Jeff Capel uses trip to D.C. to help Pitt basketball players learn, bond
On a warm Sunday morning, Pitt senior Jared Wilson-Frame stepped onto the sun-splashed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. For him, the rows of gravestones, the history they represent and witnessing the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier put basketball in a different light.
"For those people, it was life and death," he said. "Putting your all on the line for whoever is next to you.
"We're just playing a sport. It put that in perspective."
When Khameron Davis, a sophomore, took the four-hour tour of the National Museum of African American History, it brought history to life, he said.
"I knew history, but I didn't know the details," Davis said. "It really got into depth from exactly when we came on the ships to Civil Rights times to modern-day times.
"And you get to see pictures and visual things that I actually feel are very important to getting a deeper understanding."
Those two viewpoints reflect what Pitt coach Jeff Capel was seeking when he planned a three-day weekend trip to Washington, D.C., for a group of 32 players, coaches and staff.
They also toured the city, saw the White House, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial and stood beneath — and were dwarfed by — the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Capel, who visited the White House with Duke's players after their national championship season of 2015, wanted to imprint history on his players' minds. That's why Pitt history professors Rob Ruck and Marcus Rediker accompanied them, to help lead the discussions that emerged from the tours.
Capel said seeing what past generations endured while fighting for what they believed can be an important teaching tool.
"The trip was about learning and, really, understanding sacrifice," he said. "Part of our job is to teach and educate, not just about basketball."
Capel said he isn't comparing what those buried at Arlington National Cemetery went through to a basketball team's struggles. "We play a game," he said. "But the one thing I will say: If there is something you want, something you want to change, the one common thing is you have to fight for it. You have to be organized, disciplined. Something a team has to be if you want to be good."
There was more to the trip than a history lesson. The team has a mix of holdovers and newcomers, and Capel wanted to get the crucial bonding process started as soon as possible.
It started at dinner where, coincidentally, they ran into the museum's chef, Jerome Grant, a transplanted Pittsburgher.
Davis said Capel told his players to put their phones, face down on the table. "So we had to talk to each other," Davis said.
"For some guys, that might have been hard, but I feel like we definitely enjoyed each other's time.
"That's a big part of playing basketball. You have to blend with your teammates. The more you blend and learn about each off the court, it's better on the court."
Capel, who was with Duke when the Blue Devils' visited Fort Bragg one offseason, said the trip will help connect players, four of whom were on different teams last season.
"Something that will help us grow as a team, as a program and, more importantly as men," he said.
The trip was not about the game — they left the basketballs at home — but only minutes after the bus returned to campus Sunday afternoon, Capel went to his office at Petersen Events Center to work. All of sudden, he heard basketballs bouncing on the court below him.
"It was three of our players," he said.
As a first-year coach, Capel has a big job trying to change the culture of Pitt basketball after a winless season in the ACC.
But Wilson-Frame said he already is a different athlete.
"These guys are doing a really good job of pushing us," he said of the coaching staff. "I haven't been in this good of shape for a really long time, just from the fact of how hard we've been working.
"It's a whole new level. Going through it weeks after, it's normal to us. I remember at first I was gassed. It was almost tough to get through.
"It's still tough to get through. Don't get me wrong. But I'm more used to it now. And it's a good feeling.
"The energy is different. A really good and healthy environment to be in."
Davis has many of the same thoughts about Capel, but he was honest about the players' affection for former coach Kevin Stallings.
"I did like my old coaching staff," he said. "I really respected them, and they really treated us well.
"When the coach did get fired, we were all really, really down and didn't know where we wanted to go. It was really hard.
"But when Cape (the players' name for their new coach) came in, he made it really easy. Cape is a really, really cool guy.
"I love coach. He does a lot of teaching, which is really good, so I feel like I can really absorb a lot.
"He made it very easy for us as players to get attached to him and join in what he believed in because we all want to win."
Wilson-Frame said Capel keeps up with his players, even when he's out of town.
"Cape is always making sure we're good, making sure our heads are on straight, making sure we're focused, making sure we're together," he said.
"Even when he has to go back home with his family, he'll text us on his off days to see how we're doing.
"We have a lot of unfinished business. A lot of new business to create, too."
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.