College Basketball

Jeff Capel’s decision to stay on staff a major win for Duke

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski watches in the closing seconds with assistant Jeff Capel (middle) and Nate James as Duke beat St. John's 77-68 as giving Krzyzewski his 1,000th career win.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski watches in the closing seconds with assistant Jeff Capel (middle) and Nate James as Duke beat St. John's 77-68 as giving Krzyzewski his 1,000th career win. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Mike Krzyzewski has already won on one major recruiting decision this spring.

The decision by associate head coach Jeff Capel to remove his name from consideration for the Arizona State head coaching vacancy will benefit the Blue Devils greatly. Not only is Capel an ace recruiter, but he is also an integral part of Duke’s pregame preparations.

“That’s a huge plus for our program and for me personally,” Krzyzewski said Wednesday of Capel remaining on staff. “Jeff was a superstar this year.”

There was mutual interest between Capel and Arizona State, and Capel does have the desire to be a head coach again. After putting the decision in the back of his mind for most of Duke's title run, Capel thought about it a little Sunday. Then he spoke with his wife Tuesday.

"If I have to think about something for a while, that's telling me something," Capel said, adding that the decision wasn't about anything another opportunity lacked, but rather a choice to stay at Duke.

"I'm excited about our future and to continue to learn," he said.

Capel’s title is associate head coach, and that’s exactly what he does for Duke. Amile Jefferson described Capel as an extension of Krzyzewski, and the two coaches worked closely in tandem to get the Blue Devils prepared for every game.

Last spring, after the loss to Mercer in the NCAA tournament, Krzyzewski redid the Duke program, evaluating every aspect. One of the major changes was to give Capel the responsibility of lead scout for every game – previously, the three assistants had rotated in that role. Assistants Jon Scheyer and Nate James scout one game ahead of the most immediate contest, and all their information is fed to Capel, who synthesizes that with his own take.

Before Duke games, there are two voices giving final instructions: Capel and Krzyzewski.

“Jeff might say things in a certain way that is better than me,” Krzyzewski said. “We really worked well as a team.”

Capel continually impressed the Blue Devils with his knowledge during scouting meetings. If Duke was preparing to play Syracuse and watching a clip of the Orange playing North Carolina, Capel would not only know every Syracuse player’s tendencies, but he would be just as thorough and knowledgeable about the Tar Heels, too.

Beyond Xs and Os, Capel’s greatest strength is his ability to form relationships – both on the recruiting trail and with players once they arrive on campus.

“The relationships he builds with each individual guy, how he customizes his actions, how he is with each individual player is great,” Jefferson said. “He has a relationship with all our guys on a high level. It’s not just like he is this guy’s person, or he is that guy’s person. All the guys love Coach Capel.”

Capel, who joined the staff prior to the 2011-12 season, was the lead recruiter for Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Justise Winslow, Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones. Capel stood out to them on the recruiting trail for a few reasons.

“It’s just how genuine and real he is,” said Jones, who talked to Capel nearly every day throughout his recruitment. “He always has the best interests for his players and everyone around him. He will never lie to you. He is always 100 percent honest and straightforward. He never sugarcoats anything, and that’s something I respect a lot.”

Okafor also spoke of Capel’s reputation – he was previously the head coach at VCU (2002-06) and Oklahoma (2006-11), where he recruited and coached the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, Blake Griffin. For Okafor’s recruitment, it didn’t hurt that Griffin was his favorite college player.

“Anything he promised me, he did,” Okafor said. “He told me he was going to get me better, and he wasn’t going to let me take any days off, and he did that.”

Capel made sure Okafor (and others) knew they were welcome at his house anytime, and Okafor became familiar with Capel’s family, attending birthday and holiday parties. Gestures like that go a long way to making players comfortable away from home.

Krzyzewski, 68, says he feels as energized as ever, but he won’t always be the coach at Duke. Having Capel around helps ensure that the program will be great for years to come.

“Jeff is savvy, and he is a hell of a coach,” Krzyzewski said. “But I mean, Jeff is a head coach. He’ll get something great. He is doing something great right now.”

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