CHARLOTTE — It won’t happen this season because of the way the schedule falls, but there will come a day when Jeff Capel walks into the familiar confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium and be the enemy.
The infamous Cameron Crazies will probably be kinder to him than most opponents, since he was and still is one of them. But because he now coaches at Pittsburgh, the former Duke point guard and assistant to Mike Krzyzewski is now just another ACC rival the Blue Devils will be trying to beat.
It’s a concept so foreign to Capel that he’d prefer not to think about it until that day arrives.
“Look, I love my alma mater. I always will,” Capel said Wednesday at the ACC’s Operation Basketball. “I have an incredible deal of respect and love for the man that I played for. All of us that played there were incredibly lucky and fortunate that he’s still there, so it’s something that bonds all of us.
“Duke is a special place. Cameron is a very special place. And I know when that time comes, I’m sure it will be emotional. But it’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought to.”
Capel, who helped Duke to a Final Four as a freshman in 1994, spent the past seven seasons as Krzyzewski’s second chair. During that time, he was the Hall of Fame coach’s primary recruiter and is credited with landing a long string of one-and-done stars — including the five that will make up the bulk of this year’s team.
Because of that recruiting success and his ties to the school, it was assumed that eventually, Capel would be the choice to lead the Blue Devils when the day finally comes that Krzyzewski finally retires.
That’s why his decision to leave for the Pitt job last spring came as such a surprise, especially since he had previously turned down other lucrative offers to coach a team of his own.
Capel said there were several factors that led him to make the move, first and foremost among them, the opportunity to coach in the ACC.
“Since I got into coaching that was always a dream of mine was to have an opportunity to coach in this league,” said the 43-year-old Fayetteville native, who has also coached at Oklahoma and VCU. “I grew up in this league. I grew up loving the ACC. I had the great fortune to be able to play in this league and then to have an opportunity to be a head coach in this league was something that appealed to me greatly.”
Capel was also impressed with the administration at Pittsburgh and the commitment they’ve made to a program that fell on hard times during the two-year tenure of his predecessor Kevin Stallings.
The Panthers were just 24-41 in those two forgettable seasons, including a 4-32 record in the ACC. Things got so bad that at the end of last season, that eight underclassmen requested transfers.
Most of them decided to stay once Capel was hired, including senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame who said that the atmosphere of the program changed for the better from the moment the new coach walked through the door.
“There was huge respect right from the jump,” Pitt’s top returning scorer said. “I knew he went through USA Basketball already and I knew about him coaching Blake Griffin (at Oklahoma). Then I learned he played at Duke and all the relationships he had with the recruits there.
“Before he opens his mouth you have to respect him. And then when he opens his mouth, you hear how well he articulates himself. You can tell that he means what he says.”
Though it might take awhile before Capel’s influence — and recruiting prowess — begin to pay dividends in the form of postseason appearances, the new coach is encouraged by the progress his team has already made.
“These guys have worked hard. They’ve bought in to everything we’ve talked about that we want to do,” Capel said. “It’s been exciting to watch them get better. It’s been up-and-down, which is to be expected. But it’s been fun.”
Capel was clearly enjoying himself Wednesday as he made the rounds at Spectrum Center during the ACC’s annual preseason media event, though he admitted it was still a little strange to be wearing a blue shirt with the script letters P-I-T-T embroidered on it.
He wasn’t the only one that had such a reaction.
“It was cool to see him, but it was a little funny,” Duke junior Javin DeLaurier said. “Someone saw Cape and I was like yeah, he is here. He’s coaching up at Pitt now and we wish him the best of luck, except obviously, when he’s playing us.”
The first time that happens will be on January 22 in Pittsburgh. It’s the only time the teams are scheduled to play during the regular season and is a date neither Capel nor Krzyzewski is looking forward to.