When Jason Capel played for North Carolina from 1998-2002, he had an inkling, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he might end up on the opposite bench at the Smith Center someday.
“But not this fast,’’ he said, laughing during a phone interview Wednesday. “Not as a 31-year-old.”
The former All-ACC forward -- in just his second year as a head coach, and third year in coaching overall -- will bring his Appalachian State team to play his alma mater in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Saturday.
He knows being on the opposing sideline will be odd. But it will also, he said, be special.
“Some of the best times of my life have taken place right there at the Smith Center,’’ said Capel, who once recorded a triple-double and who averaged 12.1 points and 6.7 rebounds over his career. “A lot of growing up took place, good and bad. Learning how to succeed, learning how to be a teammate, learning from some of the best basketball minds. Learning not just how to be a player, but how to be a man took place right there.
“So it’s always special to go back -- and even more special to take my team to compete against probably the best program in America.”
Capel played for UNC at a rocky time in that program’s history. He started as a freshman, and went from playing in the 2000 Final Four under coach Bill Guthridge as a sophomore to being part of a team that plummeted to 8-20 under coach Matt Doherty as a senior.
He went undrafted, and many thought it was only a matter of time before he joined his father, Jeff Jr., and brother, Jeff III, in the coaching business. But Jason resisted -- for a while, at least.
After a back injury prematurely ended his overseas playing career in 2006, he used his communications degree to land in the broadcasting booth, working for Raycom and ESPN. But hanging out with his brother (then the coach at Oklahoma, now an assistant coach with Duke) and his father (now an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers) made an impact.
So did a conversation with a respected mentor.
Capel was watching a practice at Charlotte Bobcats training camp in 2008 when he ran into former UNC coach Dean Smith.
“He said to me, ‘You’re know, you’re good on TV, but you know you should be coaching,’” Capel recalled. “Anybody that knows Coach Smith, played for him, or has a relationship with him, knows that when he tells you something -- whether you believe it in yourself or not -- he makes you believe it.”
So in 2009, he accepted his first coaching job as an assistant under another former UNC player Buzz Peterson at Appalachian State. A year later, when Peterson opted to leave for UNC Wilmington, Capel was ready to go with him.
Until he was offered the Mountaineers’ head job.
“I was always taught that you never know who’s watching, you just have to work hard preparing yourself for when opportunity knocks,’’ Capel said.
He made the most of that opportunity, leading his team to a 16-15 record last season despite being one of the youngest basketball coaches in Division I.
This season’s Mountaineers boast six newcomers and enter Saturday’s game with a 4-5 mark, but Capel -- who was last in the Smith Center last summer, watching from the rafters as his wife graduated from nursing school -- is hoping his team can learn something from playing at his old home arena.
Just like he did.
“You’re going to go there to wrestle a bear,’’ Capel said. “But I want our guys to play loose, play confident, and play as hard as they possibly can. … We’re going to have to play a pretty perfect game. But the big picture is, we want to go in there to compete for 40 minutes with a very good basketball team.
"I’m certain that we’re going to play well on Saturday, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Robbi Pickeral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @bylinerp.