North Dakota State and James Madison are headed to Frisco for the 2019 FCS national championship game on Jan. 11, 2020. Here is everything that coach Curt Cignetti of the James Madison Dukes had to say before heading into the championship.
COACH CIGNETTI: We're excited and honored to play and we've been pretty consistent this year. We've earned our way here. And obviously we play a formidable opponent with tremendous tradition, almost unmatched tradition really when you look at them winning seven out of the last eight National Championships and almost 40 games in a row, 33- or 36-1 in the playoffs. So we recognize the challenge before us, but really in terms of the preparation, you prepare for this one like you do any other game.
Q. Obviously your first year as a head coach at James Madison. They have a new first-year head coach. He's been with the program, but they've also got a redshirt freshman quarterback. What does it say about these two programs that they're able to go through changes like that and still be in the position you're at, playing for championships?
COACH CIGNETTI: I think both programs are unique and positioned to be successful. And when you look at the Division I level, there's not many schools that can say that, even at the FBS level. You look at Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia. There's very few schools really positioned to be successful year in, year out.
And there's a lot of reasons for that. But it comes down to administrative support and fan and alumni support and resources. And then once you build that tradition, you know the thing just sort of keeps running as long as you keep investing in the program.
Q. I know your family connection to Coach Saban. I know he worked for your dad. I know you worked for Coach Saban, part of the National Championship with Alabama. Is there anything you can take from that time with him?
COACH CIGNETTI: Oh, yeah. That was a valuable time for me. I probably had 24 years of maybe FBS assistant experience going to Alabama. But I was with Nick four years and part of the original staff. So went in on the ground floor and we had to build it up.
And really learned a lot from him in terms of how to run a program -- organization, leadership, how to practice. I mean, really from A to Z. So my blueprint is very similar to what we did there. Now, you tweak it over time according to your personality and where you're at. But there's no question that experience was extremely valuable.
And then being the son of a coach. My dad's in the Hall of Fame, and never really worked for my dad, but grew up around him and knew at a young age I wanted to coach. So there's a lot of him in me.
Q. You touched on it a little bit earlier but you've kind of had the two perspectives where you watched the previous couple of years and now been in it this year. So what do you say have been the biggest factors between resources and everything else that has allowed JMU to reach this point where it can have sustained success, and then once it's got to this point, to sustain this success over the years?
COACH CIGNETTI: It's all about recruiting and development and then once you created a brand, a strong brand, which JMU has, you know that helps in recruiting. And then it's just a matter of sort of taking the right kind of guys that fit your program.
We're fortunate to have a good recruiting base here. There's a lot of players in the state of Virginia and North Carolina, which are border states. And we're not too far from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
And then the development -- we've got good resources here, good support, good facilities. So all the people that have been here in the past, Mickey Matthews and Everett Withers, have done a great job of building this program to the point where it is today.
And when I came in, the team had fallen a little bit short of expectations last season with the four losses, and maybe there was a little drifting of the focus, so to speak. But there was talent here and there was veteran leadership. And I think that was sort of a motivating factor for this team, how they finished last season, which is always good to start any venture sort of with a chip on your shoulder, motivated. And we've done the things you have to do to be successful in season, which has put us in the position we're in today.
Q. As you've kind of begun preparations, the on- field preparations, how much value have you found in having so many guys who have been to the first couple of four, kind of been through the experience before and know what to expect? How valuable is it to have a bunch of guys who aren't going through it for the first time?
COACH CIGNETTI: I guess we'll find out on Saturday, game day. But I think it's extremely valuable because anytime you've done something a second time you've learned from the first time.
And so we have guys here that have been in the game before. We have some guys who have been in the game twice. And I think that that pays dividends, because you don't make the game really bigger than it is. At the end of the day, it's just another game and the things that you have to do to be successful are the same things you had to do in game 2 of the season.
And so you don't make the game bigger than it is, and you just prepare to the best of your ability and put yourself in the best position to be successful, and go out and play like you have every other game.
Q. Going in the way-back machine, but I'm sure you realize it, you're not the first Cignetti to coach against NDSU in a championship game, once the game comes up on Saturday. Your dad coached against the Bison in the 1990 Division II Championship. Do you have any recollection of that? I know you weren't there at the time, but any recollection or any memories of that at all?
