But three of Capel's McDonald's All Americans essentially ended up costing him his job when they left early last spring, putting the program in a deep hole.
After meeting with his men's basketball coach Monday morning, OU athletic director Joe Castiglione fired Capel with five years left on his contract.
Capel’s buyout is believed to be around $2.2 million. Castiglione said an ongoing NCAA investigation that began last May will not affect the buyout.
"This did not boil down to one or two points but the outcome of a very thorough and detailed review," Castiglione said. "I concluded it would be best to chart a new direction for our program."
Capel compiled a 96-69 record in five seasons. But back-to-back losing seasons, with no highly ranked national recruits signed for next season, the program is mired in a rebuilding phase.
It was a dramatic down turn for Capel, who signed a $13 million extension two years ago after the Sooners reached the Elite Eight.
"We had high hopes to build off that momentum," Castiglione said. "But we understand how sports can be, the departure of people with great talent and experience... Unfortunately were unable to sustain that momentum."
Castiglione said he will be diligent in his search for a new coach and might use a consultant to help with logistics.
The process should take at least a couple of weeks, especially if one of his top candidates is still playing in the NCAA Tournament.
But there also is competition with Arkansas and Georgia Tech and possibly other schools that have vacancies.
"We understand some of the things at play, affecting our ability to reach a coach," Castiglione said. "But we don't want to compromise the ability to find the best coach for our program."
Because it's spring break, Castiglione and OU staff members held a teleconference with players to inform them of the decision and to encourage them to stay with the program.
The turning point for Capel was last spring when McDonald's All-Americans Willie Warren, Tiny Gallon and Tommy Mason-Griffin all turned pro. Gallon’s decision followed an NCAA investigation that his mother allegedly received a $3,000 loan from a financial advisor.
The investigation hasn't been closed and because no new information has surfaced surrounding former OU assistant Oronde Taliaferro possibly being involved in the alleged loan, OU might avoid major sanctions. But the investigation undoubtedly hurt recruiting.
Some have criticized Capel for signing talented players with questionable character but he wasn’t alone in pursuing those players. Warren's final four choices were OU, Kansas, Connecticut and Cincinnati, while Mason-Griffin's final three choices were OU, Texas and Memphis when John Calipari was at Memphis.
The player defections resulted in Capel being forced to scramble to put together a roster last that went 14-18 this past season, including a first-round loss in the Big 12 Tournament.
If everyone returns, the Sooners will return four starters and six of its top seven scorers. But the new coach's biggest challenge will be to upgrade the talent.
"We understand the cause and effect of everything," Castiglione said. "We have to expect that amount of time (necessary) to build the program. In some sports the growth curve is a little shorter. But we're not a program that will ever take shortcuts.
"We want to build it right. We want to build it strong so it's sustainable in the future, not just our program's ability to be successful but for the fans to embrace the characteristics of the program."