PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) – To think about what Pitt accomplished on Tuesday and what is in front of them on Friday, you have to step back and think about how bad it was. Where they really came from.
Not just a step back, but a generational step back. From 1992 until 2000-one winning season and that was just barely. They bring in this no-name Ben Howland, the head coach of some school out by the Grand Canyon. And it worked!
By 2001 Pitt had 29 wins and for three straight seasons went 13-3 in the OG Big East, becoming an NCAA Tournament regular. Then the first setback. Howland left in 2003 for his dream job at UCLA. There were lies out the door and distrust. Who would keep this rolling? Would Pitt fall back into the abyss? After what appeared to be an endless search, his number one would get the job. Having never been a head coach, but Howland’s top assistant for years, Jamie Dixon took over. The amazingly energetic Californian kept it rolling, even got within a layup of the Final Four.
They were good times.
Then as the conference winds blew, what we fondly remembered as the Big East felt apart. Pitt jumped for the ACC to protect itself. Those familiar rivalries from WVU to Georgetown to UConn, gone. It started to feel different, the rough-and-tumble Big East for the high-flying ACC. There was no tradition there. It was harder to recruit from a New York base that wanted to play close to home, not in Tallahassee or Atlanta, Clemson or Charlottesville, but Philly, New York, DC.
It didn’t seem like Dixon was enjoying it either, the talent wasn’t as good. The style didn’t fit and eventually the divorce came. Dixon left for his dream job, coaching his alma mater.
Their next coach lost the fan base before he lost his first game. Fairly or not, Kevin Stallings was a disaster before he finished 3-33 in two seasons of ACC play. In four years, Pitt had gone from NCAA Tournament to ACC doormat.
New Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke decided to beat the ACC, they needed an ACC guy. Duke star, Mike Krzyzewski assistant, former NCAA Tournament coach Jeff Capel. He brought a staff of former head coaches determined to rebuild the program, but few realized how bad it really was. His first recruiting class was talented, but eventually got in their own way. Even when they hit on a player like Justin Champagnie, he left for the NBA after two years.
Then COVID and the inability to bring recruits on campus. We all love Pittsburgh but to a kid who grew up in South Carolina or Chicago or California-the perception was reality. Pitt coaches couldn’t close the deal with Zoom calls and pictures. They won 21 total games the last two seasons.
Capel prepared himself to be fired. It wasn’t until a March 9, 2022 after a meeting with Lyke that he knew he would return. The staff went to work, instead of just searching the high schools and AAU Tournaments, they invested in the transfer portal. They didn’t just bring players, but the right players, with the right mindset. And he was able to close the deal because they could meet in person and see what the university and city were really like.
Expectations were low, picked 14th in the ACC, fans wondered other than 6’ guard Nelly Cummings from Colgate who played at Lincoln Park, who were these people? Blake Hinson-why hadn’t he played in two years? Greg Elliott-why would you leave Marquette? Two freshmen from the Canary Islands?
Then the 1-3 start, All-ACC forward John Hugley was out of shape and eventually left. Your biggest recruit Dior Johnson was in legal problems and not playing. William Jeffress, a once prized recruit, was out with a foot injury. You know the talk, they were more than whispers about the program’s future.
Yet here they are, 23 wins later and an NCAA win already in the books.
“When we were down in Miami playing for the ACC championship, the night before, my staff and I were just sitting around, and we just started talking about everything, just everything,” Capel said. “The first four years, everything that we had been through, and then we started talking about everything that happened at the beginning of this year.”
“Just unbelievably proud and grateful to be a part of them, to be a part of their journey, to have some sort of impact, to watch how they've come together and how they've stuck together, how they have persevered, to watch the joy they bring every day, to watch how they've been able to move on to the next play after a big win or a tough loss, it's been pretty unbelievable.”
Unbelievable is a good word, remarkable, astonishing, implausible are others.
Those coaches and players brought Pitt basketball back and much like them, their fans don’t want this journey to end.