Bert Capel has guided Evangel to a 22-9 record and to the NAIA National Tournament in his first season as head coach. (Photo by Evangel University athletics)

When Bert Capel enrolled at Evangel University 22 years ago, the internet age was exploding. He figured that computer science would be a perfect major and a springboard to a career in that field.

“But my dad was my coach in high school and I also had an interest in coaching,” Capel said. “When I got here, I did an internship over the summer after my freshman year and I said, ‘There’s no way I can coach and do computer science at the same time. No way.’

“So I switched my major over to PE (physical education) and I decided that I wanted to coach after I was done playing. I just kind of stuck with it and it worked out.”

Capel didn’t know his coaching journey, nearly two decades later, would lead back to Evangel, the school he helped to win an NAIA Division II National Championship in 2002. Little did Capel dream that he would one day replace the coach he played for on that championship team. 

But here we are and the Capel-led Valor (22-9) has returned to the NAIA National Tournament for the first time since 2015, playing Friday in New Orleans against Florida College in an opening-round game. Host school Loyola of Louisiana faces Benedictine-Mesa in the other half of the four-team pod, with the winners meeting on Saturday for a berth in the 16-team bracket in Kansas City.

“Defense has been, hands down, our biggest key this season,” Capel said. “I think if our defense can stay where it has been, we will have a chance. The guys are excited. This is what you play for.”

No one is more proud of the Valor’s success than Steve Jenkins, the 39-year head coach who retired after last season. Jenkins said Capel, as a former player and assistant coach at the school, seems right out of central casting.

Bert Capel looks like he ought to be a coach, he acts like he should be a coach and he has proven that he can really coach.

Steve jenkins

“Bert Capel looks like he ought to be a coach, he acts like he should be a coach and he has proven that he can really coach,” Jenkins said. “Bert is a nice guy, but step between the lines and he becomes very serious. 

“As a player, that’s the way he was and he’s no different as a coach. He has a fire in his belly and he doesn’t like to lose. He’s been a great addition to our program. Maybe not fresh blood, but not unknown. It’s been fun to watch their success.”

Capel returned to Evangel as an assistant in 2019 after nine seasons as an assistant coach at the NCAA Division I level plus one year in junior college.

Capel said he’s taken a little from all the head coaches he’s played or worked for, beginning with  Jenkins and continuing with Leonard Hamilton, the long-time coach at Florida State where Capel spent three seasons as an assistant.

“After I left Evangel as a player, it was eye-opening,” Capel said of Hamilton, where he saw the game from the highest level of NCAA Division I. “Just the amount of pressure, the exposure and the level of play and all that goes into it … but it was all good.

“A lot of what we do defensively now probably comes from Florida State. They’ve always been known to guard and I’ve tried to mold that here. Hamilton is a great coach and he’s a pretty cool guy off the court. Anybody who’s seen the man, he doesn’t say much, but he’s a great coach who cares about his players.”

Capel found himself looking for a new job in 2019 when his six-year stint at Stetson University in Deland, Florida, ended when head coach Corey Wiliams was fired. Looking to regroup, the Kentucky native whose wife Stacy, an Evangel graduate from Willard, gave Jenkins a call.

“I said, ‘Hey, listen, would you be willing to let me help you out? You don’t have to pay me anything, I’ll just volunteer.’ He said ‘absolutely’ and we came back,” Capel said. “Then the COVID-19 thing hit and no (Division I) jobs were open so I asked Coach Jenkins if I could stay another year.”

Midway through last season, Capel said he went to Jenkins and told him he would probably search for a DI job after the season. Jenkins informed him that he might be retiring at season’s end. The idea of staying at Evangel, as the boss man, was lit.  

“I’ve always loved Evangel so I thought let’s go for it and see what happens,” Capel said.

He’s taken the job and excelled, guiding the Valor to postseason with most of the same personnel from last season’s 11-13 team.

Cade Coffman, a senior from Mountain Grove, leads Evangel with a 16-point average. (Photo by Evangel University athletics)

‘When it’s time to work, we work’

Senior guard Cade Coffman, the team’s leading scorer, described Capel as a fun guy to be around, not afraid to crack jokes and smile with his players off the court.

“But when it’s time to get work done, he’s definitely focused and can get the best out of each of his guys,” Coffman said. “It’s been fun, but when it’s time to work, we work.”

Capel said Jenkins helped make the transition seamless from the start with his support. 

“It’s big shoes to fill,” Capel said of his former coach and boss. “But a lot of things that I do as a coach, I learned from him. I always thought it was cool, no matter how long I was gone from Evangel, I could always call Coach and check on how things were going.”

Now it goes the other way as Jenkins often stops by practice and rarely misses a home game.

“They are well-versed in the fundamentals and they know how to compete,” Jenkins said. “It’s a pleasure for me to watch Bert and the team. He’s just a really good fit for our basketball program.”

Capel said he’s hopeful that he can use his experience playing in the NAIA postseason and translate it in a helpful way to his players. His major theme is to have fun and enjoy the ride while also expecting to win.

“It’s kind of, ‘Hey, listen, we’re gonna have fun because this doesn’t happen very often, but we’re gonna get after it when it’s time to play,’ ” Capel said. “There’s a reason we’re here and let’s not forget that.”

Capel said no matter the postseason outcome, he’s grateful for the buy-in from his players in his first season as head coach. He’s clearly thrilled that his path led back to Evangel.

“The players have been awesome,” Capel said. “They bought in right from the beginning which has helped us be successful. So it’s pretty cool. It’s good stuff.”

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, co-hosts The Sports Reporters on Jock 96.9 FM, 99.9 FM and 1060 AM on Monday mornings with Ned Reynolds and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton