PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh is turning to Duke’s Jeff Capel to rebuild its reeling basketball program.
The Panthers hired the former Virginia Commonwealth and Oklahoma coach and longtime Duke assistant on Tuesday, tasking him with returning Pitt to prominence following two tough years under Kevin Stallings.
Athletic director Heather Lyke called Capel a “high-energy leader.” Capel will need it, taking over a team that finished 8-24 and 0-18 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Pitt’s search included interviews with Thad Matta and Tom Crean and overtures to Danny Hurley, who opted instead to become the head coach at Connecticut. Ultimately, the Panthers brought in the 43-year-old Capel, who spent the last seven seasons in the seat next to Mike Krzyzewski while developing a reputation as one of the top recruiters in the nation.
“Jeff Capel is one of the most dynamic coaches in the country,” Krzyzewski said. “He possesses championship-level experience as both a head and assistant coach, as well as distinct knowledge of the Atlantic Coast Conference that will benefit Pitt immediately.”
There’s nowhere to go but up.
The Panthers were the only team in Division I to go winless in conference play and at times, Pitt and its freshmen-laden roster lost eight ACC games by more than 20 points. Attendance at the once raucous Petersen Events Center when the team was coached by Jamie Dixon dropped dramatically as enthusiasm for Stallings waned. Pitt averaged just over 4,100 for home games this season, easily the lowest in the conference and a 50 percent drop from 2016-17.
“Pitt has a great tradition of success and I look forward to putting together a staff and team that will enable us to build on that tradition,” Capel said in a statement.
Capel went 175-110 in nine years at Virginia Commonwealth and Oklahoma before returning to his alma mater to become Krzyzewski’s right-hand man. The former Duke guard was viewed as an obvious candidate to replace the 71-year-old Krzyzewski once the winningest coach in men’s Division I history finally hangs up his clip board.
Capel has filled in for Krzyzewski at least once in each of the past three years, including a seven-game stint during the 2016-17 season while the Hall of Famer had surgery to have a fragment of a herniated disk removed from his back.
Duke went 4-3 under Capel, who also led the Blue Devils to single victories at Georgia Tech in 2015-16 and against Wake Forest this year while Krzyzewski was ill.
Capel starred at Duke in the mid-1990s and got into coaching in 2000, beginning his career as an assistant for his father Jeff Capel II at Old Dominion. He moved to VCU the next season and became head coach in 2002. It didn’t take him long to find success. The Rams qualified for the NCAA tournament in his second season.
Oklahoma lured Capel to a Power Five conference in 2006. He led the Sooners to the second round of the NCAAs in his second year and all the way to the Elite Eight in 2009 behind star forward Blake Griffin.
Capel’s tenure with the Sooners ended when he was fired in March 2011 as part of the fallout from an NCAA investigation that discovered former Oklahoma assistant Oronde Taliiaferro broke NCAA rules by failing to report that a player had received an impermissible extra benefit and by lying to investigators.
Capel was not implicated in the investigation and found a landing spot at his alma mater. He served as one of the top recruiters at Duke and helped the Blue Devils land several high-profile prospects, including several members of the 2015 team that won the national title. Capel also signed freshman forward and ACC Player of the Year Marvin Bagley III last year. Bagley guided Duke’s push to the Elite Eight this season before the Blue Devils fell to Kansas in the regional final.
The immediate expectations won’t be quite as high at Pitt.
The Panthers reached the NCAAs 11 times in 13 seasons under Dixon. For now, they’ll settle for something resembling a competitive team after the worst season in the program’s 113-year history.
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Durham, North Carolina, contributed to this report.
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