CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jeff Capel had a lot to fix when he became the head basketball coach at Pitt.
The Panthers, who had gone 8-24 and 0-19 against ACC opponents under Kevin Stallings, were certainly not a team that anybody thought they could win with. Then, starting point guard Marcus Carr, shooting guard Parker Stewart and power forward Ryan Luther transferred, leaving Pitt’s talent level even further depleted from the group that lost to all 22 major-conference teams it faced a season ago.
But the talent level is also something that can’t be changed overnight. Capel’s first recruiting class of one transfer and three freshmen will help, but that’s still less than a third of the roster. The rest of that makeover will take years as Capel builds the programs recruiting back up.
In the meantime, there’s another factor at play. Capel feels like he also needs to re-build the culture of the team and the program. He doesn’t say the as a knock against the players that he has or the coaching staff that came before him, but more of a necessary step that any program would have to take to move on from the kind of season the Panthers had in 2017-18.
“When you go through what they went through last year, it’s easy to get down,” Capel said. “You have to make a decision. Are you going to fight your way out of this or are you going to give into it?”
He has some experience with what it takes to rebuild the culture of a program from a losing season. He did it as a player at Duke, where in his sophomore year the Blue Devils were 13-18, setting a program record for losses, and went 2-14 in conference play.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be 0-19, but I do know what it’s like to have to fight,” Capel said. “We don’t talk about it much, but I’ve shared the story with them. My freshman year, we played within a minute of winning the national championship. The next year, we were 2-14. It’s not 0-18 or 0-19, but when you’re at Duke and you’re 2-14, it’s miserable.
“I share in some of the things they maybe went through: hearing stuff from the crowd, the crowd’s not coming as much, and things like that. We went through that and then the next year, we started out 0-4. So there in a 20-game stretch, we were 2-18.”
Obviously, talent plays a part in winning and losing. But as Capel said, his Duke team went to the Final Four the previous year. They clearly had talent.
We have to build habits and create habits that are conducive to earning the right to win,” he said. “It’s not just going to happen just because things are new. We have to make it happen, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Capel has also been through that process as a coach. When he was hired at VCU in 2002, the Rams had talent. They had made it to the CAA title game the season before. But those winning qualities just weren’t quite there. In Capel’s second season, the Rams won that tournament game and made it to the NCAA Tournament.
“I was left some talent, but the culture was the thing,” he said. “The graduation rate was zero. When I was there as an assistant, our guys couldn’t go to the bookstore. I had to go get their books for them. They were banned from the bookstore. There was a lot of stuff going on there. It wasn’t a program that I think many people in the city of Richmond had respect for, or certainly, had a lot of pride in at that time.
“When I went to Oklahoma, the culture was established. Kelvin Sampson, his teams always — look at Houston now — they’re tough, they’re together and they defend. We had to improve the talent there. We were fortunate enough to get a guy like Blake Griffin and add some more pieces.
“Here, it’s kind of both. We had to change the culture, because they’ve lost. They’ve lost a lot in the last two years. Sometimes, when you lose, there’s excuses as to why you lose instead of taking ownership and saying, ‘Look, this is what we have to do. This is our fault. It’s not someone else’s fault.’ Then, we have to improve the talent level.”
That process started in earnest last summer when the Panthers made a splash by landing a pair of Top 150 players in Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney along with three-star guard Xavier Johnson that gave the Panthers their best recruiting class in five years and the No. 5-ranked class in the conference. Capel came to Pitt with the reputation as a top-notch recruiter, but that level of success was still surprising.
“I think we had a lot to offer as far as playing time,” he said. “There was a lot of playing time available. And then the opportunity, I think to play in the ACC. I think those two things have helped just the most, to be completely honest with you. It’s just like any recruiting success that you have, the relationships that you’re able develop. With those three freshmen and then the graduate transfer, we had relationships with people that were close to them, whether it was an AAU coach, a high school coach or a parent. So there were some connections that helped us be fortunate enough to get those guys.”
Capel is continuing to chase high-level talent in the Class of 2019, with Akok Akok, the No. 30 overall player in the class visiting campus this week. The early signing period will open on Nov. 14, just a week after the Panthers start their season Nov. 6 against Youngstown State.
One of the last pieces of the puzzle for Capel to land some top-level recruits might be getting the Petersen Events Center back to the way it used to be on game days. Obviously, part of that is winning, but part of that will come from the excitement that Capel’s hire has brought to the team. Athletic director Heather Lyke has reported a spike in season ticket sales and the fanbase overall seems re-energized by his presence. Capel said it’s going to take everyone on board to get Pitt back to where it once was.
“I felt like they were certainly down, but I felt there was a passion and a desire to get back,” he said. “My message to them was that we have to fight for it. We, not just me — them too. This is their school. We need them in the fight with us. With the fans and the students, there’s been an excitement and we’re excited about that. We need them and we want them to be a part of it.”