Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
It’s not common that coaches go back to their alma mater to coach. It’s also not common for coaches who have been head coaches to go back to being assistant coaches.
Jeff Capel, a Duke basketball star during the 1993-1997 seasons, did just that.
Back in his college days, Capel was the man. He started 28 games during his freshman campaign in an overly successful season where the Blue Devils were national runner-ups (1994). He played along side Grant Hill and Antonio Lang that season before Hill and Lang were drafted by the Detroit Pistons and the Phoenix Suns respectfully.
One of the most memorable moments of Capel’s college career was his running 40-foot heave of a shot during the February 2, 1995 game against North Carolina to send the game into double overtime. Even though the Blue Devils lost, the shot was named as one of the most memorable plays in the history of Duke basketball. It was also nominated for the prestigious ESPY Award for College Basketball Play of the Year.
Capel rounded out his college career with 1,601 points, 433 assists and 220 three-pointers. He ended his career sitting on the all-time leaders charts for minutes played, three-point field goal percentage, three-point field goals, and assists. During his time on Duke’s roster, Duke had a 83-46 record.
After his collegiate basketball career was over, he played professionally for two years. He was drafted by the Raleigh Cougars of the United States Basketball League (USBL) in 1997, but ended up playing in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) with Grand Rapids Hoops for the 1997-1998 season. After that season he played international basketball in France (1999-2000) before he came back to Grand Rapids.
Once his days playing basketball were over, he started his coaching career. He started coaching as an assistant under his father, Jeff Capel II, at Old Dominion University for the 2000-2001 season.
After Capel’s short stint of coaching with his father, he was hired on as an assistant coach for Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in 2001. After his first season with the Rams, he was promoted to the head coaching position for the 2002-2003 season. At the time of his promotion, he was the youngest head coach in Division I men’s college basketball at 27-years-old. That season he led VCU to a 18-10 record, which tied the VCU record for wins by a first year coach. In Capel’s sophomore coaching season, VCU won the CAA tournament and punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA Tournament bid in 2004 was the first time that VCU had made the tournament since 1996. The Rams lost in the first round to Wake Forest 79-78. Capel’s squad ending the season with a 23-8 record, with the 23 wins being the most wins for VCU since the 1995-1996 season and was just the 11th 20-win season in the history of the VCU basketball program.
Capel spent two more seasons as head coach for the Rams. His coaching record was 79-41 in his four years at the helm.
In 2005, Capel found himself coaching the USA Men’s World University Games Team as an assistant alongside Jay Wright and under head coach Bobby Gonzalez. The USA went on to win the gold medal that year.
He announced that he would be leaving VCU on April 11, 2006 and that he would be taking over as the head coach for the Oklahoma Sooners.
Capel’s first season at the helm of Oklahoma was a mediocre one, leading the Sooners to a 16-15 record. Oklahoma and basketball fans everywhere hypothesize how the season would have went if three incoming freshman commits for the season hadn’t rethought their decision after hearing the announcement of Kelvin Sampson’s departure.
Luck may have not been in the cards for Capel during his first season, but he sure stumbled into a lucky fortune for the 2007-2008 season. He signed McDonald’s All-American Blake Griffin to headline his first recruiting class. Oklahoma was on the up and up. The Sooners posted a 23-12 season, after making a short run in the Big 12 Tournament and made it to the NCAA Tournament, winning the first round game and departing after the second round game.
During the 2008-2009 season, Oklahoma was not a team who you wanted on your schedule. Oklahoma boasted a 30-6 record, being just the fifth 30-win season in school history. They started the season 25-1, being ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll before the Oklahoma star Griffin was out due to a concussion. The Sooners also tore up the field in the NCAA Tournament, making it all the way to the Elite Eight, falling to the national champion of that season, North Carolina. Regardless of the loss, Griffin still won the show statistically. The 2009 National Player of the Year had 114 points and 60 rebounds in tournament play alone, being the first player to do so in over 40 years. Griffin decided that it was time to leave Oklahoma and was drafted as the overall No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers.
Once Griffin was gone, the future of Oklahoma was uncertain. Oklahoma picked up two more McDonald’s All-Americans and had another one return from the season before. In the 2009-2010 season, Oklahoma was projected to do well, but projections fell short as the Sooners were plagued by injuries and off-court issues. Oklahoma had a 13-18 record that season, ending the season with nine straight losses—the longest losing streak in over 40 years for the program.
The 2010-2011 season was also plagued by off-court issues, not just with players, but with coaches as well. Five underclassmen left the program in the offseason and assistant coach Oronde Taliaferro resigned due to NCAA violations. After a 14-18 season, Capel was fired.
Being fired from a coaching job doesn’t ever implicate good things. Getting another head coaching job—or another coaching job in general—isn’t something that falls into your lap after that.
“My plan when I was fired—as I kind of picked myself up from that—was to do TV,” Capel said in an interview. “I was going to maybe take a year off and try to break into TV and spend some time going to other practices to watch other people.”
TV just wasn’t in the cards for Capel, at least not at that time.
On May 8, 2011, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski announced that Capel would be rejoining the Duke family in another way. Capel would be hired as an assistant coach.
“For me, a big thing was to get a chance to learn to see Duke differently from when I played,” Capel said. “To learn from coach [Krzyzewski], to learn from Chris, to learn from Wojo, to see why our program here has been able to sustain success over a period of time. So Duke was the only place I would have done it.”
Capel enters his fourth season on the coaching staff at Duke. This season is going to be a little different though. Capel was promoted to associate head coach for the 2014-2015 season with the departure of Steve Wojciechowski.
Will Capel find himself in a head coaching position again? Only time will tell. He’s “absolutely” up for the challenge, but not right now. Right now he’s fulfilling a Duke player’s dream—coaching for his alma mater.
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