Capel more than capable

Photo Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel with Blake Griffin during the Pre-Season NIT tournament championship game against Purdue on Nov. 28, 2008.
(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Capel’s coaching record
Oklahoma’s Jeff Capel became a Division I head coach at age 27 at Virginia Commonwealth. He has averaged 18 wins per season.
Season School Record
2002-03 VCU 18-10
2003-04 VCU 14-4
2004-05 VCU 19-12
2005-06 VCU 19-10
2006-07 OU 16-15
2007-08 OU 23-12
2008-09 OU 16-1
Career record:   134-69
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NORMAN, Okla. – His team features the likely No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft. Still, impressive as Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin may be, he’s not the most famous pupil on Jeff Capel’s coaching resume.

That title belongs to country music legend Toby Keith, who takes pointers from Capel during summer pickup games at Keith’s ranch in Norman.

On Keith’s paved, lighted court – complete with three-point lines and glass backboards – Capel, the former Duke star, usually puts on a show.

“He’s coaching as he’s playing,” says Keith, an avid Sooners fan who has a red OU painted on the bottom of his hot tub. “He’s always directing people on where to go and who to guard.

“And I’m telling you, man, he can still shoot it. Every now and then we get on him about being lazy on defense, but it’s all in good fun.”

The other thing that draws a ribbing is when Capel misses a game – a no-no that leads to a jingle from Keith.

“All you have to do is call him out,” Keith says. “Just tease him a little about not coming, and you can bet he’ll be there the next time.”

Keith pauses.

“Jeff,” he says, “is not the type of guy that likes to be called out on anything.

Indeed, first as a player and now as a coach, Capel has always been one to answer a challenge.

Some folks thought it was absurd seven years ago when Capel, then 27, was named head coach at Virginia Commonwealth. He responded by averaging nearly 20 wins in four seasons.

Oklahoma fans were hoping for a higher-profile name when Capel was hired to replace Kelvin Sampson in 2006. Within a month, though, he’d convinced one of the nation’s top prospects (Griffin) to sign with the Sooners and would eventually land another likely NBA first-round draft pick in Willie Warren.

Even today, with sixth-ranked Oklahoma boasting a 16-1 record and a spot atop the Big 12 standings, Capel knows there are still those who doubt him and his team.

The coach is too young. The guards are average. The bench is too shallow. Capel heard it all leading into Monday’s 78-63 victory over No. 11 Texas. Lounging in a corner booth at Louie’s Sports Bar & Grill the day after the win, Capel still seemed agitated – and motivated – by Oklahoma’s detractors.

“I get tired of hearing about what we don’t have,” he says. “We’re 16-1. We’ve played a good schedule. We won the Preseason NIT and we just beat Texas for the first time in six games. Let’s talk about that.

“This is a good basketball team, man, a good basketball team. These guys just keep getting better.”

So, too, does their coach.

Earlier this week, less than 24 hours after Oklahoma defeated Texas, Capel received a text message on his cell phone.

“Thanks for making me look good,” it read.

The sender was Dr. Robert Sander, the former Virginia Commonwealth athletic director who gave Capel his first head coaching job back in 2002. Less than a year into his stint as the third assistant to Mack McCarthy, Capel was monitoring a study hall when Sander summoned him into his office in January.

Photo Jeff Capel celebrates Virginia Commonwealth’s 55-54 win over George Mason in the Colonial Athletic Assocation tournament on March 8, 2004.
(AP Photo/Scott K. Brown)

Sander informed Capel that the 2002-03 season would be the last for McCarthy at VCU – and that he wanted him to take the job. Sander asked Capel if he thought he was ready to be a head coach.

“I thought about it for a minute before I said anything,” says Capel, who was less than a month shy of his 27th birthday. “Then I told him I was confident in my ability to teach and to get guys to play for me. I told him I was ready – but I’m not sure I believed it.

“The whole thing was just bizarre. It was out of left field – way, way out of left field.”

In a move that was kept quiet until the end of the season, Capel agreed to become VCU’s next head coach. Within weeks of the decision, he and Sander headed to Durham, N.C., to meet with Capel’s former coach and mentor, Mike Krzyzewski.

After watching Duke’s practice, Sander and Capel sat with Krzyzewski in his office until 10 p.m. and talked about “everything imaginable when it comes to basketball.”

“There were so many similarities in the way Jeff and Coach K thought,” Sander says. “After that I had no doubt I’d made the right decision.”

Sander says he received his fair share of derogatory emails and phone calls after Capel’s hiring became official. Capel was the youngest coach at the Division I level – “by far,” Sander says – and fans couldn’t understand why he’d promote someone who’d spent just two years as an assistant.

Capel had worked under his father, Jeff Capel II, at Old Dominion in 2000-01.

“He may have only been 27,” Sander says, “but in basketball years he was about 40 because he’d grown up as a coach’s son. He’d been around the game his whole life.”

VCU won 18 games during Capel’s inaugural season before going 23-8 and capturing the Colonial title the next year. Following a near-upset of Wake Forest in the NCAA tournament, schools such as Miami and Auburn began inquiring about Capel’s services.

“I knew it would be a challenge. But I don’t back down from challenges.”
– Jeff Capel on taking the Oklahoma head coaching job.

“I was happy at VCU,” Capel says. “It was a great job. I always said someone was going to have to knock me off my feet to get me to leave there.”

That happened at Oklahoma in 2006. After attempts to lure West Virginia’s John Beilein failed, the Sooners turned their attention to Capel, who would have to deal with the NCAA sanctions that resulted from Sampson’s phone call scandal.

