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Tim Benz: Hall-of-famer Grant Hill has advice for Pitt, Duquesne hoops

October 18, 2018 GMT

Grant Hill thinks the last time he was in Pittsburgh was 1996 to judge a slam-dunk contest at the Five-Star Basketball Camp.

A lot has happened since that time. The building he was standing in -- Heinz Field -- was seven years from being built. He played 17 more seasons in the NBA. Retired. Got inducted into the Hall of Fame. Became a broadcaster.

Meanwhile, Pitt had totaled 13 NCAA appearances, five Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight. But no Final Fours.

Oh, and hired five head coaches.

Hill’s friend and former teammate Jeff Capel is the fifth.

“He has all the qualities to build something,” Hill said. “I think that’s what is appealing to him. The opportunity to start from scratch. It won’t be easy, but he is up for the challenge. (Pitt) is in a good spot bringing him in. He’s the right person for the job.”

Hill was in town for the American Cancer Society’s Coaches vs. Cancer gala. And his presence underscored an example of something Capel wants to grow at Pitt: a well-connected family tree of alumni.

“I don’t have any connection (to Pittsburgh). My connection is coach Capel and his family,” Hill said. “Having that connective thread, that connective tissue to your past, it’s part of your legacy. It’s part of your program’s history. And it’s important for the current players to understand they are a part of something bigger than themselves.

“His personality lends itself to that.”

Hill went onto say that he and Capel were fortunate in that regard because they witnessed Mike Krzyzewski stock the pond of active alumni during a 38-year reign at Duke. Capel is trying to mirror that as someone coming in from the outside at Pitt.

Hill says Capel has already started to get the ball rolling in that capacity. The former Blue Devils star shared a recent meeting with Pitt legend Charles Smith in New York City. In talking with Smith, Hill made it sound like Capel has already started laying the foundation to connect the Panthers of old with his new, revamped crew.

“The former players I have met have been amazing,” Capel said. “They want to be a part of it. They want it to be really good again. They want to give any support they can to make that happen.”

The challenge may be less about forging a deeper bond with alumni from the Smith-era teams. He and Jerome Lane and Jason Matthews are often seen at Petersen Events Center.

The more difficult task may be getting the Jamie Dixon-Ben Howland era stars to be more involved.

Capel went onto say that the goal is to create an alumni base vast enough that it can sustain regardless of who is on the bench.

“One thing that happens at Duke (Krzyzewski) or North Carolina (Roy Williams), it’s not just that the coach has been there (for a while),” Capel said. “The players take control of it. The players take ownership of it. That’s something that we need to emphasize and create here.”

Duquesne’s Keith Dambrot is in his second year on the Bluff. He’s facing some similar challenges.

“That’s probably been the most disappointing thing for a lot of the Duquesne alumni, not playing in the NCAA tournament for 40 years,” Dambrot said. “A lot of times I asked myself why I made the move (from Akron) that I did. And I can’t pinpoint it. But my dad played at Duquesne. And I wanted the Duquesne alumni to feel like they used to feel.

“The alumni are the reason we do what we do.”

Why does any of this matter? Well, donations, mentoring, panache could help to recruit indirectly. If you look Hill in the eye, you feel as if you are staring into the face of the Duke logo. And, if you talk to him, he’s the perfect ambassador for a program.

Someday, Capel and Dambrot hope to have their versions of him.

Not just concerning his ability to sell a school, either. The Hall of Fame talent would be nice, too.