Jeff Capel Interview
At 33 years of age, head coach Jeff Capel is one of the brightest young coaches in the nation. Entering his third season at Oklahoma, Capel will look to improve on a 23-12 season which included a tournament birth. With next year's likely number one pick in the NBA draft in Blake Griffin, the Sooners have high expectations, rated by some as a top 10 team entering the 2008-09 season.
NDN: What has been the key to your success in making the
transition from player to elite level coach in such a short period of time?
JC: Well I've been very fortunate as a head coach to have gotten two great jobs. First at VCU where I had an athletic director and president that were very good. I was very fortunate. I took over for coach Mack, Mack McCarthy and there were some really good, talented players left and we were able to build on that. The tradition there at VCU. The community embraced us and what we were trying to do. And then being able to recruit really good players there, that allowed me an opportunity to come to the high major level at OU and once again I'm working for a great athletic director and University president. We have great resources at OU and it's a program with a great tradition which allows us to continue to recruit high level players. Any coach will tell you that you have to have to have good players in order to be successful and I've been very fortunate at both places I've been.
NDN: At what point did you realize you weren't going to play ball for a living and make the decision that coaching was your calling?
JC: Well you know it's funny I never thought that I wanted to coach. I grew up with a coach and saw some of the things that he went through. (It was) not something I thought I wanted to do. Towards the end of my playing career, I played in the CBA for a year and a half, played overseas for about a month. But once it started to kind of wind down, I knew I wanted to be around the game in some way, and I remember getting cut from the CBA. This was in 2000, I just remember saying to my agent I want you to find me another job. I want to keep playing. And when I got home, I couldn't find the strength or desire to work out, and get back in the gym, and I knew right then that that was it. I've been in love with this game since I can remember but I didn't want to cheat the game. I found myself going to my dad's practices. My dad was the head coach at Old Dominion University and I would go to his practices and watch. I found myself on the sidelines making little comments and that was sort of what let me know that I wanted to get into coaching.
NDN: How have Coach K's philosophies influenced your coaching style and in what ways have you developed your own way of doing things?
JC: Well it's all of them. I've been fortunate to have played and been around great coaches. Obviously Coach K has been a huge influence, I've learned so much from him during my time there and the relationship we developed after school, on just how to handle certain things, on how programs should be run and just different things. But also I've been blessed to have a father that's a great basketball mind. I had a high school coach that was a great coach. Then I had a chance to work with Mack McCarthy, who I think is a brilliant basketball mind, so I've been really fortunate. Some of the assistants we had at Duke Tommy Amaker, Mike Brey, those guys, Quinn Snyder Tim O'Toole, Pete Garnett, I was really fortunate to be around those basketball minds. So I've incorporated all of those things and tried to do it my way, with my style.
NDN: What has been the biggest challenge coaching in the Big 12?
JC: Really the biggest challenge for me has been going to a different region. You know, I'm from the East Coast. I had only been out of the East Coast... I played in the CBA in Grand Rapids Michigan. That was about as far West as I had gone. So you're in a completely different part of the country. There were no recruiting ties. I had never been to the State of Oklahoma. I had only been to the State of Texas once! And that was my last year at VCU, we played at the University of Houston. So that probably the most difficult just heading West and trying to establish relationships with people you need to establish relationships with, high school coaches, AAU coaches, in this region, and it's something that we've worked very diligently at. And I think we've made some in roads there. We're not where we need to be, but we certainly have made progress.
NDN: Oklahoma hasn't seen this level of success and promise since the 80s circa Stacey King and Billy Tubbs. What has this basketball resurrection meant to the community?
