Capel headed home

Returns as opposing coach

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 17, 2011 

Earlier this week, Jason Capel said he was too busy to think about it. He was busy recruiting while his Appalachian State players were busy with exams.

He was too busy trying to come up with the right strategy for the Mountaineers (4-5) to employ against No. 5 North Carolina (8-2) tonight in Chapel Hill (6 p.m., ESPNU).

Capel was busy doing what college basketball coaches do - years earlier than he ever thought he might be. But Capel suspected the emotions might bubble up on Friday, while riding down the mountain with his players from Boone toward Chapel Hill, where 10 years ago he played the last of his four seasons for the Tar Heels.

"When we're driving to Chapel Hill on Friday, when we practice in the Smith Center on Friday night, that's when it's really going to hit me," said Capel, who was briefly the youngest Division I head coach in the nation when he became the Mountaineers' head coach before last season. "... It's definitely going to be special."

As a boy growing up in Fayetteville, where his dad coached at Fayetteville State from 1989 through 1993, Capel dreamed of a future in Carolina blue. His older brother Jeff was one of the best high school prospects in the nation back then, and one day Dean Smith and Phil Ford, then a UNC assistant, stopped by the Capel home on a recruiting visit.

While Smith and Ford sat inside, recruiting Jeff, who ended up playing at Duke, Jason went out into the backyard, he said, and played "like I was auditioning as a 12-year-old." Years later, when Jason Capel had to make a decision about where to play in college, it wasn't much of a decision at all.

Growing up in this state, Jason Capel said, it was a dream to play at North Carolina.

That dream came true. Others didn't. The Tar Heels didn't win a championship during Capel's four years. But he experienced more drama - more ups and downs - during his time at UNC than most.

Capel was part of a team that made a surprise run to the Final Four in 2000. The next season, Capel and his UNC teammates were ranked No. 1 at one point. And then, of course, came the agony of his senior season, when UNC finished 8-20 in Matt Doherty's second season.

"If nothing (else), it taught me how to be resilient, how to pick yourself up and how to handle situations and learn from the fact that it's life," Capel said. "One year you can be No. 1 in the country, a year removed from the Final Four. The next year, you could struggle."

Capel said the pain of his senior season pushed him away from UNC's program. He didn't feel exiled, he said. He didn't feel shunned, but he felt that he'd let down a legacy he'd waited his whole life to join.

"The shame of it," he said. "The embarrassment of it. (Feeling like) you let the program down and the people that came before you ... I grew up with a great understanding of what it means to put that jersey on, and the pride, and for us to struggle the way we did, me being a senior, I accepted a lot of that and it took me to a pretty dark place."

Capel said what he experienced at UNC - both the good and especially the bad - helped him grow.

When he talks now to his players about overcoming adversity, about "picking yourself up," he said, he can speak from experience. Capel's ability to relate to his players helped him earn him the chance to coach the Mountaineers, Appalachian State athletic director Charlie Cobb said.

Cobb hired Capel after Buzz Peterson, another former UNC player, left Boone to become the head coach at UNC-Wilmington. At that point Capel - who first entered broadcasting after a back injury shortened his overseas playing career - had been an assistant coach for only one season.

Capel's lack of experience didn't matter, Cobb said. He said Capel compensated for that in other areas.

"I felt like it was just his presence and the way he handled himself," Cobb said. "I'm a big believer that you interview for a job every day."

Capel said his father (also named Jeff), taught him that - that "you never know who's watching." The eldest Capel is now working with the Philadelphia 76ers, but he had been working with the Charlotte Bobcats when Jason appeared at a preseason practice one day a few years ago.

This was after Jason had returned home after his playing career was over. He said he was "bitter" about the injury - about not being able to play. So he entered broadcasting. At the Bobcats' practice that day, Capel said he ran into an old, familiar face.

The way Capel tells the story, Dean Smith approached him.

"He said, 'You're good on TV,'" Capel said. "'But you belong on the bench.' Well, say no more, coach."

Peterson hired Capel not long after. These days, Capel said he seeks out advice from a lot of places. He can talk to his dad, or to his older brother, the former VCU and Oklahoma coach who's now an assistant at Duke.

But Capel's best guide might be his own experiences. He organizes some aspects of his practices the way Bill Guthridge did during Capel's early years at UNC. He relies on old conversations he shared with Smith. Even that 8-20 season taught Capel valuable lessons that he uses today.

That season pushed Capel away from UNC, he said. In some ways it's part of why he'll be back tonight.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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