PITTSBURGH – It’s raining, but there’s still a buzz throughout the city. Pittsburgh is a sports town, with residents that gravitate towards success when things are going well. It’s what you expect out of a place that fancies itself the City of Champions.
The Penguins didn’t win their third Stanley Cup in a row this year, but they still made a postseason run. That could be the case for the Steelers, too, as they once again sit atop the AFC North and look like a Super Bowl contender. The Pirates were supposed to struggle, but instead, they finished 82-79 — fourth place in the NL Central, sure, but still good enough that there’s excitement around the franchise. Even Pitt football, despite entering conference play with a 1-3 record, went 6-2 in ACC play and won the Coastal with a chance to play spoiler against Clemson in the ACC Championship.
This is Pittsburgh, success is the expectation, and when that expectation isn’t met, you have something that looks an awful lot like Pitt basketball.
The Panthers were a laughing stock of college hoops last year. They were the only team in division one that failed to record a conference win, and their KenPom ranking of 227th nationally was the second-worst among Power 5 teams. This kind of thing does not happen two years after a program makes the NCAA Tournament for the 16th year in a row.
So Pitt decided to go through the hardest of resets. Head coach Kevin Stallings was out despite the fact that his contract included a $9.4 million buyout (reports are spotty on whether Pitt paid the whole thing). Decisions to fork over that much money usually aren’t easy, but watching a listless team go 8-24 with an 0-18 mark in conference play isn’t easy, either.
Despite this, the school pulled off something of a coup when it hired Jeff Capel, the former Oklahoma coach who had spent the last seven seasons on the bench at his alma mater, Duke. For a guy who could have punched his ticket almost anywhere, it was the biggest win Pitt basketball had experienced in the last two years.
Capel sees this as a chance to lead a basketball program again. He spent four years coaching VCU, then another five at Oklahoma, which famously ended amid controversy and back-to-back disappointing seasons two years after reaching the Elite Eight. But since then, Capel has spent time learning under Mike Krzyzewski, for whom he played during his college career at Duke. Among the many lessons he learned, one stands out above the rest, and is pertinent as he works to re-establish himself as a head coach.