JC: Well I don't necessarily agree with that to be honest with you. If you look at Kelvin Sampson's tenure from 1995 to two years ago when I took the job, they had a three year period where they went to a Sweet Sixteen, a Final Four and an Elite Eight. Kelvin won more games than anyone in the history of the program. He was the all time winningest coach in the Big 12 during his time there. I didn't realize, coming from the East Coast, how great a program Oklahoma is. Certainly I knew about the success of coach Tubbs and the teams he had with Waymon (Tisdale), and Mookie (Blaylock) and Stacey (King) and Skeeter Henry and all those guys. Then with Coach Sampson and the guys he had and the success they had especially from 2000 on. But coming out here, my first year here we were down, it was the first year in 25 years OU hadn't been to the postseason. By the end of my first season we were down. Really the big part of it has been getting better players to be completely honest with you, and getting a guy like Blake Griffin changes everything. If you look at our first recruiting class it was made up of four guys. But really the key was getting a guy like Blake Griffin. He changed everything. And now when you have a guy like Blake Griffin it enables you to have an opportunity to get someone like Willie Warren. You know I think if we didn't get Blake, I don't think there's any chance that we'd get Willie Warren. Sometimes with any program, when you're trying to get something going, or get something back going, or get to a certain level, sometimes all it takes is getting that one guy. And a guy like Blake kind of made it cool to maybe want to go to OU. The same thing with Willie Warren. So hopefully we can keep building off of that, and win some of these recruiting battles we're in. And also developing players, getting some of the guys that are maybe a little under the radar and developing them. If you look at what happened with Longar Longar, his last two years we felt we did a good job with him. My first year with Nate Carter, averaged 17 points in conference play. It's all those things, so we're trying to... Our program has been to four Final Fours and the one thing we haven't done is win a national championship and that's something we want to try to do.
NDN: Can Oklahoma hope to compete with the UConns, UCLAs and Floridas year in and year out on the recruiting trail?
JC: I definitely think so. You know that's it. We have tradition. There have been some really good players that have come through here. You look at the success in the NCAA tournament. You look at the success of getting to the postseason. One of the things we have to do is show that we can put guys in the NBA. That's what the high level and the elite level kids want to do. Getting a guy like Blake Griffin helps us with that. It shows that you can come here and you can become an NBA player, become a lottery pick which Blake is going to be. When Blake came out of high school, he was a McDonald's All American, certainly one of the top 25 players in the country. But no one thought of him in the same breath as these other guys that left last year. I think that all changed when you got into December and January of last season. I think Blake would have been a top 5 pick if he would have come out this past year. And so now all of a sudden you have a guy in your program that's looked at as the possible number one pick in the NBA draft, and now that gets the attention of other elite level kids. That you can come here, you can develop, and have the chance to go to the NBA. I think that's certainly the case with Willie Warren also. I'm hoping we can continue to get guys like that.
NDN: Is there any doubt in your mind who the top pick in
next year's draft will be?
JC: You know, not in my mind. But I have the luxury of seeing Blake every day. And for people that saw him last year, he's a completely different player. He's so much better right now. We've been doing workouts since the 25th of August. And if you see him now, see him shooting the ball with so much confidence, showing that part of his game, obviously he's always been able to really handle it and pass it. If it's possible to believe this, he's actually more explosive and more athletic now than he was last year. If you see him, he looks leaner, he looks thinner, but he's actually heavy. He had a great summer. He really worked and changed his body. And he's just playing at a very, very, very high level. You know, I think that there may be some guys that put up better numbers, but as far as for the next level, I think we have the best player in the country.
NDN: What makes Blake Griffin so special? Is there one thing that you can point to, is it his work ethic, is there one thing that you can point to and say okay this is what makes him so good?
JC: Well I think it's hard to with just one thing. Obviously he's been incredibly blessed with great talent. He's been blessed with great genes and a great body. But the other thing he's been blessed with is an incredible work ethic, and a desire to be really, really good. And it's not a phony desire. You know I don't think I've ever met a guy that doesn't want to be a good player. But so many guys are not willing to put in the time. And Blake does that. He's a guy that's fallen in love with the process of becoming great, of becoming the best he can be. And he does it in every aspect, from the way he eats, from the way he trains his body, from being in great shape to working on his body. And has such a desire, he plays so hard, so when you add all of those things up, and like I said from the beginning the talent that he's been blessed with, I think those are the things that make him such a special and unique talent.
