Father suggested law school before coaching

Sitting in a restaurant in Grand Rapids, Mich., Jeff Capel was about to have his meal ruined by his son.(Photo/Ty Russell)

Sitting in a restaurant in Grand Rapids, Mich., Jeff Capel was about to have his meal ruined by his son.

"I've been thinking about coaching," came the news from Jeff Capel III.

The father, a career coach himself, folded his napkin, took a minute to gather his thoughts and gave his son the best advice he had.

"Don't do it," he said. He even offered a counter suggestion. "Go to law school.

"I'll pay for it."

That conversation in December of 1997, when the younger Capel was playing in the CBA, obviously didn't take. Then again, the elder Capel shouldn't have been surprised. After all, he ended up being a coach despite having no desire to do so.

"Before I became a basketball coach, I had no ambition to coach," said the 53-year-old, currently an assistant coach for the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. "I didn't think Jeff was sure about what he wanted to do at that particular time, so I didn't think it was the best choice."

A little over eight years after the mealtime career discussion, Jeff Capel III was named the head basketball coach at the University of Oklahoma at the ripe, old age of 31.

Obviously, unlike his father, this was a man driven from a young age to become a coach.

Right?

"No, absolutely not," said Capel. "I didn't want to coach. After watching some of the things my dad went through — all the travel, the pressure, having your job depend on whether you won or lost instead of how well you taught kids and ran your program — I never thought about being a coach when I was growing up."

So, how exactly did both end up as coaches? Actually, the same way. Jeff Capel Jr. went to college, then spent five years in the Army, then went back to college. When he graduated, he became a teacher and coached a little track on the side. He loved the teaching. And then it hit him: What's coaching but a chance to teach?

"It's all about life," said Capel Jr. "That's the way I approached coaching.

Yes, winning and losing is what determines whether you have a job, but I got more out of it from building relationships."

His oldest son noticed. Even when he wasn't remotely considering coaching, he saw what an impact his father had on people through the profession.

"My dad used to say to his players, ‘Use the game of basketball. Don't let it use you,'" Capel said. "I knew exactly what he was talking about. People who play this game have a tendency to define themselves by the game. But I was able to see how my dad was using this game to teach lessons in life.

"And it's funny, because I find myself saying that same thing to my players now. And I try to do the same thing with my players as my dad did."

When injuries ended his playing days, Jeff Capel — a four-year starter for Duke — struggled with the idea that he would not be an NBA player. He spent time in the CBA and playing professionally in France, but he had always imagined an NBA career. What's more, his plan after that was to be an NBA general manager.

But coaching? Well, until just before that meal in Grand Rapids, it was never in the picture.

"I realized when I got hurt, there was no way to have a greater impact on young people than to teach them," Capel said. "I was fortunate because growing up my hero was right there in front of me. My dad was my hero. He was who I always wanted to be like and always wanted to be around. So, subsequently, I was in the gym a lot.

"But what I saw was that my dad was always able to connect with players. They have to believe in you. And my dad was always honest. I tried to do that."

Once his mind was made up to coach, one of his first gigs was with pops. Capel Jr. brought in his son as an assistant at Old Dominion for one year.

Capel Jr. had worked his way up the ladder in the coaching profession quickly.

After starting out in high school, he spent 12 years as a head coach at the collegiate level at Old Dominion, North Carolina A&T and Fayetteville State, with a combined record of 201-162. In seven seasons at ODU, Capel was 122-98 and posted a school-record 25-win season and had two NCAA tournament appearances.

While pops Capel's youngest son, Jason, was becoming a standout for North Carolina, his oldest son was making huge moves in ridiculous time in the coaching profession.

After his one season with his father at ODU (2000), Capel moved to an assistant position at Virginia Commonwealth. By the time he was 27, he was the head coach — the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I. He compiled a 79-41 record in four years at VCU.

Then came a call from Oklahoma. Kelvin Sampson had unexpectedly resigned to become the head coach at Indiana. And while media all over the country played the guessing game and spouted out well-known names such as John Calipari and Skip Prosser among others, OU's administration zeroed in on the scarcely known Jeff Capel III.

For the young Capel, such an opportunity may have seemed daunting except for a talk he had with his father four years earlier.

"When I first told him I didn't think he should be a coach, it wasn't because I thought it was bad," said Capel Jr. "It's a great profession. But it's a roller coaster."

All the same, when pops received a phone call from his boy prior to the 2002-03 season, it took him about one millisecond to answer the question that was to come. The head coach at VCU had resigned and the school wanted Capel — the young Capel, that is.

"He called and said, ‘They want me to take over as head coach. Do you think I'm ready?'" Capel Jr. said. "I said, ‘You were born ready. This is a great opportunity for you.'"

Dad's thinking along those lines had not changed when, four years later, his son told him he had been contacted by OU about the school's job opening.

"I know he wasn't the big-name guy people were expecting, but from the first time he told me that Oklahoma had contacted him, I knew he was going to get the job," Capel Jr. said. "I knew that as soon as the people making the decision got in a room with Jeff, they would leave knowing for a fact that they had found the perfect man for the job. Once he got in that room with them, there was no way he wasn't going to get that job. And I knew that before they had their first meeting.

"And he's ready for this challenge. He's going to do great things."

Because of his duties with the Bobcats, Capel Jr. won't be able to attend many of his son's games this coming season.

"Yeah, but I've already told our (Charlotte Bobcats) video people that every single Oklahoma game is to be taped and brought to me ASAP," cracked Capel Jr.

Actually, because of some serendipitous scheduling, the father may very well get to be in the front row at Lloyd Noble Center for Capel's Sooner debut. The Bobcats play the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets in Oklahoma City on Nov. 11.

OU hosts Norfolk State on Nov. 10 to open the 2006-07 season. Nothing would please Capel Jr. more. He remembers when his son was making his debut as a head coach at VCU and how he moved heaven and earth to be there.

"I had to see him coach his first game," said Capel Jr. "I told him, ‘I don't care where I am or what I'm doing, I'll be there.' I drove six hours to Richmond, Va., to be there.

"I told him that I wanted to be there for the first time he called a time out. I told him, ‘Believe it or not, they're going to give it to you.' And when he did it, he had command of the huddle, he had the players' attention and he was confident. I immediately called my wife and told her, ‘He's going to be just fine.'"

Both have ended up more than "just fine." Even if neither originally had a hankering for the business.

"It's a difficult profession," said the OU coach. "Your livelihood depends on 18-, 19- and 20-year-old students. But still, I love it. My dad loves it."

Just don't ask them for a recommendation.

The above articles appears in the November issue of Sooners Illustrated.


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