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Saunders: Buyout Not Only Hurdle If Pitt Wants to Move on from Jeff Capel

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The big question about the Pitt men’s basketball program since the end of its season on Tuesday has been whether head coach Jeff Capel will return for a fifth season.

There seems to be no end to that speculation in sight as of Thursday afternoon. Athletic director Heather Lyke declined to speak to Pittsburgh Sports Now through a spokesperson on Tuesday at the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, and also formally declined an interview request with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Craig Meyer on Thursday.

Capel has a significant buyout — at lest $15 million — that stands in the way of Lyke making a change, and it goes beyond the ability to pay off Capel.

First, let’s put that number into context. A $15 million buyout payment represents a full half of what Pitt got from the ACC last year in television rights and other league sources of revenue. Pitt earns money from other sources, but it is nearly impossible to envision Lyke having $15 million in her 2022 budget laying around that has no other earmark.

There is a possibility that a booster or a group of boosters could be tapped to pick up the tab, but $15 million would be among the largest single gifts in Pitt athletics history. To put that into some context, the Petersen family only gave $10 million to get their name on the building. So $15 million to get a coach to go away is on a level that Pitt just doesn’t play in when it comes to boosterism.

Maybe a combination of some budget gymnastics from Lyke and company and some donors stepping up could get the bill paid, but that remains just half of the problem at hand. If you’re of the mind to think that Pitt needs a better head men’s basketball coach than Capel, firing him doesn’t solve the problem. You have to go out and hire a better one.

And if you’re worried about the financial implications of a fanbase that has already soured on Capel leaving an empty Petersen Events Center for another season, then that means Pitt not only has to hire a better one, it has to be one that would inspire the fanbase to come back to the box office in droves.

It’s not far-fetched to imagine Pitt finding a more-successful head coach. Mark Schmidt, who was a candidate for the job when Capel was hired, has done well at St. Bonaventure. There are plenty of other mid- and low-major coaches that could prove successful: John Becker at Vermont, Scott Davenport from Bellarmine, Matt McMahon from Murray State, VCU’s Mike Rhoades — the list goes on and on. But none of those names alone would make for a significantly less-empty Pete next fall.

It would take someone with some kind of name-brand or panache to do that. Ironically, someone like Jeff Capel. But Capel didn’t come cheaply (hence the large buyout that is now an obstruction to his departure), and it’s nearly impossible to imagine Pitt having the money to buy out Capel and making a big-time splash of a hire.

There are a couple of exceptions to that: a couple of coaches with ties to the area and/or the program or that otherwise might be willing to take the job for less than a king’s ransom.

One suggestion that some have bandied about is former Arizona head coach and Pitt alum Sean Miller. Miller was fired amid, but not necessarily because of, Arizona’s involvement in the FBI probe into college basketball that resulted in the arrest of assistant coach Emmanuel “Book” Richardson, who later served a three-month prison sentence. Miller was fired in 2021 after five more Level 1 NCAA violations were levied against Arizona, alleging falsified transcripts for non-qualifying student-athletes, bribery and impermissible benefits.

Anyone suggesting that Pitt, which remains on probation through February 2023 for self-reporting violations committed by Kevin Stallings in order to facilitate negotiating its way out of his buyout, should turn to a serial rules violator in Miller, is hopelessly out of touch with the way the school goes about its business.

Pitt is never going to be the kind of school that is going to tolerate its athletic department skirting or breaking NCAA rules, and even though some of the things that Miller has been accused of in the past are now pseudo-legal, his past bad acts will fully disqualify him from reasonable consideration. Pitt did due diligence on Miller’s situation before hiring Capel and came to the conclusion that he was not an option, even though he was still at Arizona, and his track record has only gotten worse since then with the most recent allegations.

With Miller crossed off, there’s really only one candidate that can come to my mind that might be realistic. Former Pitt guard Brandin Knight is someone that the fanbase has wanted back in the fold ever since he left the program following Jamie Dixon’s departure in 2016.

Knight has spent the last six years as an assistant coach at Rutgers, working under Steve Pikiell. The Scarlet Knights are on the bubble to go to the tournament for the third straight season and that would make hiring away one of the team’s top assistants attractive to just about anyone, let alone the program where his number hangs in the rafters.

I’m not saying it’s going to happen, or that it should happen, but that’s about the only way I can see Pitt getting away from Capel as head coach and coming up with a reasonable replacement that will get people back in the building this fall.

It’s much more likely that Capel returns for a fifth season, and I made the case for why Capel probably deserves another shot at any rate in my season-ending column from Brooklyn on Tuesday.

