Q&A: Jeff Capel looks to rebuild Pitt basketball


Jeff Capel, the new head coach of the Pitt men’s basketball team, previously served as the former assistant men’s basketball coach for seven years at Duke. (Photo by Mackenzie Rodrigues | Contributing Editor)

After arguably one of the worst seasons in Pitt men’s basketball history, and facing the potential exodus of nearly half of last year’s roster, the program needed to make a change — so Athletic Director Heather Lyke hired Jeff Capel in March as head coach to bring the program back to prominence.

The Pitt News sat down with Capel to discuss his transition from the Blue Devils to the Panthers, his coaching experiences and what he looks forward to in the upcoming seasons.

The Pitt News: What was really attractive about Pitt’s offer? What made you make the move from Duke?

Jeff Capel: I think being in the ACC was a big thing, being on the East Coast — those were the two main things right away that attracted me. The third thing was the tradition of the program. I knew about some of the history of the program — most notably a little bit during the Paul Evans era, but a little bit more during the Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon eras. I knew it was a program that had been successful. I learned that it’s a really good school — that’s something I didn’t know. Obviously, I knew that it was a great sports city, but I didn’t really know much about Pittsburgh besides that. The cap was when I met our athletic director and met the chancellor. I was very impressed by their vision, by their support, by their understanding of what it takes and doing it the right way. They matched my feelings and the things that I believe in.

TPN: Previously, you were head coach at Virginia Commonwealth University and Oklahoma. What have you learned from those jobs that you really want to bring here?

JC: I think I understand the profession a little bit more. You know, we had success at both places but also had adversity and failure at both places, and I think I’ve learned from that. I was 27 when I got the VCU job. I didn’t really know what I was doing as far as running a program. I feel like I learned how to coach on the fly. I was 31 when I went to Oklahoma. I was incredibly naive, and I was going to a completely different part of the country. And certainly the seven years after that, being at Duke, I learned a lot there. I think it’s made me a better coach, made me a better leader and more prepared for this challenge.

TPN: Are there any specific things from coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke you learned that you want to try to implement here?

JC: As coaches, I think you try to take from everything, everyone, everything that you see. One of the best lessons I ever got was when I was 27, when I got the VCU job. I remember Coach K telling me, “Don’t try to be me, and don’t try to be who your dad was as a coach. You have to be you, and who you are is really good, and you have to trust that.” That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over my nine years of being a head coach back there at Duke. You have to be very comfortable with who you are as a coach and do things your way.

TPN: Have you tried to talk to any of the players to convince them to stay?

JC: I’ve told them that I want them to stay. I’d like to coach them. I’ve met with each guy individually, I’ve met with the team several times collectively. I’ve tried to do things since I’ve been here, in the 14 days, trying to get to know them and trying to get them to know me. As far as trying to convince them, I wouldn’t necessarily say convince. I think they have to come to that decision on their own. What I’ve tried to convince them is that I think we can be good. I’ve tried to convince them that I can help them get better, I can help them improve, I can help them achieve the things they want to achieve. Not only can I do that, but Pitt can do that.

TPN: After a very disappointing season in the ACC last year, what specific things are you trying to do to change the culture of the program right now?

JC: It’s hard to answer that because I don’t know who is going to be in the program. The first thing is trying to see who my roster is. But the thing we’ve talked about constantly with the guys that have been in workouts is that we can’t think about the past. I really don’t want to talk about last year. Number one, I wasn’t here, and I didn’t experience that, so it would be stupid and insensitive on my part to talk about something that I didn’t experience. Those guys had a very tough time last year. I wasn’t a part of that. I can’t feel it like they felt it. So the thing I talked to them about is what we have to do moving forward.

TPN: What kind of pitch are you making to recruits to try and convince them that Pitt is a great place to play right now?

JC: Especially if it’s a young kid, a kid that’s in high school, you pitch the opportunity to build something, to be a part of something special, to be a part of a foundation. We pitch incredible resources — that’s what we have here at Pitt. We have a fan base that is desperate and wants this program to get back and that’s rabid in its support. We have an amazing City. We have a City that loves sports, and we have an amazing University that’s diverse and really good academically with really good research and is very supportive of the athletics teams. We talk about the fact we’re in the best conference for basketball in the country.

TPN: Looking to next year, what are some of the expectations you have for the team?

JC: I expect for us to play hard every night, for us to work to get better every day, for us to play the right way and for us to go out and be competitive every night that we play. The thing I talked about earlier is building and creating these habits, and I truly believe that’s what leads to winning. If you can create great habits — winning habits, championship habits — and learn how to do that every day, even when the coach is not there, learn how to do everything the right way, I think that leads to winning.