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Opinion

Vukovcan: Go Ahead and Blame Jeff Capel for All of Pitt’s Struggles, But I Won’t

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What was pretty much known was made official Friday night by Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke, when she announced that Jeff Capel will return for his fifth season as Pitt’s men’s basketball coach.

With his overall record and the current state of the basketball program, the majority of the basketball fanbase weren’t too happy with the university’s decision and felt that Capel needed to go and the program needed a new voice.

Although I don’t agree with that opinion, I completely understand why fans feel that way and heck, if you asked Capel, he wouldn’t be happy with the job and results of his first four seasons (51-69 record).

Pitt basketball fans are tired of losing, tired of not being able to watch meaningful games, tired of being a non-factor in college basketball. The fact that they still have this passion is a good thing because it means they care.

I’m not going to say the fan base was spoiled, but they became accustomed to tuning into the NCAA Selection Show and finding out what seed the Panthers were and debating about whether they had a chance to make it past the Sweet 16. Unfortunately for basketball fans in Pittsburgh, that won’t be happening this year and hasn’t happened since 2015.

If you spend any time on Twitter or read comments and posts on Facebook or message boards, the material isn’t kind for Capel or Pitt. While a large portion of the fans are civil and just voice their frustration of what they’ve watched the last four years, which is completely appropriate, another section is the opposite and have gotten personal with both Capel and Lyke. As I tweeted last night, it’s sad and scary how obsessed some fans have gotten with this situation.

When people become this unhinged, it always means they’re spouting out opinions and narratives that aren’t factual, instead its garbage to support their dissatisfaction of the current situation under Capel.

Since we know that no coaching change is happening, I figured it was time to lay out some facts about Jeff Capel and the Pitt basketball program.

People Underappreciated Jamie Dixon:

When we talk about the current state of Pitt basketball, this point needs to be brought up first- too many people didn’t appreciate the job Jamie Dixon did and where he had the program. Since taking over for Ben Howland in 2003, Dixon never had a losing record as Panthers coach. Never. Granted he inherited a program that had gone 57-11 in the previous two seasons under Howland but to never have a losing record in that version of the Big East was impressive.

Pitt didn’t just have a winning record; they won a lot of games. In 8 of Dixon’s 13 seasons, Pitt won 25+ games and two 30-win seasons. When it came to March Madness, Pitt was a yearly participant. A Dixon-coached Pitt team only missed playing in the NCAA Tournament twice in 13 seasons.

That’s what started the frustration with fans and Dixon: they felt Pitt didn’t win enough in the tournament. In 11 NCAA tournament appearances under Dixon, Pitt lost in the first or second rounds six times. When you become accustomed to winning, it’s only natural to want to win more and that’s what caused problems and eventually was a factor in Dixon leaving for TCU. The other big reason for Dixon’s departure was that once Pitt made the decision to switch to the ACC, he wanted no part of that and that was well known throughout the athletic department. Dixon wanted to stay in the Big East and that wasn’t going to happen.

Bottom line is that while they didn’t value him towards the end of his tenure, Pitt fans today can’t help themselves from comparing Capel to Dixon. While it’s only natural, it’s also very, very unfair and in no way comparable. Different state of the program, different type of athletes and not coaching in the transfer portal era have to be factored in but aren’t by most fans.

Not Accurate That Capel Isn’t Recruiting Well

The factor that excited Pitt fans about Capel is now a big reason for the criticism that he receives. Capel arrived with the earned reputation of being one of the top recruiters in the country and everyone thought that success would automatically carry over with him from Duke. While Pitt has been a finalist for a number of high four-star recruits, they haven’t been able to close the deal and land them. However, that doesn’t mean that Capel has done a bad job of recruiting.

How do you think this starting five and bench rotation would look for Pitt this year?

PG- Xavier Johnson
SG- Trey McGowens
SF- Justin Champagnie
C- Efton Reid
PF- John Hugley

Bench – Au’Diese Toney, Mo Gueye, Femi Odukale, Jamarius Burton, Nike Sibande and Ithiel Horton.

I’d be pretty confident laying down some money that would be a team that would’ve competed in the top portion of the ACC and would have heard their name called tomorrow during the NCAA Basketball Selection Show. Eyeing talent and landing it hasn’t been a major problem, keeping it here is the issue.

