A coaching search that starts as a hot mess doesn’t usually end well, but that appears to be the case for the Pitt men’s basketball program. On Tuesday afternoon, the Panthers announced they were hiring Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel as their next coach.
Panther fans, please welcome head coach Jeff Capel!
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) March 27, 2018
While it’s too cliche to call the hire “perfect,” the Pitt program has to be extremely pleased, as Capel appears to be a great choice to bring the Panthers back to prominence. From Duke’s perspective, the Blue Devils lose one of their most important coaches, but they also can find one huge positive in Capel accepting the Pitt job.
For Pitt, Capel checks all the major boxes. He has experience as a head coach and in the ACC, both of which are going to be important to Pitt’s rebuild. At VCU, he led the Rams back to the NCAA Tournament in 2004 for the first time in nearly a decade. Then at Oklahoma, he took the Sooners to back-to-back tournament bids in 2008 and 2009.
His critics will say he only advanced in the NCAA Tournament once, which is true. That came in 2009, when he led Oklahoma to the Elite Eight. He wasn’t able to re-create that success after Blake Griffin left, which is a big part of why his Oklahoma tenure ended in 2011.
But that’s a pretty shortsighted argument. Virginia’s Tony Bennett has only been to one Elite Eight, yet no one in their right mind would argue he isn’t a good coach. Pitt and many other schools would have jumped at the chance to hire Bennett if he was available this offseason.
His previous coaching experience, though, isn’t even the biggest victory of the hire for Pitt. That would be his experience recruiting in the ACC. Capel has been called Duke’s most important recruiter, which is quite a title for a program that has landed four 5-star prospects in each of the last four years.
That’s worth repeating, Capel and Duke has successfully recruited four 5-star players EACH year since 2015. As great as Jamie Dixon was at Pitt, he landed just two 5-star recruits in his 13 seasons with the Panthers.
Now, comparing recruiting at Duke and Pitt is a little like contrasting apples and oranges, but still, Capel clearly connects with high school kids and knows the ACC landscape. That second part was something Kevin Stallings never figured out, and it led to his downfall in Pittsburgh.
Capel has been the Pitt coach for a few hours, and his impact is essentially already being felt in recruiting. Pittsburgh Sports Now reports guard Jared Wilson-Frame and small forward Shamiel Stevenson, both of whom asked to be released from their scholarship to transfer this offseason, already announced they will return to Pitt for next season.
Duke can’t be pleased with losing one of its top recruiters, but the Blue Devils can find a silver lining in Capel’s departure. This likely signifies coach Mike Krzyzewski will be staying on as head coach for the foreseeable future.
Although never confirmed, Capel was speculated to be the coach in waiting behind Coach K, but similar to what happened at Syracuse last spring, Capel’s departure could mean he knows Krzyzewski isn’t planning to retire anytime soon. With Syracuse, Orange coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins left for Washington at nearly the same time Jim Boeheim signed a 3-year contract extension.
Duke’s long-term plan for life after Coach K is now very unclear, but knowing Krzyzewski is going to be the head man for at least a few more years brings short-term stability and allows Duke to continue to chase that sixth national championship since 1991.
Pitt is still several years away from thinking about titles, but the Panthers appear to have the right coach to get them back to competing in the ACC.