As we await the start of fall training camp on Thursday to begin tracking the development of Florida State transfer Clint Trickett
, Curt Cignetti, another son of a football coach and a one-time Morgantown resident, is also getting ready for camp.
Cignetti is beginning his third season working the sidelines at Indiana University of Pennsylvania where this year he again has the Crimson Hawks near the top of the Division II preseason rankings.
“The top two polls haven’t come out yet but I suspect we’ll be in the top seven of those two, maybe as high as three or four, and the goal is to win it all,” Cignetti said earlier this week. “That’s the only goal there is.”
Cignetti knows what he speaks, having worked on Nick Saban’s original Alabama staff that won a BCS national championship in 2009. Cignetti has spent the majority of his coaching career at the Division I level, serving stints at Rice, Temple, Pitt, N.C. State and Alabama before taking the IUP head coaching job three years ago.
Cignetti admits it has been a bit of an adjustment for him going from Division I to Division II football.
“You miss all of the fluff and pageantry of D-I, but ball is still ball and I wanted to run the show,” he said. “I had been an assistant for 28 years and got kind of tired of taking orders and I wanted to apply everything that I have learned.”
And what an education he has received, dating back to his days learning from the lap of his father - hall of fame coach Frank Cignetti - to playing for another hall of fame coach in Don Nehlen, to working with other first-rate football minds such as hall of famer Johnny Majors and Nick Saban - one more coach on his way to South Bend in the not-too-distant future.
Yet it was during his four years in Tuscaloosa with Saban where Cignetti cemented the ideas on how he wanted to run a successful football program.
“The Nick Saban blueprint was the finishing touches,” he admitted. “He had a plan for everything that made sense to me. It kind of fit my personality, so I try and do things as much here as they do at Alabama. If you watch them play on TV and you watch us we’re kind of a microcosm of them.”
That means tough, physical play on both sides of the football, a reliance on a strong running game, a defense that will smack you in the mouth and create turnovers, and special teams play that can also win games.
“The goal down at Alabama was always just to improve every single day as much as you can and stay focused on the process and that’s what we try and do here,” said Cignetti, whose younger brother Frank is also in the coaching profession working with the St. Louis Rams quarterbacks. “We really pride ourselves on being a tough, physical, relentless football team – the kind of team that people don’t want to face.
“You see us coming up on the schedule and it’s like, ‘Oh (shoot), we’ve got to play these guys!’”
IUP in just two seasons under Cignetti has won 19 of 24 games and advanced to the NCAA playoffs both years, including last season’s 12-2 record that saw the Crimson Hawks reach the NCAA quarterfinals where they lost to Winston-Salem State, 21-17.
“We were five yards from playing in the big one last year - in year two,” said Cignetti. “I lost eight or 10 good players, but we’ve got good kids coming back and some new kids coming in, so the expectation level here will be high. Last year’s team had great intangibles and that will be a challenge for this year’s team to sort of meet that bar.”
Back during his college days playing at WVU, Cignetti was part of the transition from his father to Don Nehlen, spending two seasons as quarterback Oliver Luck’s backup under Nehlen in 1980-81. Cignetti admits that he was a little apprehensive at first about playing for his father’s replacement, but he got over that very quickly.
“I was a kid, but Coach Nehlen was really fair with me and treated me great,” said Cignetti. “I really respected him a lot. I really liked Morgantown; I grew up there and I was just proud to be a part of the program.”
As for the way his father was treated at West Virginia University, losing his job after just four years at the helm, Cignetti understands that is simply part of the fickle business of coaching.
“He lost his president and his athletic director, so he lost the people that hired him,” Cignetti explained. “But he was able to move on and have a great career here (at IUP) and a great life, and, of course, he just got inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.”
After two years on the job, Cignetti said there are some subtle differences between Division I and Division II players, but when the football is kicked into the air the passion for the game still remains the same.
“It’s the same animal, maybe and inch or two shorter and a half step slower,” he pointed out. “You’d be surprised though. We get a lot of Division I transfers and most of them come in and tend to underestimate the level of competition and they find out real quick once they’re here that they better get their A-game going or they are not going to end up on the field.”
One other subtle difference with Division II football is team rosters are usually not set until well into training camp, which for IUP, begins on August 15 this year.
“My roster is very fluid in the summer,” Cignetti pointed out. “In fact, I am still waiting to hear from the NCAA on my running back. I’ve got three transfers that we’re waiting on certain pieces of paperwork to come in and you never know, there could be a guy who leaves a Division I camp here in a week or two. If he plays a position of need, then I may try and expedite and get him in here.
“I’ll probably bring eight or nine transfers in who were not on the roster this spring,” he added.
Cignetti admits his eyes and ears are always open when it comes to finding good football players, but his eyes and ears are not necessarily always open to the viewpoints from some of the old-time IUP football guys still in town such as his father, hall of famer Chuck Klausing and ex-Pitt and IUP coach Bill Neill – three major pieces to a great IUP football tradition that also includes pro coach Jim Haslett.
“My dad tries to offer me advice, but I’ve kind of got my own way of doing things,” Cignetti laughed. “They’ve been to the national championship here twice under my dad, and that’s the goal to go there and win it, so we’ll see. We’ve had a good tradition here and people are excited around here that the program is coming back again.”
With former Morgantown High and WVU quarterback Curt Cignetti working the sidelines, IUP’s great football success is certain to continue. He’s got a winning track record to back it up.Check out Antonik's book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History available in bookstores and online at your favorite retailers. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.