Jeff Capel finds his place at Duke

DURHAM, N.C. -- When Jeff Capel contemplated his next step after being fired from Oklahoma in 2011, Dick Vitale came to mind before Mike Krzyzewski.

The former Duke point guard had been a head coach for nine seasons, including his first job at VCU from 2002 to 2006. He didn't really think returning to the sidelines as an assistant was an option.

"My plan when I was fired -- as I kind of picked myself up from that -- was to do TV," Capel said. "I was going to maybe take a year off and try to break into TV and to spend some time going to other practices to watch other people."

That is until his former coach called and presented a chance to return to Duke. Krzyzewski restructured his staff to add Capel as an assistant coach. It was the first time since Pete Gaudet was on staff in the mid-1990s that Krzyzewski has had a former head coach on his staff.

It's been almost as long since someone who didn't play for Krzyzewski was one of his three assistant coaches. Tim O'Toole was the last "outsider," serving as a restricted-earnings coach for the Blue Devils from 1995-97. (He's now an assistant coach on former Duke standout Johnny Dawkins' staff at Stanford.)

Even for those who played at Duke, it's a rare chance to land a job as an assistant. Steve Wojciechowski was on Krzyzewski's staff for 15 seasons before leaving in April to become the head coach at Marquette. Chris Collins stayed for 13 seasons before he left in 2013 to rebuild Northwestern.

"For me, a big thing was to get a chance to learn to see Duke differently from when I played," Capel said. "To learn from coach [Krzyzewski], to learn from Chris, to learn from Wojo, to see why our program here has been able to sustain success over a period of time. So Duke was the only place I would have done it."

Now entering his fourth season in Durham, Capel was recently promoted to associate head coach after Wojciechowski's departure and is well positioned to join the list -- that includes Harvard's Tommy Amaker and Buffalo's Bobby Hurley -- of six former players or assistants under Krzyzewski who are currently college head coaches.

Capel said he "absolutely" wants to be a head coach again, but he's in no rush to leave Duke. He's amazed that his playing days have come full circle.

When Capel was recruited by Duke, it was Amaker -- a former point guard -- who played an instrumental role in his commitment. Amaker was the assistant coach who convinced Capel that Duke was the only place he could play. The new wave of Blue Devil recruits says the same thing about Capel now.

Ask Jabari Parker who was instrumental in his decision to attend Duke. Here's a hint: Jahlil Okafor, ESPN.com's top ranked player in the 2014 class, and Tyus Jones, the top ranked point guard in the class, had the same answer.

"The entire time I felt me and coach Capel built a very strong relationship, and that's a big reason that played a part in me choosing Duke," Jones said. "We have a good relationship, and I felt comfortable with him and I felt that I could trust him."

On the strength of Okafor and Jones, ESPN.com's RecruitingNation ranked Duke's 2014 class the best in the nation.

Krzyzewski asked Capel to reexamine some of the post drills he worked on with Blake Griffin at Oklahoma in anticipation of working with Okafor. It was a bit of a flashback for Capel to his time with the Sooners. It also was a barometer of just how far he's come.

"The first thing I noticed is I'm so much better now as a coach," Capel said.

"I've learned more here; maybe one of the biggest things I've learned was how to run a program better."

That included sharpening his recruiting skills.

Capel distinctly remembers the first recruiting trip he made as a head coach. It just so happened to be the first one he made as a coach of any kind of coach.

Capel only spent two seasons as an assistant coach before VCU hired him as its head coach, at age 27. He'd never been on the road recruiting -- he'd barely been away from the East Coast -- and yet here he was alone at the junior college national championship in Hutchinson, Kansas, trying to figure it out on the fly.

He knew the players he was interested in seeing. For that matter, identifying talent was never the problem. He just didn't know where to go to look for it. Fortunately for Capel, the Eggman was there.

Kenny Williamson -- then a scout for the New York Knicks -- was a good friend of Capel's father. Williamson had an extensive basketball background that included stints as a college assistant coach. He was the assistant general manager for the Memphis Grizzlies when he succumbed to cancer in 2012.

"Eggie saw me and I think he probably said, 'Little Cape probably doesn't know where he is, he's out of his element,' and he came over and he just kind of walked me through everything," Capel said. "Every day that I was there he kind of walked me around. I didn't need help like I knew who I was there to see. It's just all the little nuances that go on. Thank God he was there to point me in the right direction."

Capel chuckles at the thought of it all. Now he's developed a good feel for recruiting without needing additional instruction.

Jones got plenty of phone calls and texts from plenty of schools. He admitted Capel wasn't the one who contacted him the most. But that was part of the reason why Jones favored him over the rest.

"He knew when enough was enough. By that I mean he knew when to give me my space -- when not to call, when not to text," Jones said. "At the same time, he wasn't like he went [missing in action] and I didn't hear from him for a while. He knew there was a boundary, which was great."

Capel's approach has been working since his return to Duke, but he admits there is a risk each year. Duke doesn't cast a wide net in recruiting in favor of focusing on particular targets. There's not much of a backup plan if they lose a recruit.

"The way we recruit here is different from any place," Capel said. "You had a little bit of a larger net of guys you go after; you had to.

"Here we don't recruit a lot of guys. It's exciting. At the same time, it's scary."