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Building a Champion: Jeff Capel on Recruiting Intangibles



Editor’s note: This is the third part in a series with Pitt head coach Jeff Capel about the makeup of championship basketball teams. Part One dealt with leadership, and Part Two dealt with experience.

When it comes to the things that separate championship teams from equally talented but less successful ones, leadership and the fit of individuals into a team concept is an important one.

When it comes to the ability to become a leader through the lens of college basketball, experience is paramount. Players aren’t going to be leaders as freshmen. Teams need elder statesmen that have been there and done that.

In the first two parts of Pittsburgh Sports Now’s series with Jeff Capel about building a championship-level basketball team, leadership, chemistry and experience came to the forefront.

But leadership isn’t a mathematical equation. Experienced players plus younger players does not necessarily equal team chemistry.

Not all players will become leaders, no matter how experienced they become. Not all young players will even rise to the level of being a good follower. Some players will gladly cede their personal goals to teams ones. Others will do so only in certain situations, and others, not at all.

When it comes to recruiting a basketball player, certain things are fairly easy to ascertain: His height, his weight, his wingspan. What positions he’s likely to play. How strong and fast he is. What his grades are like. 

With even a minimal amount of effort, more can be gleaned, like hat his strengths and weaknesses are as a player. Can he shoot? Is he a willing rebounder? Is he athletic? With a few minutes’ worth of film, what kind of on-court player a prospect will be — or at least could be — is pretty easily ascertained. 

Even us dolts in the media can figure that part out. What’s left, however, is the most difficult thing to figure out about a basketball prospect. Those intangible things that Capel trumpeted as reasons that his 2014-15 Duke squad was able to achieve what other, perhaps more talented versions of it, were not able to.

But intangibles, are of course, intangible for a reason. They don’t show up on film, or even through a quick look at a recruiting showcase. They aren’t necessarily easily obtained even through multiple conversations with a prospect, his coach, family and hangers-on.

There is no magic formula to figure out if a player is going to be a good fit with a team, personality-wise, character-wise. It can be difficult to tell if a player will be that four-year leadership guy, a one-and-done that will still buy into the team concept, or an unhappy player that becomes a locker room cancer.

“You try to build a relationship,” Capel said to PSN. “You try to get to know a kid. His family. You try to watch how they interact with coaching, how they accept coaching. You try to get to know him.”

Those things take time. Some, can be built through years in the industry, and relationships with high school and AAU coaches. That’s one of the reasons coaches go back to the same schools and programs over and over again: they trust that the lower-level coaches are being honest with them about what kind of person they’re getting in addition to the player. Where they’ve had success and built trust, coaches are likely to return.

When long-established build recruiting pipelines to certain schools or regions, it’s more about that than it is badly wanting or needing a player from a specific region or school.

But throughout a coach’s career, those relationships are bound to undergo disruptions. High school and AAU coaches change jobs as often as college coaches do, and change for a college coach might mean recruiting a totally different type of athlete, from a totally different place.

Look, for example, at the career of current Pitt assistant Tim O’Toole. A New York native, he spent time recruiting the northeast for Syracuse, Duke and Seton Hall, big-name programs that the need top-level recruits in the country. 

Then, he became the head coach at Fairfield. The relationships he built with all the coaches and players on the top teams? It’s pretty unlikely that the kind of players that would consider Duke, Seton Hall and Syracuse would ever think about Fairfield. 

After nearly a decade with the Stags, he moved across the country, working at Stanford and California, and had to start all over with new relationships on the West Coast. 

When a coach moves to a new job, it’s frequently a time of crisis for that program. When coaches leave, players transfer. The new coach comes in and has to quickly find someone able to fill those holes and get the program back on its feet.

“It happens late and so everything is quick,” Capel said. “You’re trying to build these relationships. You’re trying to get to know people. There’s a hurry.”

“When I took over [at Oklahoma], you’re trying to recruit, you’re trying to recruit in an area where you don’t know. And so you go out and you know you need players, and, you know, a lot of times it’s March, sometimes in April, where you’re trying to do this and you’re trying to sign guys right away. And so how much are you really gonna know them? Unless you recruited them at the previous place where you were? That’s the part that’s difficult, you know? If you have time, then you get to know a guy.”

