From the audience, at least, the chair looked comfortable. Jeff Capel settled into the cognac leather Embassy Suites armchair between Roy Williams and Kevin Keatts like he very much belonged there.
Under normal circumstances, Mike Krzyzewski would presumably have been sitting there, along with Williams and Keatts and LeVelle Moton, instead of Capel. But with Krzyzewski recovering from knee replacement surgery last month, Capel once again deputized for his boss at Duke, enjoying the prerogatives of being a head coach without actually being one.
It’s the first time in eight years that the Triangle coaches have gotten together for the Triangle Tip-Off Luncheon, an underrated feat of schedule-wrangling and calendar-crunching given the demands on the quartet, and while it wasn’t a clean sweep thanks to Krzyzewski’s unavailability – Capel was billed as the Duke representative from the moment the event was announced, so there was no bait-and-switch here – in a way, it might even have gone better without him.
While getting the two Hall of Famers on the same stage would have been priceless on its own merits, there was a different, relaxed dynamic Friday. Instead of K and Roy dominating the conversation, the three younger coaches shined. Capel and Moton played AAU basketball together and the whole thing had a very collegial feel to it with Williams interjecting one-liners like a folksy uncle, even imitating Dean Smith at one point.
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All of that left Krzyzewski’s absence less felt than it might have been otherwise, leaving the appearance of Capel on that stage among his almost-but-not-quite peers and his easy interactions with them to offer yet another glimpse into the potential post-K future at Duke.
“It’s cool,” Capel said. “Obviously, to be up there with those guys, Roy Williams, a Hall of Fame guy. I have so much respect for Kevin and LeVelle. I’ve known both of those guys for a really long time. They’re both really good guys, really good coaches. And it’s cool to represent my school, our program. Coach would be here if he was physically able to do that, unfortunately he’s not. We felt it was important to have our program represented while he’s not able to do things like this right now.”
Since Capel returned to the program as associate head coach in 2011, he’s been the designated deputy when Krzyzewski is unavailable. When Krzyzewski was in the hospital in 2016, Capel coached the team at Georgia Tech. When Krzyzewski missed seven games last season after he needed midseason back surgery, Capel took over. And while Krzyzewski’s recovery from this latest surgery nears completion, Capel was a natural choice to represent Duke on Friday instead.
“Coach is great,” Capel said. He’s actually doing really well. He’s back at the office doing things, he’s on the court in our workouts. He should be ready to go at the start of next week.”
Capel may have been the obvious fill-in, but replacing Krzyzewski at a luncheon, or for a few weeks at a time, is only that. It’s possible to read far too much into those duties. Whatever Duke’s succession plan may be, only Krzyzewski and athletic director Kevin White know it, and even if Capel would be the obvious choice to step in if Krzyzewski were to be forced to step aside unexpectedly for some reason, there may be more flexibility inherent in a more orderly transition of power, however far into the future that may be.
Just because Capel passed on the opportunity to pursue openings at Arizona State and Georgia Tech does not mean he has been guaranteed the job down the road, and even if he was in the short term at that point, it does not mean things haven’t changed since, or couldn’t change in the future, especially as Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski add to their head-coaching resumes elsewhere while Capel’s remains static, other than his continuing (and impressive) recruiting prowess at Duke.
Duke basketball coach talks about retirement during a 2016 interview with The News & Observer.
Between Krzyzewski’s determination to keep coaching and the increasing viability of new candidates to replace him, the post-Krzyzewski future remains opaque, which is entirely understandable. What’s apparent and visible is Capel’s continuing status as the current deputee of choice, and how comfortable he was occupying that big chair on Friday.
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Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock