Luke DeCock

Capel's going from Duke to Pitt, but only Krzyzewski may know what that really means

Duke's Jeff Capel talks about the Blue Devils' come-from-behind win over Wake Forest

Luke Kennard saves the day with a last second shot as Duke struggles with fouls throughout the game and still comes away with their first ACC road victory of the season.
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Luke Kennard saves the day with a last second shot as Duke struggles with fouls throughout the game and still comes away with their first ACC road victory of the season.

Not for the first time, everything we thought or knew about Duke basketball turned out to be wrong.

Jeff Capel may not have been the coach-in-waiting -- only Mike Krzyzewski truly knows the answer to that -- but he was certainly the coach-on-call, the interim solution during Krzyzewski's increasingly frequent medical absences, and the recruiter-in-chief.

His decision to take the Pittsburgh job -- after being attached to arguably more attractive opportunities like Georgia Tech and Arizona State in recent years -- suggests that either Krzyzewski, now 71, plans on coaching for a good while yet or that Capel was told he was not the successor.

Neither of those alternatives is surprising on its own, but seen in the context of the past three years, either upends the established order as far as it comes to Duke. Capel's decision to stay in the wake of the national title in 2015 underlined his importance to the program, both now and into the future; his decision to leave suggests his future lies elsewhere instead.

Duke acting head basketball coach Jeff Capel talks about coaching the Blue Devils with Mike Krzyzewski out after having back surgery. Capel coached his team to a home win over Boston College.

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Which isn't to say Capel isn't a candidate for the job, eventually; only that there won't be a Dean Smith scenario where Krzyzewski walks away at a moment when Capel is the only logical option, ensuring the job goes to his chosen successor. Capel instead joins the pack, with Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski and, maybe, Tommy Amaker as well. If Krzyzewski sticks around long enough, Jon Scheyer could potentially join that group as well.

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Regardless of succession plan, there's no overstating Capel's value to the program as a recruiter. Another top-ranked class is coming in to try and start from scratch and do what none of those teams have been able to do in the years since 2015. This year's group probably had the best shot, with its talent and depth, and even it couldn't get to the Final Four, going 3-7 in games decided by less than five points or in overtime.

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Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, left, is expected to return to the sideline for the Blue Devils’ game against Miami on Monday. Associate head coach Jeff Capel, right, served as head coach against Wake Forest on Saturday, when Coach K was sick. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com


Did this team burn Krzyzewski out on one-and-dones? He may have decided he had to play zone. That doesn't mean he liked doing it. Despite all the talent in next year's class, Duke has no senior contributors to lead it. (Junior forward Javin DeLaurier looks like Duke's most promising leadership candidate.) If you start over every year, you're not a program. That's certainly not how Krzyzewski built his program at Duke.

These are the kind of questions Capel's departure raises. There's always a little Kremlinology involved when trying to parse why or how Krzyzewski does something. He keeps close counsel with his inner circle and likes it that way. Because of that, the timing of Capel's departure as much as his departure itself challenges a lot of the outside assumptions made about the pecking order.

Something very significant has changed within the walls of Duke's program. At this point, only Krzyzewski and Capel know what that is.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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