COACH CIGNETTI: I hope we have a different result than he had. Actually I was -- let's see, 1990, I was working at Temple. And I was fortunate enough to be able to make the game. And, so, I remember the game.
And North Dakota State, they had a great football team. Had a couple of guys play in the pros. And really IUP, as the game went on, was kind of overmatched. But I think it's a testament to their program that dominate at that level and then move up a level and dominate (inaudible).
Q. Your dad is in his 80s. Is there any plans for him to get to Frisco or anything like that?
COACH CIGNETTI: He's 82. And he's a guy who works out an hour and a half a day. He had a little setback here in the last week but was fortunate to overcome it -- medical -- had an operation. So he'll be watching the game on TV and everything is well with him in terms of his prognosis. So he'll be there in spirit. And the great thing about watching game on TV once it's over you're still sitting in your Lay-Z-Boy.
Q. What's been the key to make such a smooth transition in your first year at James Madison? Both you and Matt are first-year head coaches and both have done pretty well for both of you obviously. What's the key for you having JMU stay on the same track?
COACH CIGNETTI: I think for me it was the fact that I've been a head coach. This is my ninth year, and had worked through some of the issues, some of the mistakes maybe you make early on. And it was my third program, and I also had familiarity with JMU because of D-I. Obviously we played them in the last two years.
It wasn't broken, kind of like the first two programs I took over. And I had a great respect for what they had accomplished here in the past. And I had a blueprint. I had a plan. I knew what I wanted to do.
So it's all about, number one, being able to hire good people, which I was able to do because we have such good support here at the university level. And then just one day at a time, implemented the blueprint. And really started to see it come together about the middle of fall camp.
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And so I think it was a little different for the players in terms of my approach versus Coach Houston's. I think fundamentally, philosophically, maybe our beliefs are the same in terms of what we think is important to winning games. But maybe the way we practiced, went about doing things was a little bit different. But I think they really liked that because really what it ended up being for them was kind of shorter, more up-tempo practices, as opposed to longer practices, which players always like and appreciate.
I've always put a big premium, as I've learned as a head coach, to try to keep your guys healthy so they can make it to game day. So I think they were feeling better physically and feeling better about themselves. And we started to play well, consistent, and here we are.
Q. Your personality from afar seems different than Mike's as well. He's a little more fire and brimstone from the outside looking in. Was that a big deal, how the kids adjust to that?
COACH CIGNETTI: My whole thing is, first, have high standards and expectations, but treat people with trust and respect, but also demand they live up to those standards and expectations. And I've always got a reason for doing whatever I do, and we've got a plan. And I think the players, as we went on, saw how what we did made sense, what we did in the weight room with our strength and conditioning coordinator, the way we practiced, the way we approached the game. It made sense to them. So there was buy-in.
Now, I think at first, this spring it was probably a little different for them. The tempo at practice being so fast. And maybe in the past when the defense made a good play it was a lot of talking and this and that back and forth, whereas we just kind of roll like a game, you know what I mean?
Our whole thing is play one time at a time, six seconds a play, every play has a life and a history of its own. And the player -- play like it's nothing-nothing, never too high, never too low. So, when something good happens or something bad happens, you're not affected by success or failure in a negative way.
And that's how our practices are, too. They're just really fast and up tempo. A lot of plays in a short amount of time. And the thing about kind of approaching it that way is it's a process. It's like every single day just trying to put yourself in the best position to be successful (indiscernible) control the controllables.
Q. You put out a tweet earlier this fall kind of quashing the idea that you were going to look for other jobs and you became a folk hero in Harrisonburg judging by the retweets and comments and stuff. Why did you feel the need to do that? It's unusual for a coach to respond to a tweet publicly like that.
COACH CIGNETTI: I felt the need to do it because at the beginning of the season I talked to the team about three things: Being committed to the process and improvement, which means being locked in in the here and now; things that are important; eliminating noise and clutter was big also. And so I felt like we didn't need that distraction, that false distraction out there on Twitter or anywhere. We didn't need that. So I just happened to go home and was on Twitter and saw it and I responded.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about Ben DiNucci and everything that he's brought to JMU since transferring there a few years ago?
