When Jeff Capel arrived for the first time as the new head coach of Pitt basketball, I was not there to greet him. My home has been away from the city of Pittsburgh for over a quarter-century — and I also have a prior engagement for an event in San Antonio. I’m still a Pittsburgher, though. That’s never changing.
On his way from the airport to the Petersen Events Center, a trip that most likely took him through the Fort Pitt Tunnel into the most glorious front door of any American city, he no doubt had the chance to glimpse what still is one of the country’s great secrets: that this is a remarkably beautiful and delightful place to live.
For a coach of one of the city’s prominent teams, though, that beauty lasts longer when the wins keep flowing. Or, in the case of Pitt basketball, start trickling.
So what must Capel do to make himself welcome in his new home? Here are some ideas, from someone who knows the place well:
Become a Pittsburgher. Capel already is a Steelers fan, and he didn’t just become one Tuesday. We’ve had conversations about the team in the past, so it's not something invented to trick the city into embracing him.
There's more to it, though, and it’s not a matter of smiling when they put fries and coleslaw on your sandwich.
First, it’s important to understand one is a Pittsburgher even after choosing to buy a home in the suburbs. I’ve lived several places, and I thought this was something that happened in every big metropolitan area. But it’s not. I’m from Elizabeth, 25 miles down the Monongahela River. No matter. I'm a Pittsburgher. South Hills, North Hills, Fox Chapel, Beaver County — it's all different, and all the same.
One of the immediate concerns regarding Capel, from a segment of the fan base, was whether he would up and leave two or three or five years into the future should Mike Krzyzewski retire and Capel be anointed his successor. The first step toward easing that concern is to make it clear how wonderful this place — and this opportunity — are.
This will not inoculate a coach against criticism or ennui. Jamie Dixon loved the place and turned down many opportunities to move elsewhere. He took the Panthers to 11 NCAA Tournaments in 13 years, an unmatched record in the history of a program with a previously sporadic history. By the end, there were some agitating that Pitt could do better. But Dixon did last 13 years in the job.
Understand: It’s a pro town. It's obvious to anyone with any awareness of the city’s sports scene that the NFL's Steelers and NHL's Penguins take top priority, that MLB's Pirates still are important and that Pitt always is fighting for a share of the attention.
That's not what this is about, though. There's room on the stage for a successful Pitt basketball team. The issue is that some in Pittsburgh, including some who should know better, will judge the team’s progress through a filter that presupposes every team has a relatively equivalent chance at success. That’s how it is in the NFL, right?
That Pitt has not made a Final Four since 1941, when getting there required winning one tournament game, did not prevent many from criticizing Dixon for failing to take the Panthers there. Capel could come in, take the Panthers from zero ACC wins to some figure north of there and then borrow a phrase from former Pirates GM Syd Thrift: “It ain't easy raising the dead.” But many are still going to want that Final Four.
Understand: It’s not a basketball town. The last time the area regularly turned out great players, I was in high school — that tells you how long it’s been. Capel most likely knows this because he's probably never recruited the area, and he has recruited everywhere there has been great talent: Jayson Tatum from St. Louis, Frank Jackson from Utah, Tyus Jones from Minnesota.
He needs to have a plan to attract players to Pittsburgh. It’s not easy to recruit to any program; too many places want that talent. But it’s easier at Duke. No ACC school is quite the same as Pitt. He needs to find the high-level players who’ll be attracted to a city campus but still be drawn to the ACC. That has been elusive for each of the previous two coaches.
Be an ambassador for the game. The Oakland Zoo was, for a long time, one of the most enthusiastic student sections in college basketball. Last year, they could have been renamed The Walking Dead. Getting those students back into the Pete will be essential.
There's a group of successful fans dedicated enough to attend most every game; we know this because they kept making trips even in the dark of 2017-18 season. It will not hurt to remind them of their importance to the program.
It will help to be open and accommodating with media. This was one area in which Dixon struggled, particularly with the locals. Reporters and commentators became frustrated with his postgame approach. The most pointed criticism of Panthers football coach Pat Narduzzi in the last two seasons has been his protectionism during the week his team played rival Penn State, declining to allow players to do interviews. Fans always will back the coach in these circumstances, but why bother engendering any negativity with a group that has the potential to create harm?
There are two all-sports radio stations in the city. The hosts must talk about something. If you give them something negative to discuss, they won't ignore it.
Kevin Stallings did well enough in connecting with these people that even after his Panthers lost 19 consecutive ACC games and the crowd at the Pete was down to the friends-and-family plan, some in the Pittsburgh media insisted he ought to get another year to prove himself.
The Capel hire was almost universally celebrated when it was reported. There were those who wondered, when it was vacant, whether the Pitt basketball coaching job is a great job. Pittsburghers are ready to make Capel one of them, however. This is one of its greatest fringe benefits.