The most intriguing candidate, though, sits just down the bench from Collins. Although this process led by Parker Executive Search will involve a tight-lipped approach from the administration, one name could be gaining momentum. College basketball insider Daniel Poneman – renowned for his unique networking skills – labeled Jeff Capel as a "top three" candidate for the opening. The former Oklahoma head coach and current Duke assistant fulfills every quality necessary to replace Bill Carmody at NU.
Capel made consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances at Oklahoma. Before that, he rebuilt the VCU basketball program and carried them to the Tournament, leading Poneman to call him "the original Shaka Smart." Despite his rapid downfall with the Sooners, the Duke program immediately rehired him, and Capel would likely listen if he heard from Northwestern.
The drama of this coaching search began quietly.
Very few people took significant note when CBS analyst Jon Rothstein said that Harvard coach Tommy Amaker – another logical candidate – had no interest in the opening. When Amaker was a Duke assistant, two of his key guards were Chris Collins and Jeff Capel – who played together for three seasons. There are extensive ties, and it would be reasonable to speculate that Amaker declined interest to leave space for one or both of his former players to be considered for the opening.
Though he is admittedly a strong candidate, Collins lacks previous head coaching experience and his "Chicago recruiting" prowess is slightly exaggerated. Meanwhile, Capel felt first-hand the difficulties of the current college basketball climate. After taking his Blake Griffin-led Sooners to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in 2008 and 2009, the program fell victim to scandal.
In March 2010, TMZ reported that Merrill Lynch adviser Jeffrey Hausinger gave money to forward Keith "Tiny" Gallon. Capel, burdened by the task of rebuilding his team, was dismissed following the 2010-11 season. But he was never implicated in the violations, as explained in this Tulsa World article. The decision to fire Capel seemed ill-timed, and was the product of malaise that hit the program following their brief but impressive run of success. His team, hurt by the suspensions and limited chemistry, did not reflect Capel's recruiting savvy.
"Capel is the ultimate recruiter," Poneman said. "When he was at Oklahoma, he was able to bring in top-50 recruit after top-50 recruit."
The mere fact that Duke – a program untainted by sanctions – rehired Capel within two months of his dismissal at Oklahoma speaks to his talent and character. Some have appropriately taken note of the fact that Phillips has developed a close relationship with Duke athletic director Kevin White. When Capel hit the open market, White technically hired him. Collins was already a mainstay. There's no reason that this close connection would fail to also benefit Capel.
He has the winning pedigree mixed with the charisma necessary to sell this program. But it gets more interesting than that. Enter Yanni Hufnagel, who could join Capel's staff in Evanston.
Phillips and Carmody realized the recruiting difficulties Northwestern faces. The next head coach will, quite simply, need his staff to succeed in that department despite the program's lofty academic standards. Hufnagel currently serves as recruiting coordinator and assistant coach at Harvard – an Ivy League program that cannot offer athletic scholarships.
"Year after year, you see Harvard getting higher-rated recruits than Northwestern," Poneman said.
So who gave Hufnagel, ace recruiter, his first job? Who passed him onto the promising opportunity with Amaker? The answer for both: Jeff Capel.
Hufnagel has been a student of several veteran coaches including Capel, Amaker, Memphis head coach Josh Pastner, and former Virginia Tech head coach Seth Greenberg. Now, he could provide the "broad" recruiting connections Phillips spoke about in yesterday evening's press conference. Two of his recent signees, Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers, are leading another Harvard tournament charge. Moreover, the program has competed for several top recruits. In this Harvard Crimson article, prospects consistently bring up Hufnagel's name – often before they mention Amaker.
"Year after year, you see Harvard getting higher recruits than Northwestern," Poneman said. "The X-factor in this is Yanni. He's Josh Pastner 2.0."
An NU position – with all of its potential – might eventually vault Hufnagel to the head coaching ranks. With proven success at the major conference level, the 30-year-old could follow a similar path to that of Pastner, becoming the next prodigy.
There's the unproven Collins. And then there's Jeff Capel, whom Poneman called a potential "home run" hire.
With the experience and the connections, it might not be so crazy.