As West Virginia University’s head football coach from 1976-79, Frank Cignetti didn’t have good facilities. He didn’t inherit an abundance of good football players. He didn’t have overwhelming support from the fans and the boosters. And he didn’t have his health.
But he had all of those things at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and yesterday, the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame announced its seven-member class of divisional inductees and Cignetti’s name was among them.
He led IUP to conference titles his first two seasons there in 1986 and 1987 and then later took the Hawks to national title game appearances in 1990 and 1993. In all, IUP made 13 Division II playoff trips under Cignetti, including six visits to the national semifinals, and he orchestrated at least a co-share of 14 divisional titles.
During his 20-season tenure at IUP that ended in 2004, Cignetti had the Hawks nationally ranked each year he coached them and at the time of his retirement he was the third winningest active coach in Division II. Ten of his IUP teams won the Lambert Cup as the top Division II team in the East and he was named regional coach of the year three times, winning national coach of the year honors in 1991.
Cignetti didn’t come close to achieving any of that at WVU, producing four consecutive losing seasons before being replaced by Don Nehlen after the ’79 season. Two things immediately come to mind when thinking of Cignetti’s brief head coaching tenure at West Virginia – poor timing and a lack of time to fix things.
“What happened here under Frank was clearly not indicative of the type of coach he was,” said WVU Director of Athletics Oliver Luck, who quarterbacked Cignetti’s Mountaineer teams in 1978 and 1979. “What always impressed me was the quality of coaches he had here at the time.”
When Cignetti took over from Bobby Bowden in 1976, Pitt and Penn State were two of the top football programs in the country. Maryland under Jerry Claiborne was always outstanding then, too, and the Mountaineers were also beginning to get into the meat of an overly ambitious non-conference scheduling program that included intersectional games against Oklahoma, NC State, Cal, Kentucky and Arizona State – almost all of those games on the road.
Considering the lack of financial support Cignetti had at the time, a dilapidated football stadium that was crumbling around him, the program’s chronic inability to recruit top linemen and quarterbacks that predated his head coaching tenure, and Cignetti’s deteriorating health, and there was little chance for his teams to succeed here.
“The two years that I played for Frank Cignetti in 1978 and 1979, I’m not sure that was the Frank Cignetti who had a good career with Bobby before and obviously went on to have great success at IUP,” said Luck. “He was sick. The poor guy was suffering from cancer.”
Yes, the timing was bad for Cignetti and he didn’t have enough time to get things straightened out – both of those issues completely out of his control.
“We were coming,” Cignetti’s former strength and conditioning coach Dave Van Halanger told me a few years ago. “Man, we had that stadium coming, we had a bunch of good young players and we had a bunch of great coaches. Nick Saban was on his staff. It was about to happen.”
And then it didn’t – at least for Cignetti.
It did happen for Don Nehlen.
To his credit, Cignetti never made excuses or pointed his finger when he very easily could have. He simply fell on his sword. Cignetti even stuck around and worked in the athletic department for a couple of years after he was fired.
“Frank was still recovering from cancer and he had an office at the Shell Building and I would wander over there when I was a junior and a senior and I’d stop in and say hello to him and we’d chat,” Luck recalled. “He was always supportive of the program. That had to be hard after getting fired, but he was always supportive.”
Then the urge to coach once again became too great when Cignetti was offered the IUP job. I’m glad his alma mater gave him that opportunity.
Of course, he rewarded them greatly for it.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.