Saunders: Jeff Capel’s Future with Pitt Hinges on One Thing, and It’s How We Got Here in the First Place

The crux of that column was that as long as Capel can keep John Hugley in the fold, Pitt has a decent hope for improvement in 2022-23. But if Capel goes, Hugley probably goes with him. A new coach would be inheriting nearly as big of a mess as Capel did, and would be doing it while the program was financially hamstrung by paying his buyout. That doesn’t seem like a winning combination, either.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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Justin Dietrich
Justin Dietrich
8 months ago

What an absolutely pointless article.

kevin
kevin
8 months ago

How many years does he have left on his current contract?

Paul mcgrath
Paul mcgrath
8 months ago
Reply to  kevin

From what I have read, the buyout goes to below 5 million after the next basketball season.
Capel will get 1 more year wether he deserves it or not.

Not getting good enough players is only half the problem. His in game coaching and the fact that his teams get worse as the year goes on are also problems that seem like a stretch to ever get fixed. Pitt basketball seems hopeless to me. I hope I’m wrong.

Eli
Eli
8 months ago
Reply to  Paul mcgrath

I had not heard that before, but I hope it’s correct. If we have to suffer through one more year, so be it. We’ve been suffering for a while now. Another 12 months won’t kill us.

richard ellison
richard ellison
8 months ago
Reply to  Paul mcgrath

you are wrong an team had its off the court issues to that caused problems along with injuries an players lost for the season. Plus the transfer players that came in last year hasnt help the rotation.The bench isn`t very deep with talent enough to give players a relief if in foul trouble.

richard ellison
richard ellison
8 months ago
Reply to  kevin

enough time to get players that want to be here an buy into the program.This fan base thinks Rome was built in two years. The football team took 5yrs foir them to plant their feet in a foundation.Why because he recurited players that came out to be more selfish than being a team?

Joe
Joe
8 months ago

By keeping this topic alive PSN is doing it’s best to ruin any prospects for 2023 as well as what it has done for 2022. But what else should we expect from Penn State Now.

Jimbo Grimm
Jimbo Grimm
8 months ago
Reply to  Joe

The good news for Pitt fans is that there are maybe 6 or 7 people that will read this article.

Paul mcgrath
Paul mcgrath
8 months ago
Reply to  Joe

What a pathetic comment.
It’s hard to believe somebody could actually think like this.
When you lose every year, that’s what people talk about. If capel won some games then we would be talking about that.

Pittband
Pittband
8 months ago
Reply to  Alan Saunders

No, it’s on you and truth is in the eyes of the beholder. Who says the fan base has soured on Capel? You? Not enough fans in the stands? Have you heard of Covid 19? That and that alone has caused the sparse crowds.
Barnes/KS caused the decline of Pitt basketball. Hiring Capel after most players had committed caused him to recruit players toxic to any program, X in particular. Bezos and his Elite Basketball League and unlimited transfer are added factors.
Typical Pittsburgher, no one is ever good enough. Jock Sutherland would turn over on his grave.

PittBand
PittBand
8 months ago
Reply to  Alan Saunders

Why aren’t you investigating the bigger story? Is Heather going to be encouraged to seek greener pastures? Rumors are that she is not the darling she once was.

PittBand
PittBand
8 months ago
Reply to  Alan Saunders

OBTW, been following Pitt basketball since before you were born. Three of the four men’s jerseys in the rafters were retired after I started watching either in the pep band or as a season ticket holder. And I am serious!!!!

Tom D
Tom D
8 months ago

Alan as usual its a fine article. But the truth is clear–no easy outs for Capel and Pitt. I think the program just has to wait out another year. See how the program hits the transfer portal. But so far under Capel, Lots of bad luck. Lots of bad breaks. Some bad coaching and some bad players. If this team had Hughley last season it would have been a completely different outcome. And those 3 players that transferred, Johnson McCGowins and Toney should have stuck it out in my opinion. But Hughley missing last season was a tipping point. That… Read more »

TMG
TMG
8 months ago

15 million! GULP! He isn’t going anywhere.

Randy Joseck
Randy Joseck
8 months ago

Fire Capel. We’ve seen 4 years of the same results. Why expect different results now? Poor coaching, poor recruiting, lack of discipline on and off the court. I don’t support the comments about Hughley being the key to success. John is a very good player but as the season progressed, teams doubleteamed John. While he has improved his ability to find the open man, he’s not always successful. I attribute the late season disaster ( 20 point blowouts) to good ACC coaches neutralizing Hughley. While the buyout should be a small factor, the buyout should NOT be the reason to… Read more »

James DeLeon
James DeLeon
8 months ago

This is Lyke’s mess. She stupidly gave him an undeserved extension. Many of us fans have simply moved on. This situation won’t be fixed anytime soon. I certainly won’t rely on Lyke to make a smart choice.

Eric payne
Eric payne
8 months ago

I agree that this article was pointless. Just imagine if every player that he recruited had stayed here. He would have a NCAA potential team. The present team just didn’t perform well. A few good players can change that drastically. The crowds will return when they believe that this team can win. Sometimes, things take a little longer.

Dukes

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