Over the past two years, the Pitt basketball program strayed further and further away from the people and practices that gave rise to the sustained success it experienced in the 2000s and 2010s under longtime head coach Jamie Dixon. This began with the perceived snub of former Pitt assistant Brandin Knight as Dixon’s successor and colored the entire tenure of Kevin Stallings.
However, the decision to hire Jeff Capel has given the program new life and appears to have aided in rebuilding the bridges that collapsed during Pitt basketball’s recent decline, as the coach has made a point of reaching out to former Panther luminaries and involving them with the team.
That much was apparent this week, as Dixon-era Panthers Tyrell Biggs, Gilbert Brown, Jermaine Dixon, Levance Fields, Antonio Graves and Gary McGhee arrived at the Petersen Events Center on Wednesday. They were in town to practice for The Basketball Tournament as members of the Zoo Crew, a team composed primarily of Pitt alumni that debuted in the competition last year.
Brown and McGhee spoke with reporters about the state of Pitt basketball during their visit, and McGhee revealed his disappointment in the previous coaching staff as well as a general feeling of detachment from the program during Stallings’ term as the Panthers’ coach.
“I felt like a lot of it had to do with some of the people they had in here coaching,” McGhee told Craig Meyer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I just felt like it wasn’t the right fit at the time for the program. People make mistakes as far as hiring and firing.”
To a greater extent, though, Brown and McGhee expressed their optimism about the future of the program as it moves forward under the direction of Capel.
“When they hired Capel, I was actually excited,” said Brown. “I met him a few times, I’ve been around the team working out and seeing how he runs his program. I’m excited. I really am. I genuinely like the guy. I like what he’s going to do for this program.”
McGhee also concluded his comments regarding the program on a positive note.
“I’m glad for the coach we have now and the steps we’re making to improve and get back to where we were,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll continue to recruit hard-nosed guys like we had, guys that worked hard and put the team first.”
Brown and McGhee will take the court Saturday at 6 p.m. in Columbus, Ohio, where the Zoo Crew will face the Jackson TN Underdawgs. The game will air on ESPN 3.