Jeff Capel has been a head coach in a power conference before, so there's nothing new about taking his place at a table of elite peers, but given where he grew up and where he went to school and where he most recently worked, it's unavoidably different for him when it's the ACC.
The new Pittsburgh coach took his place next to his coach and mentor Mike Krzyzewski on Tuesday, which was an odd sensation for several reasons, not the least of which was he spent seven years sitting on the other side of Krzyzewski on the Duke bench.
“It was weird being on his left,” Capel said. “I was normally on his right. It was. But it's an amazing opportunity for me, and when all of this went down, it was very important for me to have his guidance.”
It's the kind of ACC job Capel always wanted, the table where he always wanted a seat, no matter the challenges. He's rebuilding Pitt's roster on the fly after the turnover of the disastrous two-season Kevin Stallings regime and he has yet to get any kind of mental break since his father passed away in November. He missed one game then, dove right back into Duke's season, and went from the Blue Devils' elimination against Kansas – “It was a charge!” Capel insisted – right into the deep end with the Panthers.
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But with his brother Jason aboard as an assistant coach and some clarity over which of the players who were allowed to pursue transfers have decided to return, the time is approaching when Capel can take a step back and absorb not only his personal loss but the way Duke's season ended.
“That was the only reservation that I had: Did I have the energy to do it?” Capel said. “To be completely honest, I'm exhausted. And I was exhausted. The job has energized me. Once I made the decision that this was something I was going to do, I felt an amazing amount of energy. Most important, this is what my dad would have wanted me to do.”
Pittsburgh is not just a dream job for Capel but a second chance after the way things ended at Oklahoma, with a sub-.500 season and the program in trouble with the NCAA, although Capel was not implicated.
“I was very naive,” Capel said. “I realized that when I got back to Duke. I'd been there for a couple years and after the sting of being fired and everything that came along with that, I was really able to gain perspective and not blame anyone and try to figure out what happened. I realized I was incredibly naive when I went to Oklahoma about a lot of things. I think I was more prepared at Pittsburgh, but it's never easy.”
Capel scoffed at the idea that he was behind the curtain working the gears and levers of Duke's amazing recruiting run but has nevertheless burnished that reputation at Pitt, landing the school's first top-100 recruit in five years – and got him to reclassify academically so he could graduate early and play this fall.
For Capel, a lifelong Steelers fan, the secret fringe benefit of taking the Pittsburgh job was entry into that world. He has taken advantage of his new position to spend time around Mike Tomlin, Ryan Shazier and the NFL team, and there's evidence the admiration is mutual. Capel was taking a recruit out to dinner when former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter drove past, saw Capel on the sidewalk and circled back to say hello.
It's the kind of sizzle Pitt basketball once had that Capel hopes to restore, the prime role it can play in a city without a pro basketball team, a sports-mad city that loves a winner – and has had plenty in recent years with the Steelers and Penguins.
“The fans are incredibly passionate,” Capel said. “They just need something to be passionate about again. That's our job, to create that.”
He's starting from scratch in some ways, given the state of the program when he arrived. But it's also a blank slate, a chance to build a program in his own image and a chance to go head-to-head with his mentor, who's also now an ACC peer.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock