Rebuilding a fallen college basketball program begins with developing relationships.
Relationships with coaches, current players, potential recruits, and fans all matter significantly from the very second that a coach takes over a new program. Relationship-building activities such as hosting visits, traveling to AAU games, to high schools, to recruits’ homes, and more are integral in the process of building a program back to prominence.
On March 15, 2020, those relationship-building activities were put on hold for coaches around the nation, including Pitt head coach Jeff Capel, who at the time had just finished up his second year leading the program. The NCAA announced that due to the COVID-19 outbreak, there would be a dead period with no end in sight. Coaches were not allowed to come into contact with recruits in person, whether it was hosting them for a visit at their college, meeting them at the recruits’ schools, or having dinner with the recruits’ family at their home.
Zoom calls became the new official visit. They became big news. Any time a recruit or a transfer was scheduled to hop on a zoom call with a staff, media outlets would report it and identify said recruit as a priority for the staff.
That all changed on June 1, when the NCAA finally ended the dead period after nearly 15 months, allowing all of those things to come back.
“It’s been great, it’s been awesome,” Capel said in late June. “We’ve been pretty busy since the June 1st period opened where we could do that, where the dead period ended and we got into a contact period. So it’s been great. It’s been great to be able to host kids for official, unofficial visits, it’s been awesome to go out and see these young people play the past two weekends we were able to do that. So, it seems to be getting back to a little bit of normalcy.”
Starting on that date, prospects were allowed to take visits, unofficially and officially. They were allowed to meet coaches in person and check out campuses. They were allowed to play in AAU tournaments and look over at a sideline full of all of the college coaches that they had watched growing up. A little bit of normalcy, as Capel put it, was starting to come back.
Capel and his staff hosted more than 20 prospects in June alone. That list was headlined by Judah Mintz, a 6-foot-4 guard who took an official visit to Pitt early on in the month.
Mintz had been on Pitt’s radar for months prior to the visit. He was offered by the staff back in April after a strong showing in a nearby tournament called the Pittsburgh Jam Fest. However, the entirety of Mintz and Capel’s relationship was over the phone.
That was until June 5.
For the first time, Mintz had stepped foot on Pitt’s campus. For the first time, he had shaken Capel’s hand. For the first time, the relationship felt real.
Just weeks after the weekend-long visit, Mintz committed to the program, becoming one of Capel’s highest-ranked recruits in his tenure in Pittsburgh. The relationship, the bond that the two had formed, was just getting started.
“Genuine,” Mintz said when asked to describe Capel in one word. “I think genuine would be a good word for him. He’s pretty nice. He got along with my family just fine. They liked him, he liked them, so, it was a really good experience meeting him and spending some time with him.”
While Mintz will not be on campus until next summer, Capel also signed five newcomers that will be on the team this year: Mo Gueye, Dan Oladapo, Jamarius Burton, Chris Payton, and Nate Santos. Five more relationships built this spring and summer that resulted in new Panthers.
“Appreciative,” was how Gueye, Pitt’s newest forward who transferred from Stony Brook this offseason, described Capel.
“In my short amount of time knowing him, the word I would use is determined,” Burton, Pitt’s new guard from Texas Tech, said about his new head coach. “He is determined to win.”
While he has been busy welcoming the new guys onto campus and developing early team chemistry, Capel has also been spending his days hosting recruits from the 2022 and 2023 classes since that June 1 date.
“My first impression of meeting Coach Capel in person was that he is a really down to earth guy and is really trying to build a great basketball program at Pitt,” said Dominick Barlow, one of Pitt’s priority targets in the 2022 class. “I also found that he is a really easy guy to talk with and connect to.”
“I feel like he’s the kind of person that wants to make you a better person on and off the court,” 2022 forward Michael Moore said about Capel after his visit. “He wants you to know how things are going. He is just like a perfect coach in my sense. That is the kind of coach players are looking forward to working with: coaches like him.”
“He was a great guy, a real down to earth dude,” said Sean Jones, a 2022 point guard prospect who recently included the Panthers in his top three schools list. “Coach Capel had a lot of interesting things to say and you can tell right away that he’s very knowledgeable about basketball.”
“He is a real good guy,” 2023 target Marlon Barnes said about Capel. “He seems real about his word. He means everything he says and he cares about you.”
While coaches are judged by wins and losses, you have to start somewhere when re-building a program like Pitt.
You have to start by building relationships.