OU men's basketball coach Jeff Capel was fired Monday, according a press release by athletic director Joe Castiglione and President David Boren.
And it's a shame.
Capel coached Oklahoma for five years — three without Blake Griffin — and accumulated a 96-69 record, 37-43 in Big 12 play. He coached OU to a pair of NCAA appearances, including a trip to the Elite Eight in 2008-09.
The trouble with Capel, though, is that his rise was too meteoric on the back of the second-greatest player in school history (I still have a soft spot for Wayman Tisdale).
With the coming of Blake Griffin, Capel had a team on par with Kelvin Sampson's Sooners. And fortunately for everyone those two years, Griffin did most of the work while all of us, including Capel, could sit back and watch him do his thing.
Then Griffin left for the NBA, chosen No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Clippers. But Sooner fans weren't that worried. Capel had pulled in one of the highest anticipated recruiting classes in Oklahoma history — done without NCAA-violating text messages, I might add. The coach pulled in marquee names like Tommy Mason-Griffin and Keith "Tiny" Gallon to fill in the gaps around returning star Willie Warren and perennial-feel-good-story Cade Davis.
But it all came crumbling down. The first losing season in more than a decade. A nine-game slide to finish a horrid 13-18 season. The overpowering egos of Mason-Griffin, Gallon and Warren. The mass exodus of players. The subsequent, last-minute rebuilding with mid-range recruits and junior college transfers.
Capel was in the hot seat. Just one full season after Griffin guided OU to the Elite Eight, Capel failed to hold the ship together without its captain.
But we know all this already. We've discussed these issues at length over the last year. So why do I think it's a shame Capel was fired?
Although his record the last two seasons is 27-36 with just nine conference wins in 32 tries, I think Capel was making progress.
He found himself in an unwinnable situation in 2009-10. Griffin helped him climb up from a 13-12 season his first year much faster than Capel could have rebuilt the program in the wake of Sampson's many scandals. Without Griffin, I think Capel would have slowly but surely progressed each year, steadily improving until he got NBA talent without the flaky attitudes. After a few quality one-and-dones, he would coach OU back to the Final Four for the first time since 2001.
Why do I think that? Because Capel is a good coach. Look what he did with Virginia Commonwealth before coming to Oklahoma.
But we'll never know because the process was interrupted by the arrival of Griffin. We can guess all we want, but we have no way of ever knowing what Oklahoma would have looked like without the man who's now dunking over cars in L.A.
But look at what Capel did this season. Sure, the end result wasn't exactly what Sooner fans or Capel himself wanted. And sure, it was the second losing season in as long as most of us can remember that followed on the heels of the first losing season in as long as most of us can remember. But the seasons are very different if you look at them closely.
In 2009-10, the team was built around pure talent with very little teamwork. In 2010-11, the team was built around teamwork with very little pure talent.
In 2009-10, the team consistently failed to compete and lost any semblance of competitive fire by the nine-game skid to end the season. In 2010-11, the team showed the willpower to compete again and recovered from a late-season slide to best Oklahoma State and Baylor.
In 2009-10, the team was run by the attitudes of its prima-donna "stars." In 2010-11, the team was run by Capel.
If you can't admit this season was an improvement from last season, you aren't looking. Capel learned from his mistakes in 2009-10 and was displaying his ability to take a group of no-names and make them a team.
I can understand athletic director Joe Castiglione's need for change, but I think it came a year too early. Capel wasn't finished rebuilding, and I would have liked to see what his final product looked like.
Patience is a virtue, and it would have saved Capel's Oklahoma legacy. But now we can only wonder.
— James Corley, journalism senior