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Former ODU Coach Jeff Capel, Whose ALS Diagnosis Was Revealed in January, Remembered by Monarch Family

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Twenty-two years ago, with its best player sidelined by an injury, Old Dominion University stunned college basketball, beating Big East powerhouse Villanova, 89-81, in the NCAA Tournament.

Coach Jeff Capel persuaded the Monarchs they could do it, recalled Jim Corrigan, then an assistant coach. "He did such a good job with our players," said Corrigan, now an assistant for the ODU Lady Monarchs. "We believed we could win that day."

Capel made an impact on the program, its players and fans as head coach from 1993 to 2001. That's why recent news about Capel's health also made an impact on the Monarch athletic community.

In January, Capel's son Jeff, an assistant coach at Duke, revealed in a letter that his father had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

There is no cure for ALS, which causes muscle weakness and, eventually, paralysis. ALS patients typically live two to five years.

People who Capel touched during his seven seasons at Old Dominion were saddened by the news, and memories of "Coach" came flooding back.

"I was floored," said Mike Byers, a guard who played for Capel for four seasons, graduating in 1999. "I immediately reached out to my ODU teammates. We're planning a trip down (to North Carolina) to see him, to let him know how instrumental he was in our whole lives, not just on the basketball court."

Byers, who works in merchandising for the fashion merchandiser the MSP Design Group, said Capel's honesty and directness made it easy to want to work for him. "One thing about Coach Capel that I knew and admired was he was who he was. There was no gray area."

Capel's son Jason was in Norfolk last month doing television commentary for an ODU game. He told The Virginian-Pilot that his father has been bombarded with gestures of support since the diagnosis was made public.

The Capel family has started a campaign to raise money for ALS research at Duke. Its goal of $100,000 was exceeded in less than a month. "I'm happy that he's seeing the love so many people have for him because he's influenced so many peoples' lives," Capel told the Pilot.

Debbie White, who retired last year after a long career in ODU athletics, said Capel's affection for his ODU teams was obvious.

"Jeff was a very compassionate man and cared so deeply about his players and all those who worked around him. The Villanova win is something that ODU fans will never forget and will forever be tied to Jeff. It's a moment etched in my mind," she said.

Carol Hudson, long-time sports information director for the University, who also retired last year, said Capel was responsible for two of the record six Colonial Athletic Association championships won by the Monarchs, in the 1995 and 1997 seasons.

"Jeff was wonderful to work with, and, of course, who will forget him leading the Monarchs to that triple-overtime victory over Villanova?" Hudson said. "My heart goes out to him and his family."

In that memorable NCAA game, Old Dominion battled over 40 minutes and three wild overtimes to beat Villanova (which this year is defending its national title in the tournament).

Byers remembers the Villanova victory well, but from a unique vantage point. He had signed a National Letter of Intent to play for ODU the following fall, but hadn't yet suited up for the Monarchs.

"I remember watching the game on TV and talking to Coach Capel afterwards. He said that we'd go back to the tournament together. And two years later, he was proven correct," Byers said.

That unshakable belief in his players and coaches was something Corrigan will always remember. Earlier that season, Odell Hodge suffered a season-ending knee injury. Capel told Hodge's teammates not to give up.

"We had a meeting that night," Corrigan said. "Jeff asked the players, 'What does this mean for our goals?' He very quickly focused the players on what we have, rather than what we didn't have. By the end of that year, we believed we were as good as anyone. That was all Jeff Capel's doing."

Capel was 122-98 in his seven seasons at Old Dominion.

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