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Pitt’s Jeff Capel knows something about climbing out of a hole

New basketball coach has tough challenge after last year’s 0-19 ACC record

When Jeff Capel got the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh, one of the first things he told his team was, “Go home.”

It was spring 2018. The Panthers had finished the season 8-24, including an unfathomable 0-19 in the ACC. Kevin Stallings had been fired after two years as head coach. Eight players requested transfers, and the lone high school recruit jumped ship. Just nine years after reaching No. 1 in the polls and coming within a buzzer-beater of the Final Four, Pitt had been held to seven points in the first half of a game. Not a football game. A basketball game.

Players normally stay on campus during the summer to take classes and work out. Capel decided they needed to get away and erase the memory of Pitt’s worst season.

“Then when you come back, let’s be ready to really get after this thing and understand how hard it’s going to be,” Capel recalled telling his players. “No one’s going to feel sorry for us, especially in this league. It’s a very unforgiving league, but we have to fight.”

Capel is counting on that fight to revive Pitt basketball. And this 43-year-old scion of the Duke dynasty actually knows something about climbing up from the bottom.

Capel, son of a college and pro coach, was a four-year starter for the Blue Devils as a 6-foot-4-inch guard. His freshman year, Duke lost to Arkansas in the national championship game. The next season, with Grant Hill gone to the NBA and coach Mike Krzyzewski out of commission with health issues, Duke went 13-18 overall, 2-14 in the ACC, and failed to make the NCAA tournament. For Duke, missing the tournament is as unthinkable as Coach K’s hair going gray — it’s just not supposed to happen.

The following season, Duke started ACC play 0-4, then clawed back to make the NCAAs and finish 18-13.

“How do you get from under that? You either give in to it or you fight your way out of it. That’s the lesson I took from that,” Capel said during a conversation in his sparsely furnished office. Atop his glass-topped desk were neat paper piles of charts, plays and handwritten notes; a photo with his wife and three children; and three books: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World And Me, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and The Power of a Positive Team by Jon Gordon.

“No one’s going to feel sorry for us, especially in this league. It’s a very unforgiving league, but we have to fight.”

“One of the most important things I learned during my time as a collegiate player was you have to fight for everything that you want. It’s not given. It’s not a birthright. You have to earn it,” Capel said. “And you earn it by what you do every day, how you show up every day. You have to keep pushing.”

After college, Capel played pro ball for two years, in France and the Continental Basketball Association, then joined his father’s coaching staff at Old Dominion. At age 27, he became head coach at Virginia Commonwealth, won a ton of games and made the NCAA tournament in 2004. That led to the head coaching job at Oklahoma in 2006. He was 31 years old.

Capel recruited future NBA superstar Blake Griffin, who in 2009 took Oklahoma to the Elite Eight, where the Sooners lost to eventual champion North Carolina. But Oklahoma struggled after Griffin’s departure and a key player’s injury. Capel was fired in 2011. Later that year, Oklahoma admitted one of its players had received $3,000 in impermissible benefits during Capel’s time in charge. Capel was not implicated in the violation.

A few months after his dismissal, Capel was hired as an assistant at Duke, where he remained until getting the Pitt job in March. He’s one of only 73 black head coaches in Division I men’s basketball (245 are white and two are Latino), according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski (center) with assistants Jeff Capel (left) and Jon Scheyer (right). The Blue Devils hosted Notre Dame on Jan. 29 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won the game 88-66.

Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire

“I feel the things that I’ve gone through have been necessary and have prepared me for this moment — the success, the failure,” Capel said.

“I knew what I was stepping into. One of the things that attracted me to Pitt was the fact that it was down. Because to me, it gives me a chance to build it exactly like I want. The immediate goal is to build it on a great foundation.”

That means “brick by brick,” starting with his current players. Capel persuaded five of the eight would-be transfers to stay and signed three freshmen, including top-100 guard Trey McGowens. Sophomore guard Khameron Davis said the new coaching staff has focused on individual skill development, weight training and getting players in better shape to play at a faster pace.

“Being winners and changing a program is not going to be easy. We have to always fight, and we have to always battle with ourselves and with everybody else every day,” Davis said. “None of us have been winners, right? For us to fight with ourselves, it means we have to keep going our hardest every day, because we haven’t won, so we don’t know how hard we’ve got to go.”

Especially in one of the toughest conferences in college hoops. Pitt’s decline began when, in a quest for TV revenue, it left the Big East for the ACC ahead of the 2013-14 season. Recruiting players from Pitt’s traditional strongholds of New York City, Philadelphia and New Jersey got tougher because their league games could be as far from home as Clemson, South Carolina, or Tallahassee, Florida. Meanwhile, competition in the ACC was absolutely brutal.

“I’m not going to lie, last season was really hard,” Davis said. “It got hard to come to the gym every day. Our ACC schedule got harder as time went on … we’ve got Virginia coming up, we’ve got North Carolina coming up, we’ve got Duke twice.”

While an assistant at Duke, Capel led recruiting efforts that landed a series of future NBA lottery picks. Pittsburgh is a harder sell than Durham — Pitt’s last draft pick of note was Steven Adams, who played one season before being drafted 12th by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2013. But Capel says he doesn’t need one-and-dones to succeed, citing programs such as Virginia and Villanova that win with upperclassmen.

Players from the Pitt glory days are enthusiastic about Capel. “No. 1, he brings validity. People know him from Duke, one of the best programs in the country,” said Darelle Porter, a Pittsburgh native who starred with future NBA talents Charles Smith and Jerome Lane (of shattered backboard fame) on the powerhouse Panthers squads of the late 1980s.

Porter’s teammate Jason Matthews observed that Pitt needs top talent to compete in the ACC. “I was very fortunate to play with All-Americans and NBA first-round draft picks,” said Matthews, the sixth all-time leading scorer in school history. “I believe Coach Capel can recruit top-100 players at Pitt. … The former players I’ve spoken to share a lot of excitement with Coach Capel at the helm of the program we love.”

Now comes the hard part, starting with the season opener against Youngstown State on Tuesday. The ACC schedule begins Jan. 5 against North Carolina, ranked eighth in the preseason polls. Six other ACC teams are in the Top 25.

“What I’ve talked to our team about is, just because I’m here doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” Capel said. “Just because there’s energy and people are excited, that’s great, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily going to happen. We have to make it happen.

“It has to mean that much to us that you fight for it.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.