The Duke assistant many thought might be Mike Krzyzewski’s successor isn’t waiting around for the legendary Blue Devils coach to retire.
Jeff Capel has instead accepted an offer to become the next head coach at Pittsburgh, the school confirmed Tuesday afternoon.
“Pitt has a great tradition of success and I look forward to putting together a staff and team that will enable us to build on that tradition,” Capel said in a statement. “As a lifelong Steelers fan, I know Pittsburgh as the ‘City of Champions’ and our goal from day one will be to recruit, coach and develop champions on the court, in the classroom and in the community.”
Hiring Capel away from Duke is a bold move for a Pittsburgh program that has struggled to recruit since it jumped from the Big East to the ACC five years ago. The best Pittsburgh teams won with tough, blue-collar players from the Northeast, but the program’s pipelines in New York and New Jersey have dried up and it has been unable to forge new ones in traditional ACC talent hotbeds like Washington D.C.
What Pittsburgh is betting on by hiring Capel is that he’ll be able to replenish the Panthers’ roster with the caliber of talent the program has seldom landed before. Capel was the lead recruiter at Duke, the man who landed the Jahlil Okafor-Tyus Jones-Justise Winslow nucleus of the Blue Devils’ 2015 national title team and helped the Blue Devils complete an unprecedented sweep of the top three prospects in the 2018 class.
It also probably made Capel a more attractive candidate for Pittsburgh that he has head coaching experience at VCU and Oklahoma. Capel made the NCAA tournament three times in nine seasons as a head coach, but Oklahoma fired him in 2011 after an impermissible benefits scandal and back-to-back losing seasons.
While Capel is a good bet to help Pittsburgh bounce back from the disastrous Kevin Stallings era, the more interesting aspect of this move is the ramifications for Duke. It’s safe to say that Capel wouldn’t have taken over a struggling program coming off an 0-18 ACC season if he thought he was a year or two away from taking over for Krzyzewski.
Maybe this is evidence that Krzyzewski isn’t close to retirement. Maybe this means Capel doesn’t believe he’s the leading choice to succeed him.
Whatever the situation, Capel will now be judged as a candidate at Duke by whether he manages to rebuild Pittsburgh into an ACC power. He’ll either validate himself as a worthy choice or fall off the radar the way other former Duke assistants have.
Johnny Dawkins was once thought to be a potential successor to Krzyzewski, but his one NCAA bid in eight seasons at Stanford quashed that notion. Tommy Amaker was also viewed as a potential heir apparent, but his struggles at Michigan and Seton Hall sent him tumbling out of contention. Former Duke assistants Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski remain contenders, though both still have lots to prove at Northwestern and Marquette, respectively.
The short-term ramifications for Duke are more clear: This is a blow to the Blue Devils’ recruiting machine. It will be up to current assistants Jon Scheyer and Nate James to take on additional responsibility and make sure the program doesn’t fall behind Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and others in the recruiting pecking order.
Capel has clearly earned the chance to be an ACC head coach with his performance as Krzyzewski’s right-hand man.
How he fares will impact not just his new school but perhaps his former one as well.
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