Does Capel Deserve Blame For Transfers/Decommitments? 

This is the topic that has many sides to it and can get deservedly debated by fans. Who’s to blame for the high volume of transfers and a couple of major decommitments?

I’ll admit that ultimately it falls at the feet of Capel and his staff because they’re in charge but with any sort of objectivity, you’ll certainly see that all of this shouldn’t fall just on Capel. Players deserve blame, as does bad luck, along with the current state of unethical college recruiting.

I’m going to deal in facts and not in frustration, dislike, or opinions.

While Capel deserves his share of blame for certain things and I’m not going to excuse him from those things, I have a hard time and won’t blame him for certain players deciding to leave Pitt.

**McGowens was the first big name to transfer and was a talented member of Capel’s first recruiting class. In the end, the big factor in his decision was because of unhappiness with the position he was playing. He wanted to play point guard and felt that was his most natural position. However, Capel didn’t agree and was using Johnson as the point guard. Despite starting since he was a true freshman, McGowens averaged double-digit points while at Pitt and was a big loss. Having his leadership and talent would certainly have helped out Pitt this season. Blame Capel for this situation if you want but I won’t.

**The following season, Johnson and Toney made the similar decision to leave but it was for a different reason. The bottom line with this situation was the internal problems that existed with them being on the roster. The two couldn’t co-exist, both caused internal team issues which carried over to the court impacting wins and losses. Justin Champagnie was without a doubt Pitt’s best player and the focus of their offense which didn’t go over well with members of the team. This lack of harmony was also fueled by incidents involving personal relationships off the court. This all came to a head with multiple physical exchanges in the locker room. Following this incident and after trying to referee this situation all season, Capel didn’t believe this situation was able to be repaired and both Johnson and Toney were encouraged to move on from Pitt. Think those two would’ve helped Pitt out this season? They were major, major losses. Does Capel deserve all the blame for this?

**Talented players transferring haven’t been the only issue. Capel has had major four-star recruits de-commit and another not honor his verbal commitment. Both Jalen Hood-Schifino and Judah Mintz gave early commitments to Capel and later decided to not honor them, which is certainly their right. Hood-Schifino committed first and then made the decision to open up his recruitment after committing to Pitt early in his high school career. Hood-Schifino is an immensely talented player and would’ve started at Pitt on day one, but is now heading to Indiana. Almost the same scenario happened with Mintz, who would’ve taken Hood-Schifino’s spot in the starting lineup. Pitt has a hole at lead guard and either of those two would’ve filled that hole. Both players committed to Pitt despite their struggles and seemed happy throughout the time they were committed. Only those players and their families really know their reasons for de-committing from Pitt, but it certainly had nothing to do with their relationships with Capel. Recruiting is a crazy and complex business. Twice, Capel had what he believed was the center piece to his recruiting class and those players choose not to honor their commitments. Once again, blame Capel if you want, but I won’t.

**The next situation really summarizes what has happened to Capel and his recruitment. Remember the name Efton Reid? Of course you do. The Pitt staff did a tremendous job recruiting him for multiple years and for the longest time, it appeared all that hard work would be rewarded with a commitment. In fact, sources tell PSN that on the day he was to make his college decision, the family of the 5-star center contacted Capel and told them Reid would be committing and were sent papers for him to sign. Those papers were never signed and Reid ended up with Will Wade and LSU. Yes, the same Will Wade that is getting investigated by the NCAA for illegally paying recruits. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. How would this years Pitt team look with a front court of Reid, John Hugley and Mo Gueye? Capel was envisioning a starting lineup that included Mintz or Hood-Schifino, Hugley and Reid. How would that have worked out? Go ahead and criticize Capel for recruiting honestly if you want but I’ll choose not to.

