Column | Pitt fans owe Jeff Capel an apology


TPN File Photo

Head basketball coach Jeff Capel watches from the bench as a penalty call dashes the Panthers’ hopes to upset Louisville in January 2020.

By Mason Carter, Staff Writer

Coming off his fourth season, which was his worst at Pitt so far, Panthers head coach Jeff Capel was in a prove-it year. 

After a disappointing 2021-22 season, many Panther fans hoped for athletic director Heather Lyke and the University to write the $15 million buyout check and send Capel on his way. However, Lyke held faith in Capel and announced his return for the 2022-23 season, despite the outside noise.

The athletic department hired Capel in 2018 to replace Kevin Stallings, who failed to win a conference game in his final season as head coach. At the time, he was the top assistant on coach Mike Krzyzewski’s staff at Duke. Capel was their top recruiter, playing a significant role in securing multiple No. 1 recruiting classes while at Duke.

Before returning to his alma mater, Duke, Capel was previously head coach of Oklahoma. He reached the tournament twice during his four seasons coaching the Sooners, including the Elite Eight in 2009. Capel also coached at VCU, winning the CAA conference championship and making an NCAA tournament appearance in 2004.

With Pitt basketball at one of its lowest points in history, many hoped that Capel would bring Pitt basketball back to national prominence. In his first three seasons, he went 40-48, failing to capture one winning season. 

Heading into his fifth season, Panther fans expectations were low for Capel. As Pitt’s second game of the Legends Classic finished, most fans finally gave up on the Jeff Capel experiment. After suffering an embarrassing loss to rivals West Virginia days earlier, Panther fans desperately hoped to see improvements for this upcoming season. 

The Panthers left Brooklyn, New York, with back-to-back losses to Michigan and VCU. Sitting at 1-3, it was clear that head coach Jeff Capel needed to get his act together.

Looking at how the season turned out, almost all Panther fans owe Jeff Capel an apology.

Capel managed to block out the calls for his job and complete a 10-game turnaround from last season, culminating in the Panthers reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years. The Panthers finished the regular season with an overall record of 21-10 and a 14-6 record in the ACC. This performance by the Panthers earned Capel ACC Coach of the Year honors and Naismith Coach of the Year semifinalist.

Coming into the season, many predicted Pitt to finish second to last in the ACC. The Panthers returned only two starters, graduate guard Jamarius Burton and junior forward John Hugley, who was the Panther’s leading scorer last season. Capel went out in the transfer portal and secured four players — graduate student guard Nelly Cummings, junior forward Blake Hinson, graduate student guard Greg Elliot and sophomore center Federiko Federiko. These players were from smaller schools or had limited action in Division I basketball. These little known players made a huge impact for the Panthers this season thanks to Jeff Capel’s ability at finding talent.

Capel earned his right to remain the Panthers’ head coach and deserves the support he received throughout the year. With the Panthers finding success again, fans made sure to show up at the Petersen Events Center. Pitt was one of five ACC teams with attendance numbers of more than 10,000 people for conference play. The Oakland Zoo also was overflowing this season, causing trouble for many opponents. Some even called it the No. 1 student section in the ACC this season. 

While maintaining success for the Panthers on the court, Capel still was able to do damage on the recruiting trail. The Panthers currently have the No. 26 ranked class in the country for 2023, including two top 150 players, Jaland Lowe and Carlton Carrington, according to 24/7 Sports.

The Panthers did end the season a little rocky, losing two of their last three regular season games. They were in the running for first place in the conference throughout most of the season, until the last day of ACC play, when the worst scenario for the Panthers occurred. Seeded No. 5 in the ACC tournament, the Panthers beat No. 13 Georgia Tech, before losing to the eventual champion No. 4 Duke in the quarterfinals.

Despite the late-season meltdown, Capel’s team did enough earlier in the season to earn them a spot in the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed. The Panthers are matched up against Mississippi State in the First Four.

Panthers fans should have seen enough from this season to feel confident in leaving the program in Capel’s hands. After the Dixon era, Pitt spiraled into some dark days under Stallings. With the hiring of Capel, many fans were eager to see change, but didn’t have the patience to stick it out. Changing a program from the bottom up is a process, and Capel understood this all.

Panthers fans can start believing in the future of this program, especially the way Capel has it trending right now.