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.
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.