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Building a Champion: Jeff Capel on the Importance of Leadership



Editor’s note: This is the first of a multi-part series based on our offseason conversation with Pitt head coach Jeff Capel. Look for the rest of the series in the coming days.

With the 2020 NCAA Tournament canceled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, plenty of sports networks took their suddenly open time slots and filled them with classic games of tournaments past.

One of those games was the 2015 NCAA title game, when Duke beat Wisconsin, 68-63 to win the program’s fifth NCAA championship.

Current Pitt head coach Jeff Capel was the Blue Devils’ associate head coach that season, and like many other, he watched along, tweeting at Duke alums like Grayson Allen, Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones during the game.

It was clear the bond that Capel still holds with the members of the last championship team that he was a part of, and that is something that is often repeated around the world of sports.

Teams that win a title often forge long-standing bonds in doing so and players that might have otherwise drifted apart over the course of their careers — especially after leaving college — end up maintaining a strong bond.

In fact, that bond is sometimes credited as a reason for teams’ championship success, citing the longstanding closeness of the players as an ingredient in winning, and not a result of it.

It’s a bit difficult to separate the two empirically and it quickly becomes a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum.

But you can count Capel as one that believes that the combination of personalities on that Duke team, and a couple of others that he’s been a part of in his 20 years as a college basketball coach, was an important factor in that team’s success.

I’d probably say two teams during my time when I was at Duke — and I was there for seven years — there were two teams, where it just stood out, right from the beginning, that it was different,” Capel said to Pittsburgh Sports Now. Like there was just a different feel.

“It was just different and it’s hard to explain it, but it was just different. And I think the thing is, when you have that, is that everybody is completely, 100%, all in. It’s all about the team. There are no individual agendas. There are individual agendas, because there always are, but it wasn’t where it was like the prevalent thing or it was a problem. There was no ego problem. There were egos, but there was no ego problem.”

If the correct mix of personalities is one part of the formula, overcoming some adversity might be another.

“The first time I experienced it there was my second year and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that both times I felt this way, it was after Duke had lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament,” Capel said.

“So my first year there [2011-12], we lost to Lehigh. The next year, I thought we were the best team in the country, and then Ryan Kelly, in the middle of conference, breaks his foot. We still got to the Elite Eight, but we were never able to kind of make that push, at the end, because Ryan wasn’t completely healthy and Seth Curry wasn’t completely healthy that whole year.

“But it was a team, man, where, everyone really understood their role. They accepted their role, they embraced it. But everybody was all about us winning. You know, you had a really good group of seniors with Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry. And you had some young guys.”

But according to Capel, the biggest thing was the leadership that the Blue Devils got from its older, more experienced players.

“The guys took care of the team,” he said. “You know, it didn’t have to be coach or any of the assistants. The team was led by the guys, by the players by the older guys. There was accountability. There were all those things. That year, I definitely felt it.”

“Then you have the 2014-15 season certainly felt the same way. Again, we’re coming off losing to Mercer in the first round. You had a good group of older guys with Quinn Cook as the older guy. Marshall Plumlee was a junior. But then you have a group of freshmen that came in that were talented but were all about the team.

“They didn’t have an ego problem, so they accepted Quinn Cook as the leader. You know, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones, guys that were really good and are really good, but they understood their place on the team.”

Capel was a part of many good teams at Duke, including one that won 29 games and made the Elite Eight in 2017-18, but he maintains the special way that 2013-15 team connected was what helped it to the title.

“During the rest of my time there, I mean, every year we had talent. But those two teams, from the beginning, at least for me, felt different,” he said. “I look at the 2016-17 team at Duke. I thought it was maybe one of the most talented teams that we had, from top to bottom. But it took a while to get everyone that year on the same page. Now, part of it was that there were injuries. We had some injuries early in the season that made it a little bit more difficult, to have everyone on the same page.

“When we got back whole and we had everyone, you had some guys trying to prove themselves. They had to show this and you know, you’re competing, not against the opponent, but you’re competing against stuff you’re hearing on TV, stuff you’re looking at other guys do and things like that.

“So you definitely have to have the talent. That’s, paramount. But I think the really good teams and programs, they certainly have talent, but they have talent that works together, that they understand how much they meet each other. It’s not about one person. It’s about the team, it’s about the program. And what they do is that they really understand that if they do that, then everyone individually has success. Everyone individually gets the love, gets the attention. And you’re able to showcase your talent. Your talent is able to come to the forefront.”

Of course, there’s a reason it’s so difficult to win a national championship. About the only thing more difficult for a college coach right now than getting talented players is getting talented players that want to fit into a team concept and be at a school for the length of time required to gain that experience.

More on that in the second part of PSN’s conversation with Capel.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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