Pitt coach Jeff Capel captures team's attention after tough loss
There are days at Pitt basketball practice when Jeff Capel wants to turn the calendar back 20 years.
“The thing that will be funny is when he talks about how much bounce he used to have back then,” senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame said.
Pitt’s 43-year-old coach never has scrimmaged with his team.
“He wants to, though,” Wilson-Frame said.
“He’s let us know several times that he wishes he could come back out there with us, just to play hard and inspire us because he’s a really passionate guy.”
Whether it’s watching old video of Capel’s playing days at Duke — he scored 1,601 points in four years from 1993-97 — or just watching him at practice, Wilson-Frame can see the type of man leading the program.
“You can tell, not only from watching tapes of him back then, (but) even being in his presence, that when he played, he was a really, really pumped-up player,” he said.
It was clear long before Capel was hired that Pitt’s formerly lifeless basketball program needed a jolt. Over the first months of his tenure, Capel provided it, not just by telling boosters what they wanted to hear but grabbing players’ attention in practice.
The early results have been good. Pitt went from a 19-game losing streak to end 2017-18 to a 7-2 record to open 2018-19. The Panthers close out the first third of their season Saturday at West Virginia in Capel’s first exposure to the Backyard Brawl.
The identity of this team and maybe some of its greatest triumphs have been revealed at practice, where Capel is demanding hard work while building strong bonds with his players.
“You have to coach them hard,” he said. “You have to have a relationship with them. If you have a relationship with them, they know you care about them.
“Not just about what they can do on the court, but you genuinely care about them. Then, you can coach them hard because they know it’s not personal. They know it’s coming from a place where you’re trying to help them, where you’re trying to push them.
“If you develop that trust, and if I say ‘You’re playing great. You’re really good,’ you want to hear that and that’s the truth. But if I say, ‘You stink right now, you have to pick it up,’ that’s the truth in that moment. Neither one of them are personal.”
Pitt is in need of some of that tough love this week as players try to recover from their worst effort of the season, a 71-70 loss to Niagara on Monday.
“He’s definitely tough on us, but we needed that,” junior guard Malik Ellison said. “We took that game for granted on Monday, and we lost.
“It’s all out of love and care. He wants us to be the best we can be. He’s not going to baby us. We have a lot of grown men in this locker room.”
Wilson-Frame said practices are “intense, regardless,” but he noticed more attention to detail and better focus this week.
“He’s always intense, he’s just been a little more stern, a little more on point,” he said.
At 6-foot-4 and possessing a strong voice, Capel can capture a room just by walking through the door. Imagine what he might be like at practice, with the doors closed, after a loss.
“You don’t want to get him mad, I’ll say that,” Wilson-Frame said. “Nobody else is going to be able to get their voice as loud as him. Nobody is going to speak over him.
“No matter where you are, if you’re outside the doors of the gym, especially if you are inside that gym, all eyes are going to be on him.
“Good dude. He knows what he’s talking about. He knows how to get the message across.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.