This time around for Capel, he was able to land Pitt’s best recruiting class in six years in his first six months on the job, when he convinced Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney to commit in Pitt’s Class of 2018. But two years late, McGowens has left the program after a season where Pitt struggled with consistency, resiliency, and handling success — hallmarks of a team lacking in intangibles.

With more time, though Capel, feels better about the way his 2020 class shapes up in that regard.

“We’ve had a chance to get to know them,” he said. “I’ve known John [Hugley] since I took the job here. We’ve known Max [Amadasun]. When I got the job, I went up to Lutheran. During that first week, I went up, just you introduce myself and see and watch them work out. I got to meet those guys. The same thing with Noah [Collier]. We’ve had a chance to get to know him. 

“We’ve had a chance to get to know these guys, and so we know a little bit more about them, about who they are, you know their families, know a little bit more about their background. That’s what you try to do. You try to establish a relationship. You watch, you get to know, you ask questions.”

Of course, feeling good about the way those three — along with unsigned commit Femi Odukale, who Capel cannot yet discuss — is only half the battle. Plenty of coaches have felt good about their class before it gets on campus on to find out how wrong they were.

“You do all those things and then you hope,” Capel said. “But man you know, you know this just like I do. You don’t really know anyone man until you working with them every day, every day. You watch how they work, how they deal with adversity, how they deal with success, all of those things.”

Capel is still working on the 2020 class, with a pair of open scholarships. His top target is Erie small forward Will Jeffress, another player that Capel has been interested in for a long time.

He’s also actively pursuing Class of 2021 players, as they enter the summer before their senior year, which is usually when the recruiting process really starts to heat up. But with the current coronavirus shutdown, visits have been canceled, with a dead period extended through the end of May and the AAU season looks like it will be abbreviated, if it happens at all.

That’s going to make it tough for coaches to really get to know the players that are out there, in addition to knowing their game.

“The spring and summer are huge for coaches and for prospects,” he said. “For us, it gives us an opportunity. During the season, not a lot of coaches go out, especially head coaches, and so you don’t get to see your kid as much. During the spring and summer, that’s the offseason for us and so we do get a chance to get out, even if it’s going to watch a kid workout in his high school and watch his team practice. 

“Certainly, the AAU events provide us an opportunity to see a lot of guys in one setting and to really see, go against elite competition all the time. Whether it’s the shoe circuit things with the Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, or some of these other events you get to see, really good competition. 

“One of the things the NCAA did last summer, was that they gave us those two weekends, I think they were in June, where we could go and high schools had events. mI thought those are really good because you see them with their high school team, who they’re with, really during the whole year.”

Instead, Capel will spend more time than usual watching film and working past relationships to try to build an understanding about what each prospect is like as a person. There will be holes in that knowledge, but it will a universal problem.

“Where you can see some hiccups is that you won’t have a chance to establish those relationships,” Capel said. “You won’t have a chance to see a kid play as much and to maybe see how he handles adversity. 

“In a Friday night game, the kid has a bad game. How does he respond on Saturday morning? Or kid plays his but off on Saturday morning, how does he come back Saturday afternoon? Does he handle success? Does he handle adversity? Can he make shots? Is he doing other stuff? You’re not gonna be able to see those things.”

Recruiting is the lifeblood of a college basketball team, and with early departures for the pro game and rampant transfers, it could be argued that it’s never been more important to be able to reliably re-stock teams with talented players that are also good personality fits.

“We’re all hopeful, coaches that we’re able to have a July [recruiting period], but certainly that’s not the most important thing,” Capel said. “The most important thing is our country being healthy and us being able to have long term health, that’s the main thing.”

Capel hinted earlier when talking about how he feels about the Class of 2020 that he’s brining in where he thinks Pitt is in the spectrum of becoming the kind of championship team that this series has discussed building.

Coming from an 0-19 season in conference play, in one of the most challenging conferences in college basketball, Pitt under Capel has hard farther to go than almost any other program in the country.

So where are they? What have been the successes, and what are the areas that remain a concern?

More in the fourth and final part of PSN’s series with Capel on building a championship basketball team.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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