You’d have to go all the way back to the early 1900s, and even then, that’s not far enough.
That’s because it never happened. Until now.
Benjamin Printz, Harry Hough, and Wolparth Wegner were the first head coaches in the long and storied history of Pitt men’s basketball. Later, there was “Doc” Carlson, Robert Timmons and Paul Evans. Most recently, it’s the names everyone knows—Ralph Willard, Ben Howland, the slick hair of Jamie Dixon, and the ineptitude of Kevin Stallings.
But at an introductory press conference held, March 28, on the same court where the Panthers want to restore their winning ways, they turned to Jeff Capel. He became the first African American head coach in the over 100-year history of Pitt men’s basketball.
“We landed a difference-maker,” said Heather Lyke, Pitt’s athletic director, who made the decision to hire Capel.
“The plight for Black coaches has been very different from our counterparts, and it’s something that I take very seriously and take with great pride,” Capel said after being asked to elaborate on the distinction at the press conference by New Pittsburgh Courier sports columnist Bill Neal.
Capel said his father was friends with “Coach (John) Thompson, Coach (John) Chaney, Coach (Nolan) Richardson, and so those are some of the examples of mentors that I’ve had to look up to, and so I’m excited about that.”
Capel later discussed to Neal that he definitely wants to be an example to “especially young African American men. We need a lot of examples, and positive examples, positive role models. There are a lot out there, but you don’t see them all the time, so I understand the position that I’m in,” Capel said. “I just want to be an example, and I do that by being me.”
Of course, being a Black man wasn’t the primary factor in hiring the next head coach. Like the Pittsburgh Steelers over a decade ago when they searched for the successor to Bill Cowher, Pitt was looking for a great coach, a great role model, a great leader. The Rooney family felt they found those ingredients in Mike Tomlin, who became the Steelers’ first African American head coach.And Pitt feels like they found the same in Capel.
“The head coach directly impacts the lives of other people’s children every day. And it is a critical decision,” Lyke said. “I hoped to be able to meet the expectations of what we needed and wanted in a leader for our men’s basketball program, and I was determined not to settle for anything less. And we found that leader in Jeff Capel.”
Lyke, herself just over a year into the job as Pitt athletic director, stood in front of what felt like the entire City of Pittsburgh at the March 28 press conference, as she raved about Capel. As Capel’s name and likeness was plastered on the lowered JumboTron, she reeled off Capel’s top qualities in her eyes—insightful, genuine, intensely competitive. “He knows what’s important to him,” she said. “He knows who he is as a leader and a head coach. He knows the importance of sleeping on big decisions, and he knows the impact that a coach can have on young people’s lives every day.”
Lyke continued: “I knew he would be selective about where he would coach next. And I want you to know that not only did we choose Coach Capel, but he chose Pitt.”
To basketball fans, Capel is a known commodity. The Fayetteville, North Carolina native starred as a guard for Duke University (1993-1997). His father, Jeff Capel II, was the head coach at Old Dominion University. Like father, like son, the young one took an assistant coaching position under his father during the 2000-2001 season. The following year, Capel became an assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Before the 2002 season got underway, Capel was promoted to head coach at VCU, making him at the time the youngest coach in Division 1 (27 years old). He took the program to new heights in his four years as head coach, before heading to the Big 12 Conference to coach the Oklahoma Sooners.
Being a coach in a power conference such as the Big 12 really put Capel on the national radar. And he coached a superstar even the casual fans know, in Blake Griffin. The Sooners were regulars in the NCAA Tournament, even advancing to the Elite 8 in 2009.
After subsequent back-to-back losing seasons, Capel was fired in March 2011.
For the last seven years, Capel has been an assistant coach at his alma mater, Duke. He said one of the best things he learned under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski was how to truly run a program, from top to bottom.
Capel is tasked with figuring out how to run Pitt’s program from out of the darkness. The 2017-18 team did not win a single game in ACC play (0-18 in the regular season). By the letter of the law, Pitt had to be included in the ACC Tournament, but the result was the same—a 67-64 loss, at the hands of Notre Dame. Pitt won eight games the entire season. Stallings was fired March 8. Now it’s Capel’s team. “The very first thing that we will do every day is that we’ll show up…You’re prepared, you’re mentally and physically prepared to show up and to give your best,” Capel said. “We’ll show up in the community, in the classroom and on the court. And we will do everything we can every day to try to get better and to be at our best.
“The second thing is that we will keep our promise. I promise you, anyone that’s affiliated with this university…that I will give you everything that I have, every day. I will give you 100 percent of me…I understand that this is not just my program. This is our program, and in order for it to be restored, so to speak, or to get it to where we all want it, then we all have to own it.”
Capel, 43, then turned to his players who were in attendance at the press conference. “They’ll get everything that I have—knowledge, love, support, discipline…everything that I have they’ll get that every day, and the only thing I ask is that they give it back to me, they give me 100 percent of themselves.”
With the Blue and Gold world watching, Capel continued: “We’re in a great city. We’re in a city that has a lot of pride. The City of Champions, that’s what we’re about, is about building champions. Pitt men’s basketball is going to be about that.”
Anyone that watched the Georgetown Hoyas of the ‘80s, led by Patrick Ewing, coached by the legendary John Thompson, knew that team was fearless, and Thompson had the pulse of every player, every tidbit of what went on with his program. Thompson became the first Black head coach to win the NCAA Tournament Championship, as the Hoyas beat Houston in 1984.
Ten years later, African American head coach Nolan Richardson and his “40 minutes of Hell” defensive strategy powered Arkansas to a national championship.
Then, in 1998, it was Tubby Smith’s turn at Kentucky.
In 2014, Kevin Ollie became the fourth African American head coach to win men’s college basketball’s ultimate prize, when he led Connecticut over Kentucky.
John Chaney was the epitome of a leader during his endless run at Temple. A Black head coach who was respected in all circles, who also won over 700 games in his collegiate coaching career.
What the future holds for Pitt’s newest head man is unknown. But Capel knows one thing that Chaney, Richardson, Thompson and other top coaches never stand for.
“There will be no excuses,” Capel told the audience. “We will figure out a way, collectively, to get this done.”
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