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Kevin Gorman: Jeff Capel sells vision to flip script at Pitt

Kevin Gorman
| Thursday, May 31, 2018, 5:11 p.m.

Jeff Capel knows he forever will be associated with Duke, where he played for a national championship and won an NCAA title as an assistant coach.

But Capel is immersing himself into the Pittsburgh sports scene, as the new Pitt men's basketball coach is rebuilding a proud program that bottomed out by going 0-19 in ACC play last season.

“I've felt like a Pitt guy,” Capel said, “since I said yes to the job.”

Capel sat rinkside at PPG Paints Arena for the Penguins' Stanley Cup playoff opener against the Philadelphia Flyers — his first hockey game — and attended the Pirates' home opener at PNC Park. He also can't wait to see his first NFL game involving the Steelers at Heinz Field.

What Capel hasn't had time to do is decorate his Petersen Events Center office, which overlooks an empty arena he's trying to fill.

The 43-year-old Capel has other priorities, namely to bring to life his vision of resuscitating a Pitt program that flatlined under Kevin Stallings.

Capel knows what he wants, will “talk about that to death” and did just that Thursday in an interview with the Tribune-Review.

His vision is to sell the ACC as belonging to a conference with the reputation as the best basketball in the country and the TV exposure of playing against the nation's top teams.

Capel's vision is to sell the city of Pittsburgh as a great place to live and a great sports town. It's to sell the University of Pittsburgh as a great place to learn, as one of the top public institutions and research programs in the country. It's to sell Pitt basketball as a program with tradition and Petersen Events Center as one of the toughest venues to play.

“You have a chance to come in and help rebuild that and get it back,” Capel said, “but, hopefully, take it to a place it hasn't been.”

It's a new era of Pitt basketball, one Capel has dubbed the Zoo Era on social media, where his voice is a breath of fresh air following Stallings and Jamie Dixon, who mostly avoided Twitter.

Capel is trying to repair relationships, reaching out to Pitt alums ranging from Curtis Aiken, Charles Smith and Sean Miller to Brandin Knight and Lamar Patterson.

It's important to Capel to connect the current Pitt team with its legends, and for former players to feel welcome at their alma mater.

“From afar, I've always had a lot of respect for this program,” Capel said. “They want to see it back to what it was when they were here, when they left. ...

“This is their program. They're the guys that wore the jersey. They're the guys that people cheered for. They were the men in the arena, so to speak. And I want them to feel that, that it's theirs and we have a respect for them. I want our guys to understand the history and the tradition of this program.”

Stallings showed it's a two-way street, that you have to give Pitt alums and fans something to cheer for first.

Capel knows it's all about recruiting top talent, and his reputation as an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski was for recruiting McDonald's All-Americans.

But that was Duke.

This is Pitt.

“Recruiting to Duke is different from anywhere in the country, even other elite programs,” Capel said, noting the pressure of closing on the Blue Devils' handpicked prospects. “We're still going to go after the best players, but we have to be smart.”

What Capel said next will win Pitt fans over, especially after the mass player exodus of the past two seasons and the hard pitch he's going to have and to sell.

That three players weren't buying, as senior forward Ryan Luther and freshmen guards Marcus Carr and Parker Stewart chose to transfer, doesn't faze Capel.

“The thing I don't like doing is wasting time,” Capel said. “I don't like my time being wasted, and I don't like wasting anyone else's time. As a coach, the best thing you can hear is yes. The next-best thing you can hear is no. The quicker you can hear either one, the quicker you can move on.”

So Capel has brought a bit of his swagger to Pitt. It's not just a Duke thing, either. He was a Division I head coach by 27 at VCU, by 31 at Oklahoma. He has worked with USA Basketball for Coach K, running workouts, and Capel vows he “will definitely use all of my experience.”

Where Capel spoke in generalities on many topics, he started name-dropping when talking about running pre-Olympic workouts with Golden State Warriors stars Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, as well as Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony, for the 2016 Games.

“Look, all of these kids, no matter what level, they want to be pros,” Capel said. “That's what they want. They want to have a chance to play professional basketball. Their dream is to play in the NBA, but to play for money. I know what it's like to help a kid get there. I know what it takes.”

And Capel knows if that doesn't work, he always can show them the photo of Tupac wearing his No. 5 Duke jersey.

But Capel doesn't come across as a guy who is living in the past. He's pushing the Zoo Era hashtag hard and even mentioned flipping the court during his interview with Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke. Capel believes the university wasn't maximizing the adversity its student section can create.

“As an opposing coach coming in here, the first time I think was 2014, and I'd had heard all these things about the Zoo and how difficult it was,” Capel said. “And it was, but it wasn't hard right around the bench. We had been to places where, man, you can't hear in the huddle.

“That wasn't the case here. I thought, ‘Man, if there was a way you could flip this thing and get those students right behind, that would make it more difficult.'

“The Zoo is something that's been really good. I think it's something that I think we can sell with recruiting.”

It's all part of his vision, not only to flip the court but the script at Pitt.

Capel isn't wasting any time on the job since saying the best thing you can hear, in hopes of taking Pitt to a place it hasn't been.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke introduces new Mens head basketball coach Jeff Capel Wednesday, March 28, 2018 at Petersen Events Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke introduces new Mens head basketball coach Jeff Capel Wednesday, March 28, 2018 at Petersen Events Center.
Pitt head coach Jeff Capel speaks the Trib Thursday May 31, 2018 at Petersen Events Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt head coach Jeff Capel speaks the Trib Thursday May 31, 2018 at Petersen Events Center.
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