Capel’s Future

I don’t believe anyone really knows the answer to this but once thing is pretty obvious and that’s if Pitt doesn’t make a big improvement next season, Capel will likely be replaced. Like nearly everyone at the time, I was excited with the hiring of Capel and still believe that he can have success at Pitt. Despite what Howland and Dixon were able to do, Pitt isn’t an easy job and Capel is finding that out, especially when you’re trying to resurrect a program from the dead and trying to do that as a member of the ACC. Capel is going to need to once again hit on a few transfers that can immediately contribute and to also get something he hasn’t gotten in his first four seasons- some good luck. Despite the vibe around Pitt basketball, with the amount of talent that will become available this off-season thru transfers, turning this around next season won’t be impossible to do. However, time isn’t on Capel’s side as visible results need to happen next season or fans will get their wish and Lyke will be looking to hire her second basketball coach.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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Don
Don
6 months ago

When a college coach has zero recruits in his upcoming class even he knows he’s in lame-duck status… If Caple thinks he’s going to strike it rich in the portal he’s crazy… How excited can we be for kids who enter the portal and have played at Brown and Lafayette? Another long year ahead.

Rob Radich
Rob Radich
6 months ago

Who do you blame for the state of the program? It’s entirely on Capel. It’s absurd to “envision a lineup” when the players either never signed or transferred. Please.

Last edited 6 months ago by Rob Radich
Terrence
Terrence
6 months ago
Reply to  Rob Radich

There fan boys Rob and you’re spot on

Krackerjack Kid
Krackerjack Kid
6 months ago
Reply to  Rob Radich

The “what if” angle is weak.

Krackerjack Kid
Krackerjack Kid
6 months ago

While I can appreciate this column and insight, the one thing that wasn’t mentioned was the off-court issues. Yes, the altercation in the locker room was mentioned, but what about the arrests? This speaks to the larger issue of the culture of the program and the quality of the players being brought on campus. We don’t see this type of thing with the football or baseball programs, and it sure didn’t help with the season. From the outside it’s clear that Capel had a mess to clean up when he arrived. But he’s had four years and been given all… Read more »

Pittband
Pittband
6 months ago

Bad hire, second man on the bench at Duke. Pitt’s target at the time was someone from a mid-major. Short memory.

I do blame Capel for the defense this season. He had the pro typical shot blocker in Mo Gueye and he let teams take Mo outside. This team screamed Syracuse zone defense. Guards were too slow to play man-to-man and allowed opponents in the paint at will. Like Jamie he was too hardheaded to change.

Cruzer
Cruzer
6 months ago

You must get pretty tired carrying all that water.

Terrence
Terrence
6 months ago

Cmon Mike be real this program is in bad shape and this is on Capel and lyke you can’t spew out names that aren’t even here anymore and a recruit that he didn’t land

Zman
Zman
6 months ago

And right on cue, LSU fires Wade. You know they paid to get Reid.

Pittband
Pittband
6 months ago
Reply to  Zman

And?
Pitino did the same at every school he coached for.
Surprise.

Rob Radich
Rob Radich
6 months ago

Bottom line- who was in the Coaching box when Pitt lost to Niagara, McNeese, The Citadel, St Francis and UMBC? To Minnesota and their 10 transfers? It’s been one embarrassment after another. And his response is “Hell Yeah”! What an arrogant, inept man

Krackerjack Kid
Krackerjack Kid
6 months ago
Reply to  Rob Radich

Yes. Capel is arrogant and seems to get annoyed and angry when questioned. He’s like a bad employee that doesn’t do his job and when suggestions are given to improve their performance, they get angry.

Andy
Andy
6 months ago

The only part of the article I agree with is the personal attacks. People can be real brave sitting in front of their computer screen or on their cell phone. As far as the rest of the article. Who takes the blame? Obviously according to you Capel takes none of the blame, then who does? Why is it ok for Capel to throw his team under the bus, but not ok to be criticized? After the embarrassing lose, he said they need better players. What a slap in the face of these kids who had to play for him all… Read more »

Jimbo Grimm
Jimbo Grimm
6 months ago
Reply to  Andy

Those personal attacks coming from Radich & his multiple personalities are really just projections from sad, old trolls with lots of free time.

Rob Radich
Rob Radich
6 months ago
Reply to  Jimbo Grimm

“Personal attacks”. Really Jimbo. Everything I’ve asserted is true. But here’s a personal attack for you- you are a pathetic little fanboy with no connection to the University other than your slavish devotion. You have no objective case so you resort to silly little diversions in replying to those that do. Personal enough for you, you pathetic twat?

Mark Recker
Mark Recker
6 months ago
Reply to  Jimbo Grimm

Jeff Capel= Loser!!