COACH CIGNETTI: Ironically Ben grew up in the same development -- I have two sisters who lived there; his mother and my sister are really good friends. I've been aware of Ben for a long time, way back in high school.
Ben has a lot of talent and savvy. He's got arm talent. He's a competitor and he's a good athlete. Last year some of the issues were turnovers, ball security, such. Philosophically, what's important to us is winning the line of scrimmage, running the football; turnover ratio being number two. And it was important that we get those things cleaned up. And we opened up the job in the spring, and we have three good quarterbacks here.
He won it in the fall. And aside from really kind of a bad turnover at West Virginia in the fourth quarter, he's done a good job protecting the ball. It's not perfect yet. Every once in a while that ball's out there a little bit too much, but his touchdown-interception ratio is really, really good. And he's played as well as any quarterback in the country this season.
Q. You were talking about Ben DiNucci. Can you reflect on Trey Lance at North Dakota State?
COACH CIGNETTI: He's an incredible player. He's their leading rusher -- 28 touchdown passes, zero interceptions. He's big -- 6'3 1/2", 225 pounds, got really good arm strength, really good accuracy. He can escape and make plays with his legs, runs a number of designed quarterback runs. And it's really sort of remarkable to see a young guy that plays with so much poise as he does.
So he's the player of the year in the conference. And he's a handful. When you start preparing for North Dakota State, that's the first guy right there.
Q. Because you're so focused on your season, but your two programs have been the best all year, were you able to pay attention to North Dakota State during the season?
COACH CIGNETTI: Yeah, a little bit I did. In fact they played Delaware early too in our conference. So I snuck a peek at that game early in the year when I had a chance.
And I've watched them a little bit over the years. Offensively I've always liked what they did offensively. But, yeah, always kind of tuned in on their scores, how they were doing in the playoffs and hoping that this day might come.
Q. Do you consider this to be a rivalry?
COACH CIGNETTI: I mean, you can call it what you want. There's the Clemson-Alabama rivalry. They've been to this game basically every year but one the last eight years, and this is JMU's third trip in the last four years. So, I think in a sense it's a rivalry, even though we don't play every year. By nature of what's happened in recent history it's become a rivalry in its own sense.
Q. You were talking about the blueprint you got with Nick Saban at Alabama. Is there a formula in how many days you take off versus how many days you practice between such a long span between the semifinal and title game?
COACH CIGNETTI: I don't know that there's really a formula, because this thing's been moved back a week. And generally even down there, when you went to bowl games, they were a little sooner than this one.
What we did was we played Weber, I believe on the 21st, and brought our players back on the 30th. So they've got about an eight-day break, which is a nice, long break. But we've practiced every day this week -- Monday. We'll get a practice in today. And we'll get three good ones in next week. And we shook the rust off a little bit on Tuesday and, I think we're kind of back in the groove now.
Q. What went into the decision to take the eight days off? Was it injuries, rest, mental? What goes into that?
COACH CIGNETTI: No, it was just sort of that balance between giving them a break and then how much do we actually want to practice and have them here. I'm a big believer in we want them to be prepared, but we want them to be fresh. And we just felt like we could get it done with a full week this week and then next week, Monday, it will be like a Tuesday. Tuesday will be like a Wednesday. Wednesday will be like a Thursday, in terms of our preparation.
And we want to get all of our quality work done up here because once we get down there there will be a lot of functions, so to speak, and really we won't get a lot done other than walk-throughs once we're down there. But we'll be ready. I feel good where we're at right now.
Q. I wanted to know since you're a first-year coach, was there a moment or event that you can remember over the last several months or however many months you've been at JMU, where you've noticed the crux of the tradition of excellence that's been built in this program over the last several years, anything that you can link back to, any wow moments?
COACH CIGNETTI: I think there's high standards and expectations here. But I knew that day one. And so when you walk into a place like this, it's like walking into Alabama. You're expected to win the conference championship. You're expected to make a deep run into the playoffs. And you just sort of felt that every single day, that based on the resources you've been given you should be kind of in that position.
And I guess maybe when -- because the team was 9-4 last year. Lost to Colgate. Lost to a three-win New Hampshire team on the road, Elon. But yet when the polls came out people had us 1 or 2.