NDN: Do you ever worry that he almost plays too hard? Going full bore every minute that he's out there could potentially lead to an injury or that type of thing or you just let him go and it's not something you worry about.
JC: I don't worry about it at all. We want him to be Blake and that's just who he is. And he's going to be that way whether I worry about it or not. That's just how he's wired. We don't worry about it at all, one bit. It's another thing that makes him so special and really you'd rather have every player play as hard as he does.
NDN: How do you assess Willie Warren's ability and where
do you see him fitting into the team this year and in the future?
JC: Well he's a kid that's very talented. He has the ability to score from all over the floor. He can shoot it from deep. He has a good mid-range game. He can score off the bounce. He has floaters, and because of his body and athleticism, he's able to finish through contact. And because of his athletic ability, he's able to finish on top of people. And because he's able to score the basketball, I think that one thing that's maybe underrated about his game is, I think he has really good feel for how to play. I think he's good passer. And you didn't see that maybe that much in high school and the AAU circuit because he needed to score for those teams to have a chance to win. I tell guys like Blake, like Willie, like Tony Crocker, I don't want them to fit in, I want them to be the people they are and be really good players. And certainly within the team concept of what we're doing, I don't think he'll have a problem with that.
NDN: Is allowing a player to play their natural pro position on the college level a college coaches responsibility?
JC: Well it depends on what you mean by that. When I was in school, my sophomore year, people don't realize, but the four-man for North Carolina was Jerry Stackhouse. They started Jeff McInnis, Dante Calabria, Donald Williams, Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace, but with that group, if you want to put them in a traditional position, Stackhouse was the four-man. And he's a shooting guard in the NBA. We don't try to define guys by a position, by numbers. We try to define them by players. And so that's what we do. Obviously we want to put our guys in the best position for them to have success. Certainly we understand guys want to be pros, and maybe when they come in, maybe they're not ready to play their natural position that they will play in the NBA. For our team right now, that's something that we'll work on in the preseason. That's something we'll work on in the off-season to where they're comfortable enough to where they can do that and do that with success. The worst thing I think you can do is if you have a guy that's coming in and is stuck in between positions and he's thinking about the NBA so much and he thinks he needs to be a 3 where he's really a four, well all of a sudden you promise him and you go and play him at the 3 and then he doesn't have success. I think that looks even worse. So one of the things we try to do, I talk about it with Blake, I talk about it with Willie: become a really good college player first. Lets not skip steps. Lets not unpack your bags. Let's not come in here and just pack a little bit, to hurry up and get out the door. Let's get completely entrenched in what we're doing and if you do that and become a really good college player, the NBA will take care of itself.
NDN: If you could add any one player from any other roster
in the country who would it be and why?
JC: Great question. Has to be just one?
JC: I would say with our team a guy like Stephan Curry. I was thinking of Tyler Hansbrough or the kid from VCU Eric Maynor. But it would probably be Stephen Curry. His feel for the game, ability to shoot it, spread the floor out. A combination of him Willie, Blake, and the rest of our guys, I think would be pretty interesting.
NDN: What do you make of the one year NBA rule, and is it bad for college basketball?
