The new OU coach has maturity beyond his years

Originally Published: July 11, 2006
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- It feels like you should be checking his birth certificate or some other form of documentation to confirm that Jeff Capel is telling the truth about his age.

Surely, he can't be only 31. And he's been a Division I head coach for only four years?

If one thing became clear while spending Thursday morning and afternoon with Capel at the Nike Camp here, it's that Capel is mature enough to handle the immense responsibility given to him by Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione when the former Duke guard was surprisingly plucked from Virginia Commonwealth to replace Kelvin Sampson.

Capel, who understands he might have been, at best, the school's third choice behind West Virginia coach John Beilein and Connecticut women's coach Geno Auriemma, is expected to keep the Sooners at a national level after Sampson's excellent 12-season run, which included a Final Four appearance in 2002.

He appears more than ready for that challenge.

"He's ahead of his time," said Oklahoma assistant Ben Betts, 37, who left his head coaching position at South Carolina State to join Capel's staff. Capel also hired former Ole Miss head coach Rod Barnes, making Capel the youngest of the three top decision makers on the staff.

"You have to see how he handles situations, handles people," Betts said. "He's unbelievable at the way he treats people and communicates with them. He's even that way with his players. He's not that far removed from playing, so he'll get in there and teach and suddenly the drill is live and he's out there."

Jeff Capel
Laizure Photo/WireImage.com Jeff Capel's Oklahoma team stumbled to a 16-15 finish in his first season in Norman.

Maybe it's in his speech, which is deliberate, articulate and direct. Or maybe it's in the way he stands or in his overall body language. Whatever it is, there is something about Capel that exudes not only confidence but experience, even though it would be easy to assume he lacks both in the coaching business.

Capel isn't the stereotypical coach's son. Sure, he comes from a basketball family. His father, Jeff, served as the head coach at Old Dominion and North Carolina A&T, and currently is an assistant with the Charlotte Bobcats. His brother, Jason, was a player at rival North Carolina. But Capel also seems very worldly. Maybe something rubs off from his wife, Kanika, who is a lawyer. Wherever he gets it from, Capel has it.

Capel said he really thought he'd be at VCU long-term. He had a team that was a contender in the Colonial Athletic Association, "so I wasn't looking. I wouldn't leave for just a job. I had just signed a two-year extension. I was very happy."

He then added, though, that his former athletic director, Dr. Richard Sander, was convinced Capel would last a maximum of only two more years in Richmond. Capel already had led VCU to the NCAA Tournament in 2004 (the school's first trip since 1996) and won at least 18 games in each of his four seasons.

When Sampson left for Indiana in late March, Capel didn't think he would be the top choice, but he thought, "That sure is a job I'd love to have."

"I never thought the dominoes would fall to me," he said.

Capel assumed that Beilein or Auriemma would get the gig, but contract issues and Auriemma's reluctance to leave the women's game prevented either from advancing too far.

Castiglione then took a chance on Capel. He probably would be pleased to see the way Capel carried himself at the Nike Camp.

Capel got the Oklahoma job amid NCAA sanctions, which allowed him only five days to go out on the road in April (OU also loses a scholarship for next season due to the Sampson-related phone call violations), so he had to choose them wisely. He met with the players the Sooners signed and then used two other days (consecutive Saturdays) to watch the Sooners' top recruit in the Class of 2007 -- 6-foot-8 Blake Griffin out of Oklahoma Christian School in Oklahoma City -- play in Houston and Dallas.

Capel released three of Sampson's recruits for the Class of 2006 -- Jeremy Mayfield (off to UAB), Damion James (Texas) and Scottie Reynolds (Villanova) -- but was able to keep shooting guard Tony Crocker and small forward Keith Clark. Capel also picked up Bobby Maze for this season, but clearly the focus is on 2007-08 -- and getting Griffin to commit was the No. 1 objective.

"The first class [in 2007] is huge for us, with only seven returning players and the loss of the [three[ recruits," Capel said.

"It's extremely important, [a] huge, huge, huge year for us," Betts said.

Capel got into Indianapolis Wednesday night and was at the IUPUI facility by 8:30 a.m. Thursday to get the team rosters. He had players highlighted and their games marked off before Betts, delayed by bad weather, arrived to meet him in the back gym where players were going through three-on-three drills.

"This is where you watch to see who is competing," Capel said. "You can watch their skill work and see their skill level. But this is the kind of drill where you see who knows how to play."

This was also a drill where everybody could see Capel, who was positioned right under the basket.

"It's very important to be visible," Capel said. "A lot of coaches who are established don't have to [be], but for me, my first year at Oklahoma, it's very important."

With the sanctions on Oklahoma limiting Capel and his staff to 98 recruiting days next season, from 130, it's even more important for him to be seen in July. At this time of year, most elite schools have already done their evaluating and are either babysitting their commitments for 2007 or evaluating 2008 recruits in July.

"We want to be able to just be seen next year at this time and not have to evaluate as much," Capel said. "We missed out on [that this season] with the limitations in April."

Capel didn't schmooze as much as most coaches at the camp. He spent some time talking with former Duke teammate and assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski, but for the most part, he was focused on the task at hand: watching his players and ensuring they were seeing him. Capel positioned himself accordingly and, at times, split up with Betts to spread out the Oklahoma sightings.

Capel's focus is on point guards, with the Sooners in desperate need of one in this class. He said he already has offered a scholarship to three, and the first one who takes it will be the choice. Griffin is a power forward, and like the other 2007 commitments so far -- small forward Chris Early from Huntington, W.Va., and shooting guard Cade Davis from Elk City, Okla. -- he is expected to contribute when he arrives. But the class needs a point guard to lead it.

Capel will continue to evaluate throughout July, going to the elite tournaments. This time, he actually can root for his potential recruits to do well. When he was at VCU, he did the opposite, because he didn't want to see a high-major grab his potential recruits.

"You didn't want them to do well, or just not play that much," Capel said.

Still, he said the shift to recruiting for a high-major hasn't been that dramatic for him; Capel went after the ACC's third or fourth choices while he was at VCU. He did underscore, though, that he had to be smart, not wasting time chasing players he knew he couldn't land.

Capel's not wasting any time at Oklahoma, either. After seeing him in action, it's clear he's not someone who procrastinates without a purpose. He is driven to succeed, and while he hasn't coached a game yet for the Sooners, he's already leaving a favorable impression.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com