Justin Dietrich
Justin Dietrich
6 months ago
Reply to  Mark Recker

Not true, Capel is a winner & hel’l turn this proagram around next seeson.H2P!

MDTKD
MDTKD
6 months ago

And just today Reed was fired from LSU for paying players. Wade “arranged for, offered and/or provided impermissible payments, including cash payments, to at least 11 men’s basketball prospective student-athletes, their family members, individuals associated with the prospects and/or nonscholastic coaches in exchange for the prospects’ enrollment at LSU.

Kowboygoc
Kowboygoc
6 months ago
Reply to  MDTKD

You are surprised, how🙄🤑

Eric Payne
Eric Payne
6 months ago

Great article. Thank you for reminding the fans how Jamie Dixon was treated. The Reid situation was very transparent. Can’t compete against cheaters. I believe that Heather Lyke will give Coach a fair chance to succeed and he will. I, like you ,believe that he could use a little luck.

Terrence
Terrence
6 months ago
Reply to  Eric Payne

A fair chance you’re kidding right it’s going on year 5 and the program is a total mess and luck isn’t going to fix this

Steve
Steve
6 months ago

A few more slanted pieces like this and continuing as a Die-Hard might be rethought.

Pittband
Pittband
6 months ago

This is going to be a tough recruiting season. He has to recruit Hughley to stay. And with NIL, boosters are going to be whispering sweet $$$ in his ear. Calipari said as much when he dissed Tom Crean for not being able to keep his players (took Cream’s point guard).
I’m not optimistic.

Pittband
Pittband
6 months ago

May Scott Barnes roast in hell. There’s the problem.
I was disappointed when we lost at home to Virginia Tech. Now they get the ACC automatic bid to the dance and from a seventh seed.
This is a brutal basketball conference.

Nathan Lincoln
Nathan Lincoln
6 months ago
Reply to  Pittband

this is a conference that is way down this year thus making this epic failure and muliple blowout losses 10x worse.

Pittband
Pittband
6 months ago
Reply to  Nathan Lincoln

I’ll wait to make that assessment until after the dance. ACC might surprise you.

Paul mcgrath
Paul mcgrath
6 months ago

I enjoyed the article and think there is a good bit of truth too it, however you still need to find a way to win after 4 years. My biggest concern with capel is how his teams get worse as the year goes on. Every year pitt seems to be playing its worst basketball late in the year. Dixon teams were the opposite and I believe that has everything to do with coaching. I still think capel will be able to recruit at pitt, I’m just not sure he is a good basketball coach and to win at pitt you… Read more »

BlackRobbb
BlackRobbb
6 months ago

I’m wondering why there would be so much internal turmoil on one team. Most teams in any college sport don’t experience this much friction in 25 years, let alone 3-4. Does Capel have good assistants to keep their finger on the pulse of the locker room? In any event, it looks like a very hot seat for Coach Capel next season, and his athletic director’s might be just as hot.

James from Florida
James from Florida
6 months ago

No matter who transfers in or out, who commits or decommits the head coach is responsible for the entire program.

There has to be an underlying issue why Pitt can’t sustain any momentum under Capel.

His teams aren’t competitive and next year will be the same result.

Young
Young
6 months ago

Maybe he can recruit. But you have to coach/develop them to play as a team, right?

Can Capel coach and develop players?

Dixon recruited average or below-average players, and developed them to play as a team, and emphasized rebound, assist, low turn over, and defense. I think it is a good strategy to win many games, but may be not for the championship. So Capel had Xavier and McGowen, but even with them, Pitt’s assist numbers were low, and TO was high.

Pittband
Pittband
6 months ago
Reply to  Young

But Jamie wanted no part of the ACC. Needs a below average conference to excel. Expect him to win maybe one and done next week.

Dave
Dave
6 months ago
Reply to  Pittband

The old big East was a fantastic conference

Rob Radich
Rob Radich
6 months ago
Reply to  Pittband

You’re demented if you think the Big East was “below average”. And “expect him to be one and done”. Really? Wow. 11-21.

YourInsane
YourInsane
6 months ago

So the base of your argument is that other coaches where just better, lol. The amount of Capel fan boys among journalists amazes me. Idk if he is paying you guys or what. If players he recruits leave, year after year. It’s something he is doing wrong.

Dukes

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