The life-changing career move may sound like a real-life version of the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” but Curt Cignetti is not looking back.
A loyal assistant football coach at the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision level for 28 years, Cignetti is in his first season as the head coach of Division II’s Indiana (Pa.).
His latest four-year stint as the recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach at Alabama under head coach Nick Saban included a Bowl Championship Series national title in 2009, not to mention three straight top-five recruiting classes. Cignetti recruited 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and coached wide receiver Julio Jones, both first round picks in last year’s NFL Draft.
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There was notoriety, good money and 100,000 screaming fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Saturdays. But Cignetti was seeking a different challenge. He not only wanted to be a head coach, but also wanted to the regain quality of life that is so often missing when working for a big program like Alabama.
While Cignetti was looking for that perfect mixture of football and family, Indiana (Pa.) was searching for a new head coach. The program at IUP was one Cignetti had become intimately familiar with over the years while his father Frank coached the Crimson Hawks for 20 years (1986 to 2005), leading the school to 19 top-25 finishes and a pair of appearances in the Division II national championship game. But over the last two seasons, the one-time Division II powerhouse had posted an 11-11 mark, and just a 4-10 record in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West.
Cignetti found the fit he was looking for at IUP and took the job the day he interviewed last January, also hoping to revive the program to the status his legendary father once had elevated it to.
“It is a little bit of a different move, but it was the type of challenge and opportunity that I really wanted,” Cignetti. “I maybe could have stayed at Alabama or gone on to the NFL and stayed an assistant coach for the next 15 years but I really wanted to be a head coach.”
“It was a pretty good fit because of his knowledge and background, and the opportunity presented itself at the right time for him,” athletics director Frank Condino said.
In addition directing his own program, the move also meant being closer to his family, including father Frank, two sisters in the Pittsburgh area, and brother Frank, who is the offensive coordinator at Rutgers. Cignetti’s wife Manette hails from Indiana, Pa., and has a large group of family members still living in the area.
“It will also give me a little more time around my family,” Cignetti said. “At places like Alabama, you’re gone a lot recruiting and you sort of lose contact with the people that are important to you. It was a little bit of a lifestyle shift.”
Cignetti knew the program was rich with tradition and history, and just needed a jolt of energy.
“My dad had an unbelievable run and went to the national championship game twice,” Cignetti said. “I knew with the proper support internally and externally we could build something great here.”
“Curt has a very strong presence and is an extremely high-intensity person,” Condino said. “He’s very driven. That energy perpetuates itself throughout everything he is associated with from our department to the team to the community and alumni. It’s a very intense, high-energy program right now – there’s no question about that.”
Although Cignetti never coached with his father like his brother Frank did (IUP, 1990-98), the elder Cignetti did give his son a solid football foundation.
“My dad did have a big influence on me,” Cignetti. “He was a fundamentalist. He had things in perspective and had his priorities right. He understood that it took resources and players to be successful, and that’s the bottom line when you build a program.”
But after working for several programs and head coaches around the nation including Johnny Majors at Pittsburgh, Chuck Amato at NC State and Nick Saban at Alabama, Cignetti developed his own distinct coaching style.
“Curt has been a lot of great coaches and coordinators,” Frank Cignetti said. “He’s developed his own philosophy from the places he has been. You can see by the way the team practices that Alabama has had an outstanding influence on him.”
Dad stands on the sidelines at every IUP practice, but he is nothing more than an observer that likes what he sees.
“I watch practice but I don’t say anything,” Frank Cignetti said. “Believe me, he’s been around a lot of great coaches and been mentored well by them. His opportunity to work with Nick (Saban) at Alabama put the icing on the cake for him as far solidifying his philosophy and views on how he wants to run a program. I’m strictly a spectator.”
While Cignetti’s style will certainly help restore vigor into the program, he is learning how vast the differences are between places like IUP and Alabama, especially when it comes to the budget.
“The money and things that come with (being at a large Division I school) … you take for granted at places like Alabama,” Cignetti said. “At a Division II school you wear a lot more hats. You have a lot less personnel in the office to help do things like order equipment and schedule facilities and travel itineraries. You’re involved in a lot more things at this level that you never had to worry about at the Division I level.”
“That’s the learning experience he has to go through here,” Frank Cignetti said. “He’s been at places that have the maximum as far as support system whether it is in personnel or money. It is a different situation here for a head coach. That is part of his transition.”
Those other responsibilities have not seemed to deter Cignetti from re-energizing the team and community support for the program, and those efforts are already showing.
“We’ve had good fundraising and money coming into the program,” Cignetti said. “People are excited, and the players are excited and working really hard to prove themselves every day.”
The Crimson Hawks won their first game of the Curt Cignetti era, defeating East Stroudsburg 28-13 in the season opener on Sept. 10 in front of 1,300 fans.
“It was great to see him win his first one,” Frank Cignetti said. “I was impressed with them. I hadn’t missed a practice, and I had some concerns but I was impressed the way they played in an opening game. Hopefully, it is something they can build on.”
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