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Pitt makes solid hire in Jeff Capel

NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Pitt fired men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings, I’ve mostly stayed away from the talk about the next hire.

Maybe it’s a result of having been through this process so many times. Maybe it was apathy, realizing that whoever came in would take a while to restore Pitt to any degree of prominence. Maybe it was just the result of an extremely busy last month or so. Likely, it was a little of each.

Before I get into looking at Pitt’s next head coach, Mike deserves your thanks. He’s done an incredible job of not only keeping you informed of all of the talk/rumors, but doing so in a manner that is generally more timely than I can provide. The blog is better for having him around here so buy that guy a drink or something.

So Jeff Capel, right? The most interesting thing of note is that, this is at least the fourth straight basketball hire I can remember where the pick was somewhat unexpected. I was only a student at the time but I don’t remember there being much buzz around Pitt taking a chance on Ben Howland, a guy from Northern Arizona. His predecessor, Jamie Dixon, was the only one out of the four that was a reasonable candidate from the beginning. Even in that circumstance, it wasn’t the hiring of a guy that seemed like a top target from the get go. The hope was that Pitt would land a more experienced guy to try to keep the momentum going. Players let their voices be heard and, ultimately, Pitt rolled the dice a second time to great success.

Kevin Stallings was completely off the map. I mean, I’m talking, throw-a-dart-at-the-dartboard-and-hit-your-dog-instead off the map. Before he was hired, the usual suspects, including Sean Miller, were bandied about. But the emergence of Stallings as a real candidate was met with jaw-dropping skepticism partly because it seemed like a poor choice and partly because he wasn’t ever discussed as even a darkhorse candidate initially. And, of course, today’s hire, Jeff Capel, was completely unexpected, too.

Capel is hardly an unknown commodity. If you’re not just out of diapers, you remember him as a player at Duke in the mid-90s. Never a serious NBA prospect despite a good collegiate career, he played professionally overseas for a couple of years before heading into coaching.

To me, Capel is the perfect mix for what ails Pitt. He has experience but hasn’t had enough of it that makes you wonder if we’ve already seen his best. Consider Pitt’s last two hires, for example. Dixon had zero head coaching experience and his claim to fame was being an assistant for a Pitt program that had gotten pretty good almost overnight. He wasn’t even seen as a top recruiter, typically the kinds of guy that would get a big time coaching job without head coaching experience. Hiring Dixon was really the equivalent of playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey while being slightly inebriated. There was no reasonable way to expect much of anything.

Contrasting that was Stallings. I’ve long since made the argument that we knew who Stallings was when he got here. And that’s a guy who’s had a half-decent coaching career but without any real, sustained success. Now nearing 60, Stallings, had coached for 23 years before coming to Pitt. And while he had some success in reaching the NCAAs in five out of six years, he had mostly bottomed out, making one NCAA appearance in his last four years before landing at Pitt. Stallings didn’t forget how to coach. Instead, his 23-year career proved he was, at best, adequate, and at worst, not very good. Further, his success had come in the SEC, a considerably easier place to win than the old Big East or his new conference, the ACC.

Capel is in between those two poles. He served for an assistant for only two seasons before getting his first head job at VCU. He had instant success, taking a program that hadn’t been to the postseason in seven years, and getting them to an NCAA Tournament and an NIT Tournament in his final three years. He never had a losing record there, averaging just under 20 wins per season.

After that, he went to Oklahoma, where he had a couple of really good seasons. After a 16-15 record in his first season there, he catapulted the program, getting them to 23 wins and an NCAA appearance in his second year. Capel topped that by going 30-6 in Year 3 and getting to an Elite Eight. His last two years? Problematic. The Sooners had losing records both seasons and had to vacate games in 2009-10, his next to last season, after it was ruled an assistant was involved in securing impermissible benefits for a player. Capel was dismissed after a second straight year of losing.

Given Pitt’s attendance woes under Stallings, I’ll admit, I chuckled when I saw this mentioned in an article when he was fired, indirectly citing some issues the program was having under Capel:

Attendance at the Lloyd Noble Center dropped off severely.


So what’s he been doing? Well, since then, he’s been biding his time as an assistant under Coach K at Duke. As you’d expect, by the way, Coach K had great things to say about Capel on his way out.

Capel, if you haven’t heard, is touted for his recruiting prowess and that’s probably the biggest thing to like here. Just two years ago, he was named the best recruiter in the nation. Given Pitt’s woes in that department in recent years, let that sink in.

There are even rumbles that the move has real short-term and long-term ramifications for Duke. I think that’s a bit overblown but that the national talk on this is about how valuable Capel was as Duke’s lead recruiter, hyperbolic articles or not, that’s encouraging. Duke is routinely pulling in the best players in the nation and, despite the fact that they could do that merely on Coach K’s name alone, if you’re the lead recruiter for a program like that, you know what you’re doing.

Even if Capel didn’t have prior head coaching experience, most people would be beyond satisfied to get him because of his recruiting ability. But when you add in that he’s got the head coaching experience (and has been pretty successful), it makes the hire even more attractive. So, um, what’s the problem? Why isn’t this the best hire of all time?

About that ...

The glaring negative against Capel, obviously, is the incident involving the benefits for the player, Tiny Gallon, a McDonald’s All-American recruit. The important thing to remember here is that there appears to be no link from Capel to the infraction and he was never implicated for any wrongdoing.

That’s something to note but not being discussed as much is that the FBI is still out investigating college basketball and reportedly has some big fish in its sights. That, by the way, includes Duke, one of the several schools that could have its hands slapped for being naughty. You really have to hope that Duke winds up being clean and, if not, that Capel had no part in any wrongdoing.

I’m always a little skeptical when I hear of stuff like the Gallon situation because it’s often hard to wonder how a head coach doesn’t know what his assistants are doing. But, by all indications, Capel seems clean and you have to think that Pitt did its homework. They also used a search firm for the process and that, of course, should provide an extra layer of checks. If there are somehow issues down the road, the school should (and will) have an exorbitant amount of egg on its face. This is what search firms do. They don’t merely find you the best candidates. I mean, who can’t do that on their own? They are there to fully screen candidates.

Assuming Capel is clean, I think you have to be pretty happy about how this played out. I don’t think there’s any question that guys like Thad Matta or Tom Crean were higher on Pitt’s list of targets, as Danny Hurley was. But given some of the names that were thrown around lately, such as Mark Schmidt, this is just light years better than that. Capel certainly struggled in his last couple of years at Oklahoma but to say the leash was a bit short after taking a program to the Elite Eight only two years earlier is an understatement.

Overall, Pitt comes out looking solid in this situation. Had Capel been one of the names thrown around as a top target initially, I think the reaction would have been much more muted. But with the process looking (at least externally) a little like a mess, you feel pretty good coming out of things with Capel.

Finally, Heather Lyke has to get credit here. The coaching search seemed like it was off to a particularly bumpy start and after the wrestling coaching search last year, I had some doubts where this would end. But given Pitt’s situation as a team that was just winless in the ACC last year and potentially losing all of its players, the Capel hiring has to be seen as a positive development.

I’m on board. You?

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