“I knew it would be a challenge,” Capel says. “But I don’t back down from challenges.”

Within two weeks of his hiring, the top two recruits in Sampson’s recruiting class – Damion James and Scottie Reynolds – had requested to be released from their letters of intent. James ended up at Texas, Reynolds at Villanova.

As excited as he was to land a commitment from Griffin that spring, Capel would still have to endure a season that ended with Oklahoma losing its final six conference games failing to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 25 years.

At times Capel let his youth and frustration show, often screaming at officials while flailing his arms in desperation at athletic director Joe Castiglione, who was seated on the baseline.

“I was treading water that first year,” Capel says. “I had never lost that many games. I felt like I was letting people down, letting myself down, letting my team down. We were right there in games, but I couldn’t find a way to get us over that hump.”

Capel smiles.

“And then,” he says, “we got Blake.”

Griffin was everything Oklahoma thought he would be as a freshman in 2007-08. His team-high 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds helped the Sooners to a 23-12 record and catapulted them back into the NCAA tournament, where they fell in the second round to Louisville.

Three days after that loss, Griffin walked into Capel’s office to address two rumors: one that he was entering the NBA draft, and another that suggested Capel might leave to take the vacant South Carolina job. What Griffin didn’t know is that, a day earlier, Castiglione had offered Capel a new contract.

Photo Capel reacts to a foul call against one of his players during the game against Texas at Lloyd Noble Center.
(Jerry Laizure-US Presswire)

“I had a copy of it on my desk, and I handed it to Blake,” Capel says. “I told him, ‘You don’t owe Oklahoma anything and you don’t owe me anything.’

“I pointed at the contract and said, ‘This is what you guys have done for me. This is what you’ve done for my family. I’m coming back, but that should have nothing to do with your decision. Don’t think about OU. You do what’s best for Blake Griffin.’”

Griffin’s parents, Gail and Tommy, couldn’t have been more appreciative of the way Capel handled the situation. They said they weren’t surprised when their son informed Capel of his intentions to return for his sophomore year.

“It helped Blake to know that, whatever he did, (Capel) was going to be in his corner,” Tommy Griffin says. “It took a lot off of his mind. The type of relationships these kids have with their coach is something you probably won’t find at a lot of schools.”

One month shy of his 34th birthday, Capel’s youth helps him relate to players in a way that few head coaches can.

He drives a trendy, black Cadillac Escalade, listens to Jay Z, orders movies from NetFlix and prefers a hoodies and jeans over collared shirts and khakis. While older coaches might keep personal dealings with players to a minimum, Capel believes being close off the court can translate to success on it.

“Relationships are important to me,” he says. “If I care about you, I care hard, and I care deep. One thing I try to teach my players is that relationships go two ways. They have to give something back. They have to want to have a relationship. They have to embrace it.”

The Sooners seem to be doing just that.

Senior forward Taylor Griffin (Blake’s brother) said he and his teammates were appreciative of the way Capel stood up for them after Monday’s victory over Texas. For weeks the Sooners listened as television pundits pointed out their flaws while ignoring their strengths.

Despite Oklahoma’s No. 6 national ranking, Capel said the Sooners weren’t being given their due.

“Everyone talks about everyone else,” he told reporters. “We don’t get respect in our own state.”

Taylor Griffin says: “He had our back. He’s going to stand up and fight for his players, and that means a lot. He has our heads in the right place right now. From day one – even before the start of official practices – he kept reminding us that we haven’t done anything yet.”

Back at Louie’s Sports Bar & Grill, Capel walks out the door and prepares to head into the office. Dressed in blue jeans, he’s already had a busy off-day.

Capel spent the morning watching Elmo cartoons with his 20-month-old daughter, Cameron. Tonight he’s looking forward to some time with his wife, Kanika. The couple is expecting its second child, another girl, this summer.

Yes, seven years after becoming the youngest coach in Division I basketball, Capel is all grown up.

“I’m still learning, but every coach should still be learning. If you don’t you’re staying idle, and that’s not a good thing.”
– Jeff Capel

It’s evident on the court, too.

Capel doesn’t badger the officials as much and, whether it’s in practice or in a game, he’s easing away from his micromanagement approach and learning to let the little things slide. Sometimes.

“Every now and then,” Capel says, “I look at older coaches that have been doing it for awhile, guys like Coach Izzo or Coach Self or Coach K or Coach Boeheim.

“Just looking from afar, I marvel at how calm they are. It’s probably because they’ve seen so many different things in their career that stuff doesn’t really bother them that much. Or they have such experience with everything, they have a reference point for how to handle it.

“I’m still learning, but every coach should still be learning. If you don’t you’re staying idle, and that’s not a good thing.”

Now an assistant with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, Capel’s father enjoys watching his son on the sideline.

“It’s like he’s playing every play,” Capel’s father said. “His mannerisms, little things, foot stomps, the way he’s gripping a towel. After the game he’s physically exhausted. He has a passion for basketball that’s neat to watch.”

With the regular season beyond its midway point, Oklahoma’s resume includes victories over Purdue, USC, Davidson and, of course, Texas. Still, in a Big 12 conference that includes the likes of Kansas, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, Capel knows the Sooners must improve – fast – if they hope to have a shot at the league title.

Capel wants Griffin’s defense and free-throw shooting to improve, and he’s looking for more consistency from guards Austin Johnson and Tony Crocker. Depth is an issue, too, as Oklahoma’s starters account for 81.2 percent of the Sooners’ points. All five starters played more than 30 minutes against Texas on Monday.

“We’ll keep working,” Capel says. “But I want our guys to enjoy this, too. I want them to have fun. I know I am.”