The nation's youngest coach intends to prove skeptics wrong

When Appalachian State basketball coach Jason Capel and his older brother were young, their father always demanded they pick weeds in the backyard of their Fayetteville, N.C. home on the most oppressively hot afternoon of the summer.

Inevitably, the Capel brothers would zoom through the task as quickly as possible so they could come inside and escape the heat. And inevitably, their father would inspect their work, find a handful of weeds they missed and send them back out to properly finish the job.

"We'd try to get some air conditioning and a glass of lemonade, and he'd make us start all over," Capel recalled. "It taught me you have to do all the little things, you have to be accountable and you have to accomplish the task you were asked to do. That's something I've adopted my entire life."

The lessons Capel learned growing up in a hard-working, basketball-crazed family are a major reason he's certain he'll win over critics who suggest Appalachian State blundered last month by hiring a 30-year-old with less than a year of coaching experience. Many accomplished candidates showed interest when Buzz Peterson left Appalachian State for UNC-Wilmington, but athletic director Charlie Cobb made Capel the youngest head coach in Division I basketball, a distinction older brother Jeff III also held when Virginia Commonwealth hired him in 2002 at age 27.

What those who questioned Jeff's threadbare credentials then and Jason's now often didn't realize is that the brothers were groomed for their chosen career path. They developed a knack for teaching from their mother, Jerry, an associate principal at a high school near Fayetteville. And they inherited their passion for basketball from their father, Jeff II, who just completed his sixth season as an assistant with the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats and spent 12 years before that as a college coach.

From serving as a ball boy for his dad's teams, to studying game film after school, to attending AAU games and college practices, Jason grew up more immersed in the game than the majority of his peers. It's no accident that he could orchestrate a press break against his father's teams by age 11 or that he made up for limited athleticism with his savvy and work ethic to become a four-year starter at North Carolina from 1998 to 2002.

"Both Jason and Jeff were around the game from an early age," their father said. "I tried to talk them out of getting into coaching because it's a hard profession, but it's in their blood and it's what they want to do. They both have a passion for it. They're both great teachers and they both have great people skills."

It's difficult for Jason to believe he's a head coach at 30 because he always thought he'd still be playing at this age. A back injury in 2006 prematurely ended his playing career in Europe and relegated him to the broadcast booth, where he excelled as a college basketball analyst for ESPN and Raycom for two years.

Spending time watching practices and interacting with players revived Jason's hunger to become a coach. He began attending practices with his father in Charlotte, talking strategy with his brother at Oklahoma and actively searching for an assistant coaching gig.

Among the coaches who showed interest in spring 2009 was Peterson, the former North Carolina player and Charlotte Bobcats director of player personnel who Appalachian State had just brought back for a second stint coaching the Mountaineers. Peterson called Bill Guthridge to ask his opinion of Jason and the retired former North Carolina coach gave his ex-player a glowing review.

"Even when we were recruiting him, we noticed he had a lot of savvy," Guthridge said. "You could tell in practices and in games that he had grown up in a basketball family. He was a coach on the floor. He had a great feel for the game."

Jason expected to spend a few years as an assistant before seeking a head coaching gig, but Peterson's abrupt departure for UNC-Wilmington last month accelerated the process.

At first, Jason planned to remain loyal to Peterson and join him at UNC-Wilmington. Then a phone call from Cobb caused him to reconsider.

"Charlie Cobb floated the idea of me replacing Buzz, told me to sleep on it and I couldn't sleep," he said. "It showed they had faith in me to lead this team to the next level."

Since he lacked the budget to hire someone with head coaching experience and he wanted to maintain the momentum from last year's 24-win campaign, Cobb decided quickly he would replace Peterson with an in-house candidate. Appalachian State alum Matt McMahon spent 10 seasons as a Mountaineers assistant and recruited many of the current players, but Cobb decided to stray from convention and follow his instincts about Jason.

"He's wise beyond his years," Cobb told reporters at a news conference introducing the coach last month. "Part of it is his presence, the way he carries himself. People say that recruiting is 70 or 80 percent of being a successful coach and I think he has a tremendous upside from that standpoint."

The challenge of persuading incoming recruits and returning players to remain loyal to Appalachian State has not been problematic for the youngest Capel since he twice experienced the same scenario during his playing days. Dean Smith recruited Jason to North Carolina but stepped down the year before he arrived and Guthridge retired after the Tar Heels reached the Final Four in Jason's sophomore season.

Although Jason knows fans view him as a risky hire because of his youth and inexperience, he remains unflinchingly confident he'll succeed at Appalachian State.

"My brother was a head coach at 27, and that turned out pretty good," he said. "I'm not trying to say I'm never going to make a mistake, but I'm confident in my ability and I'm confident in the fact that I know this game, I know I can teach this game and I know I can get those guys to play the right way."

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