Kevin Gorman: Pitt's Jeff Capel learned the greatest lesson from Coach K at Duke
Jeff Capel understood when he accepted the Pitt coaching job that it would be an uphill climb, one for which he had been prepared for as a player and assistant coach at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski.
Coach K isn’t just a mentor but one who did a masterful job building the Blue Devils into a five-time national champion and what Capel calls “the premier program in all of college athletics.” No one in the history of college basketball has won more games than Krzyzewski’s 1,115, so there’s always a lesson to be learned.
“You have to fight. That’s what this thing is about. It’s earned. How you show up, how you do it every day,” Capel said, noting Duke went 38-47 in Krzyzewski’s first three seasons. “With the Duke program, you see the unparalleled success that Coach K has had — with the wins and championships and all those things — it’s glamorous, but, at the end of the day, it comes down to fighting.
“There’s no better fighter than him and what he’s instilled in the program. I’ve tried to apply that. It’s not going to happen because we’re here. It’s going to happen because we have to fight our way out of it. We have to earn our way of it. That’s probably one of the greatest lessons.”
Capel expects the reunion to be “weird” when Coach K and No. 2 Duke (15-2, 4-1) play Pitt (12-6, 2-3) at 9 p.m. Tuesday at Petersen Events Center. I expect the atmosphere at the Pete to be wild, with a standing-room-only crowd to see the Blue Devils and the most hyped player in college basketball, high-flying power forward Zion Williamson.
Such a scene was unimaginable just a year ago, when Pitt was amid a winless ACC campaign. But Capel has infused the Panthers with a fighting spirit that has made them more competitive than we could have imagined, from the one-point loss at No. 19 Iowa to snapping a 12-game losing streak to Louisville to beating then-No. 11 Florida State.
Remember, Louisville beat a senior-laden Pitt team by 55 points just two years ago.
Capel has demanded Pitt will play together and tough, that it will aggressively attack the rim on offense and pressure opponents on defense. He has shown the willingness to not only start freshmen Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney — the latter two of which could still be in high school — but live with their mistakes. That has paid off, as the trio has flourished into playmakers for the Panthers.
“Really, what Jeff has done at Pitt has been amazing,” Sporting News national columnist Mike DeCourcy said Saturday on 93.7 FM. “He’s in a very difficult league with a very young team. He brought in some excellent players, and they are clearly playing for each other. … You can tell that this team is connected and wants to play well for each other, and that’s really hard to do in such a short period of time.”
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton credited Capel for doing “an outstanding job” and called him a potential coach of the year candidate. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim said Capel has “done the best job in the league at this stage.”
“He’s just changed the whole culture and attitude of the basketball team in just a very short period of time,” Boeheim said. “That’s very difficult to do. He’s just done an outstanding job.”
That should come as a surprise to no one in the coaching ranks, least of all Krzyzewski. Capel was a four-year starter for him at point guard, a 1,600-point scorer who became a Division I head coach by age 27 and led a mid-major at VCU and a Power 5 program at Oklahoma.
Capel spent the past seven seasons as Coach K’s right hand with the Blue Devils and USA Basketball. Capel was the point man for recruiting McDonald’s All-Americans — including Duke freshmen starters Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish — and served as interim coach when Krzyzewski missed games because of back surgery.
“Nothing surprises me about what Jeff has done. He’s done a terrific job,” said Krzyzewski, who noted Capel hired former head coaches in Tim O’Toole (Fairfield), Milan Brown (Holy Cross, Mount St. Mary’s) and his brother, Jason Capel (Appalachian State), on his staff. “Then he embraced Pittsburgh, not just the school but the city. He understood right from the beginning that Pittsburgh basketball was good before he got there. It just hasn’t been good for a little bit. He reignited the brand while doing his stuff, too, so it wasn’t just Jeff Capel. He was bringing the past and introducing the future of what his vision would be.
“I think he’s done a masterful job of that.”
That’s quite a compliment from Coach K, who can see Capel is building Pitt’s program based on the greatest lesson he learned from his mentor. When Duke plays Pitt, it better be prepared for a fight.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.