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Kevin Gorman: Pitt checks all right boxes by hiring Jeff Capel

April 5, 2018 GMT

The Pitt men’s basketball coaching search was stretching into its third week and, with top choices turning down the job, was starting to look desperate.

As desperation shots go, Jeff Capel is nothing but net.

The new Panthers coach checks off every box but one: Capel wasn’t a sitting Division I head coach.

No, he’s something even better, after spending the past four seasons as associate head coach to the college game’s master, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who endorsed it as an “amazing hire.” Check.

Capel also is the son and namesake of a college coach, and he’s a former star for the Blue Devils. Check. Check.

There’s much more: At 43, Capel is a young, black coach who becomes the first minority hire in men’s program history, a momentous move for a university with an urban campus. Check. Check.

Capel also has previous head-coaching experience, at both mid-major (VCU) and Power 5 (Oklahoma) programs. Check. Check.

Capel is a dynamic recruiter who landed as many McDonald’s All-Americans (four) in five years with the Sooners as Kelvin Sampson and Billy Tubbs had in the previous 26. Capel recruited top-10 talent for Duke, which landed 19 McDonald’s All-Americans and the nation’s No. 1 classes in 2014, ’15 and ’18. Check. Check.

To limit the search to a sitting head coach was a ridiculous requirement. That self-imposed stipulation by former athletic director Scott Barnes got Pitt into this predicament.

Speaking of checks, Pitt is going to be writing some to clean up the mess it made of its basketball program. You have to hope that the university’s administrators, as well as its influential boosters, learned their lesson.

After ushering Jamie Dixon out the door by lowering his buyout after 11 NCAA Tournament appearances in 13 seasons, Barnes used a crony connection to facilitate the hiring of Kevin Stallings. That move was as poorly received as it was conceived.

Firing Stallings after his second season put the Panthers in a pickle as it showed an incredible lack of patience and left Pitt on the hook for a buyout believed to be worth more than $9 million. That made this opening less attractive, and the request of almost every player to ask for a release from their scholarships only complicated the process.

Pitt courted Tom Crean and Thad Matta, flirted with Sean Miller (despite an FBI investigation), reportedly offered big money to Rhode Island’s Dan Hurley — only for him take less at UConn — and showed interest in St. Bonaventure’s Mark Schmidt and Buffalo’s Nate Oats.

So, when reports surfaced that Pitt had turned its attention to Jon Scheyer, my immediate reaction was that if it was going after a Duke assistant it should be focusing instead on Capel.

Nothing against Scheyer, voted the next college basketball assistant “most likely to be a very successful head coach” in a 2017 CBS Sports poll, but he’s 30 years old and has only four years of coaching experience.

Give athletic director Heather Lyke credit for realizing that Pitt needed a home-run hire that would generate excitement again after an 8-24 season in which the Panthers failed to win an ACC game and saw attendance at Petersen Events Center dip to historic lows.

Capel is the perfect pick for such a desperation shot, given his history.

As a player at Duke, he is best remembered for his last-second 3-pointer against archrival North Carolina in 1995.

Duke was a season removed from losing to Arkansas in the NCAA final, but the Blue Devils were winless in seven ACC games and trailing No. 2 Carolina by nine points in the final two minutes. Capel’s 35-foot runner wasn’t a winner — the Tar Heels prevailed in the second overtime — but it gave Duke belief in a season in which Coach K was out following back surgery.

“We just played one of the best teams, if not the best team in the country. And we were right there,” Capel told the Raleigh News & Observer in 2015. “If we just continue with this effort and build, we can turn this thing around.”

Duke did, despite finishing 13-18 (2-14 in ACC) that season. It won 18 games and reached the NCAA Tournament his junior year and went 24-9 and won the ACC when he was a senior. Capel took the VCU job at age 27 and won 79 games in four seasons. He went to Oklahoma at 31 and won 96 games in five seasons before being fired amid an NCAA investigation that an assistant paid a recruit through an advisor and following back-to-back losing seasons.

So, Capel has experienced success and failure. You have to hope he’s learned from his mistakes. He’s been involved in building a winner from the bottom up, which is what he will have to do at Pitt. Capel even went 4-3 while serving as interim head coach at Duke in ’17, meaning he’s won as many ACC games as Stallings did in two seasons.

It won’t be as easy to convince top players to come to Oakland as it was to Norman and Durham, but Capel has vowed to “recruit, coach and develop champions on the court, in the classroom and in the community.”

Before we start talking championships, Capel must start by convincing some of Pitt’s players to stay, starting with senior forward Ryan Luther. Capel must hire a quality coaching staff. And Capel must teach these Panthers how to win, especially against ACC opponents.

A long shot? Yes. But, this time, Pitt put the ball in the right man’s hands.

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