunity at Pitt that was presented to him earlier in the day.

“I was dealing with heartbreak knowing that our season was over with an amazing group at Duke that will never be together again,” Capel said. “Then I’m meeting with Coach K, and there are all these different emotions after that meeting trying to figure it all out.”

That night Capel went to bed looking for a sign, and felt a presence at the foot of his bed. He jumped up, expecting to see his 5-year-old son, who often jumped into bed with his parents, but Capel saw nothing.

“I felt my dad’s presence,” Capel said of his late father, Jeff Capel II, the longtime coach who died last November. “At that moment — this is the first big decision I ever made without my dad — I felt this job was right.”

Twelve years after taking his first head coaching job at Virginia Commonwealth University, and seven years after being fired from his second head coaching position at Oklahoma, Capel is back in the game. He returns to take over a Pitt program coming off its second straight losing season, going 0-18 in the Atlantic Coast Conference during the 2017-18 season.

Capel has hit the ground running, spending much of the last week attempting to change the minds of the eight Pitt players who announced they were transferring after Kevin Stallings was fired at the end of the season. The new Pitt coach took time on Monday to discuss his new position.


It’s been seven years since your last head coaching job. Did you think it would take this long to get back?

When I was fired at Oklahoma my thought process was, especially when Coach K offered me a job, that I’d be at Duke for two years at the most. I certainly didn’t think it would be seven years.

You’ve been approached about several jobs in the past. Why take the Pitt job now?

For me it has to be the right fit for me and my family. When we went from VCU to Oklahoma, it was just me and my wife.

We have three babies — 10, 8 and 5 — so things changed drastically when opportunities were there. It wasn’t just thinking about the two of us, it was us thinking about what was best for our family. This job checked off every box that we, as a family, were looking for.

Then it came down to the feeling and connection with athletic director Heather Lyke and chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

It just felt right.

You said you were blown away after meeting them. Why was that?

I’ve had other opportunities, but this one you could tell they wanted us. I know they had talked to someone else, and I understand that. But they never made me feel I was a fallback.

I don’t care how great of a coach you are, whether it’s [Villanova’s] Jay Wright or [Michigan’s] John Beilein or Coach K, all these jobs make you go through very difficult times.

For me, I wanted to work with people who I know would be in that foxhole with me. And who believed in me. That’s what I found with Heather and Chancellor Gallagher.

Why take a job with a team that went 0-18 in the ACC?

Every job you take, if you’re fortunate to get one of these jobs as a head coach, is all pressure. If you go to a program that’s used to winning, you better go in there and win because that’s what they expect.

If you go to a program that’s going through difficult times, maybe they’ll be a bit more lenient with you. That they understand — or you hope they understand — that it’s not going to happen overnight.

Pitt’s a great city, a great sports town. The school has great tradition, great resources and really good academics.

Even though they were 0-18 last year, it’s a very young team that had no experience in the most difficult conference in the country. I felt if we can keep the core together, we can build this program up.

How do you convince the players who said they were going to transfer to stay?

I’ve tried to get to know them, for them to get to know me. I’ve had meetings with them and stayed in communication with them. I’ve reached out to their parents to answer any questions or concerns they may have.

I have empathy for these guys because going 0-18, that’s brutal. Then to have a coaching change, and someone comes in these guys don’t know? That’s tough.

I’m trying to convince them that this is the right place and we can build this together.

“When I went back to Duke to be an assistant, I told Coach K I didn’t want to come back and just be known as the black recruiter. Historically, that’s kind of what the black guy is known to be on coaching staffs. It’s his job to recruit, and you’re not respected so much for your X’s and O’s, your IQ or your ability to command a room.”

What’s the main thing you’ve learned from Coach K?

I’ll tell you a story: Three years ago we were getting ready to play St. John’s. If we won, it was Coach K’s 1,000th win. During our staff meeting, he wrote ’36-48′ on the board.

Under that he wrote ‘1,000.’

He told us that was his record, 36-48, after his first three years at Duke. And that what we were getting ready to accomplish, 1,000, was because of those first three years. The foundation of the program at Duke was built on fighting together.

You have this man who’s accomplished everything a person can accomplish, with the exception of winning an NBA championship. And there is a hunger there, there is a fight, and he still feels it.

Coach K taught me you have to fight for everything. Even when you become successful, you have to keep fighting.

The number of black coaches peaked in 2006 but has slightly declined since then. Why do you think the numbers haven’t picked up?

I was reading a story on your site about Coach [Nolan] Richardson, and another one about the BCA [Black Coaches Association]. Times are different now.

We don’t have a Coach [John] Thompson or a Coach Richardson or a Coach [John] Chaney. Those are pioneers. They were so secure in their jobs, they weren’t afraid to speak up about the injustices or the plight of black coaches. I think maybe we’ve gotten away from that, that now maybe there’s a fear.

Coach Richardson never got another opportunity, and that’s crazy. Especially when you see some of these guys getting second and third chances. So we feel like maybe we can’t speak up as much.

We have to continue to break down barriers, get opportunities and then be successful. That’s one of the main things: be successful and be very careful about how we do our job. Make sure we do it right, and not have any incidents.

When I went back to Duke to be an assistant, I told Coach K I didn’t want to come back and just be known as the black recruiter. Historically, that’s kind of what the black guy is known to be on coaching staffs. It’s his job to recruit, and you’re not respected so much for your X’s and O’s, your IQ or your ability to command a room.

It’s still hard sometimes. When we get these opportunities, we have to do everything we can to be successful the right way. And be examples to hopefully open doors for others, just like what Coach Thompson and those guys did for us.

Do you think it’s time for college basketball to have something similar to a Rooney Rule? What would help to get more black athletic directors, and more women ADs?

Would a Rooney Rule work? I don’t know. I remember when my dad was at ODU [Old Dominion University]. Back then, getting to the NCAA tournament was a big deal for mid-majors, and my dad not only made it to the NCAA tournament, they beat Villanova in the first round.

His name was always in the paper mentioned as a candidate when jobs opened up. He never got interviewed and never got called about any of these jobs.

Tupac used to rock your jersey (Capel played at Duke from 1993-97). What was it like seeing that for the first time?

I saw it in the [2003] documentary Tupac: Resurrection. I was the head coach at Oklahoma at the time. It came on, and I paused the TV and said, ‘Is that my jersey?’ He was doing an interview with Tabitha Soren of MTV.

I was blown away. Obviously, I’m a big Tupac fan. But to see him wearing my jersey was pretty incredible.

Have you ever used that as a recruiting tool, or will you?

I did once. There was a kid we were recruiting, he had a connection with a famous rapper that wore his jersey. I said hey, that’s really cool. And I sent him a picture of Pac wearing mine.

He was blown away by it. I was actually really impressed that he knew who Tupac was.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.