Just when it looked like Pitt would be left out in the late March cold without a head coach, Athletic Director Heather Lyke, unlike her predecessor, made a bold decision. Lyke hired Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel Tuesday — 17 days after firing Kevin Stallings.
Capel’s hiring comes as a pleasant surprise and a bold assertion of direction from Lyke.
“As your athletic director, there’s nothing more important and more exciting — and really more rewarding — than the opportunity to hire a head coach,” Lyke said at a Wednesday press conference.
As Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s top assistant, Capel, from the outside, looked to be the top choice as Krzyzewski’s successor when the 71-year-old coach eventually retires. He has deep ties to the Blue Devils, having played under Krzyzewski in the ‘90s.
After the disappointment of striking out with Dan Hurley and the dread of a potential match with Mark Schmidt, the hiring of Capel seems like an entirely jubilant outcome. And, for the most part, it is. Though optimism is fine, it should come with a small helping of caution.
Capel’s record on the recruiting trail is about as close as a coach can get to perfect. Upon his return to Durham, North Carolina, in 2011, the Blue Devils experienced an uptick in the type of players they signed — one-and-done recruits. Duke traded in its culture of recruiting players likely to stay for multiple seasons for NBA-ready prospects who were all but guaranteed to leave after a year.
It’s worked out great. Duke won the 2014-2015 National Championship and three of its first-year starters — Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow — would go on to get drafted in the first round of the NBA draft that same year.
Similarly, Capel’s recruiting prowess jumped Duke into contention with fellow blue bloods like Kentucky and Arizona for the title of top recruiting class on a year-in and year-out basis. Since 2011, the Blue Devils have had the top-ranked recruiting class four times and the top-ranked recruiting class for three years in a row.
Capel’s ability to land top prospects isn’t limited to his time with Duke. As the head coach of Oklahoma from 2006 to 2011, he showed an ability to land top-end local talent. He was able to convince Oklahoma native and future number-one pick in the NBA draft Blake Griffin to stay home in 2007 — though already having Griffin’s brother Taylor Griffin on the roster beforehand may have helped.
This talent for fostering relationships with elite players, both local and across the country, will be vitally important for a Pitt program that’s had a listless past few years on the recruiting trail. His deep ties and experience recruiting within the ACC is something the Panthers haven’t had since their move from the Big East to the ACC in 2013.
Capel’s talent as a recruiter is rock solid and undisputed, but his record as a head coach is certainly less so.
As the head coach of Virginia Commonwealth University from 2002 to 2006, Capel won at least 18 games every season. During the 2003-2004 season, his second year as head coach, Capel took the Rams to the NCAA tournament — the team’s first tournament appearance since 1996. That was the highlight of his tenure, as the next two seasons resulted in an NIT tournament berth and a fifth place in-conference finish, respectively.
Capel’s time at the helm of Oklahoma was vaguely reminiscent of the VCU days. Capel led the Sooners to the tournament in his second and third seasons, including an Elite Eight berth in the 2008-2009 season.
His last two years in Norman, however, weren’t without controversy. The Sooners underperformed, failing to break .500 in either season. Subsequently, all 13 wins during the 2009-2010 season were vacated due to violations of NCAA guidelines by an assistant coach. Capel wasn’t implicated and left for Duke.
Capel’s current acumen as a head coach is a bit of an unknown after nearly seven years as an assistant. The forecast is likely positive, given that coaches change and grow, and mostly for the better. Capel is a relatively young head coach at 43, and he already has a long list of accolades as both an assistant and head coach.
Duke is also a program where assistant coaches are given more responsibility. During Krzyzewski’s leave of absence for health-related issues, Capel took over seamlessly as acting head coach in January of 2017.
The vacated wins at Oklahoma make Lyke’s decision particularly interesting with the FBI’s ongoing investigation into corruption in college basketball — the same investigation that, in the fall, caused Louisville to fire longtime head coach Rick Pitino.
It was rumored that Pitt had an interest in Arizona head coach and Pitt alum Sean Miller, whose name was dragged through the mud by a questionable ESPN report that stated Miller instructed team officials to pay $100,000 to get center DeAndre Ayton to join the team. Both Lyke and Miller denied any mutual interest.
So, Lyke hired Capel — who, again, is in no way implicated by the FBI or NCAA — to take over. The hiring is a statement that Lyke wants and believes in Pitt to compete with the ACC’s elite both on the court and on the recruiting trail.
All things considered, the Capel signing seems like a near-dream signing and an immediate leap in the right direction for a Panther program that’s licking its wounds.