JC: You know what, I don't know. I'm kind of on the fence with it. I think that these guys should have an opportunity to come out of high school. I really and truly do. I don't understand why we prohibit these guys from doing that. Personally I think it's a little bit hypocritical of both levels college and the NBA. If you look at the first team All NBA this year, they have 2 years of college experience and that was with one guy Chris Paul. If you look at who the NBA promotes, it's Kobe, it's LeBron, Garnett, Dwight Howard now. Those guys never saw college basketball. Certainly with anything, you're going to have some guys that are successful and some that aren't. You look at guys that went to college for 2-3 years. Michael Olowokandi went to school for 4 years and he was a number one pick but I don't think his career panned out the way people thought it would. To a certain extent I think that if they decide to put them in, I think that a situation where they have to stay for 2 years, because then what it gets you is a true student athlete. Right now the way the system is set up, with one and done, I mean you knew Michael Beasley was only in school for one year, Derrick Rose was only one year, Eric Gordon, guys like that, Kevin Love, there was no doubt and those guys if they could, probably wouldn't have gone to college if that rule wasn't in place. So then what you set up, once those guys go to college, technically second semester they don't have to do anything. And they can just sign up for classes (and not go). You know, same thing with Kevin Durant, Greg Oden. Now what you hope for in the recruiting process is that you get to know these guys. And that you get guys that are committed to education. But the fact of the matter is, being completely honest, some of these guys have no desire to go, they're just using it as a stop on the way to the NBA.
NDN: For some of these guys there's no real purpose for it, they're ready?
JC: I agree. I mean I don't know how college could have helped LeBron James. Some people say imagine Kobe if he had gone to college. Well I don't really know what it would have done. He's only the best player in the world right now. Would that have made him better? I mean I think college can help anyone, don't get me wrong. Because of the experiences that you get, and the things that you learn. But I don't think for some that it's necessary. For instance Bill Gates, for what he did or what he does. You don't have to go to college to be educated. You can be educated on your own. Tennis players are turning pro at 14 years old, some of them. Other sports you have an opportunity, baseball. So I think they should be able to as well.
NDN: When a team like Kansas makes it to the Final Four are you pulling for a conference rival to win or is that impossible?
JC: No I was pulling for them. The only way I wouldn't have been pulling for them is if they would have been playing Duke. But yeah I was definitely pulling for them. I think it's huge for our league. One of the things the Big 12 hadn't done up until that time was win a national championship. The last national championship was when it was the Big 8, it was in '88 when Kansas won. So that's something that as a league, we hadn't done. And as a league we feel that we're constantly fighting for respect. I felt that last year we had the best conference in the country. If you look from top to bottom we had 6 teams in the NCAA tournament, we had 2 teams in the Elite Eight, with Kansas and Texas, and certainly I felt that Kansas was the best team in the country aside from winning it, so by winning that gave validation to the league of how good we really were.
NDN: Is the move of the Sonics into a smaller market a good thing for OU basketball, increasing the interest in basketball as a whole, or could it water down some of the fan support?
JC: Well I hope it's a very positive thing. One of the things I think that is very interesting. I think that this part of the country that we're in, I think that many people consider it a football area. I think that that's the way that Oklahoma is portrayed. Whether it's true or not I don't know. But I think that it's interesting that the only professional team that we have in the State is an NBA team, basketball. I know that there's a lot of passion about the Thunder among the people in Oklahoma, people are really proud to have a professional sports team and are ready to root for them. Hopefully what it does is increase the interest in basketball in the State. And hopefully the fan support for the (OU) team continues to grow.
NDN: What type of season can people expect from OU this year? Will not having a top notch true point guard make it difficult to reach the Final Four?
JC: Well I don't know. We're trying to figure out who we are right now. I certainly like our talent. We have the most talent we've had since I've been here. I think we have some depth now. We're a little bit bigger. More athletic. I think our returning guys have gotten better. And I think that we've added some talented newcomers. I like the possibilities of what we can become. But we have to work to get there. As far as our point guard, I think there are very few true point guards anymore. So I certainly think that we have good enough guard play now, with our guys getting better with Austin Johnson, Omar Leary, Tony Crocker, and when you add guys like Willie Warren and Ray Willis. I think that we'll have a shot if we can stay healthy and guys continue to improve, and work hard. If we earn the right to be good than I think that we'll have a shot to become a really good basketball team. So to get to the Final Four a lot of things will have to fall into place. My focus for us right now is to become a really good basketball team. And if that happens than I really like our chances.