So I didn't see us quite like that coming out of spring ball, but the polls did. But we game that kind of team through fall camp and the season.
Q. How would you kind of compare how North Dakota State uses their running backs -- they've got a couple guys that can carry the football -- to what you guys do, where you have all year used a couple different guys to carry the football?
COACH CIGNETTI: Well, they do play four running backs. We play a number of backs too. I guess the primary difference is their leading rusher is their quarterback. So the design of their offense is different than the design of our offense.
They are extremely multiple with a lot of different personnel groupings. They huddle. They'll bring big people out on the field yet shift to empty. So a lot of shifts, a lot of motions, a lot of different looks, a lot more quarterback run, quarterback-read type stuff probably than we do. More out-of-pocket passes, probably, than we do. So structurally it's a little bit different.
It's similar in that they're committed to running the ball. They rush for 288 yards a game. They play four running backs, but they'll play four tight ends, two fullbacks, a number of people. They're like that on defense, too. They'll roll two D lines the whole game.
Q. As far as how their offense prevents tackles for loss, you do a great job at making plays in the backfield, creating negative plays, why do they do such a good job at preventing those negative plays and preventing defenses from getting in the backfield?
COACH CIGNETTI: Probably because they've got good players, really, to be honest with you. They have three offensive linemen that are first team all- conference, tight end's all-conference. Their quarterback is the Player of the Year in the conference. They do a great job just blocking you, and they execute extremely well. They don't turn the ball over.
So people have a hard time penetrating. There's not a lot of sacks, because a lot of the passes are quick or out of pocket or max pro, not a lot of just "drop back hold the ball" type passes in their offense. And then when you're running downhill like they do, it's hard to get those TFLs. When they get you sucked in, they're going to run those fly sweeps and quarterback powers, where he may keep it or give it. So they do a nice job attacking the field horizontally and vertically, but they've got good players.
Q. Question on Ben DeNucci. You talked about the team in general maybe having a chip on their shoulder. How much do you think his performance in last year's playoff kind of fueled him to this season especially with the way he's protected the football?
COACH CIGNETTI: I think it was motivation for him to show what he could do and I don't think there's any doubt about that. But yet it was also sort of two different philosophies offensively in terms of kind of what we want out of the quarterback and how we play offense versus maybe what they've done in the past and emphasized. But he's a fifth-year senior with a lot of talent. And I think that he's improved immensely and his numbers show you that. He's made a number of plays with his arm and his legs. And he's playing like a veteran guy that has a lot of confidence. And he's just a really good player that has good players around him.
Q. Talk about NDSU's defense a little more. What about them makes them so successful, and in some ways are they similar to the defense that you guys have?
COACH CIGNETTI: Again, they've got really good players. The defensive end is player of the year of the conference. Linebacker was player of the year in the conference last year. Number of all-conference guys. They're very well-coached in all three phases and they're multiple on defense. They show you different looks. So you can't really focus in, okay, this is what they're going to do, this is what we're going to do. They're multiple on what they do. They have really good team speed. They cover well. They tackle well. And I think (inaudible). And they're tough.
Q. When you took the JMU job, this was something you talked about immediately was being able to get to an FCS National Championship and having a chance to win it. Obviously I know the job is not complete yet, is there a sense of satisfaction that you were right in sort of that vision and that you've been able to get it to this point when you were talking about it from the start?
COACH CIGNETTI: I can't really go there and say that right now because we've got one more obstacle and challenge that we have to overcome, and I think the team felt that way really after the Weber game and every single playoff game where we won the conference championship. We all knew what we wanted, what we were shooting for. And that's kind of what the focus is. I'm proud of the team in terms of how consistent we've been able to play up to this point. It's never been perfect. And I still think our best game is potentially out there yet.
But I think this is a program that should be playing in these kind of games. And I think really we're right where we should be.
Q. As you know, you've got six fifth-year seniors on your team who came in in 2015 and have played for now three different coaches. How hard is that -- I guess you wouldn't know how hard it was for them because you weren't here the whole time, but how hard would you expect that to be for an athlete to have to adjust to on the fly like that?
COACH CIGNETTI: I think it will probably (inaudible) in their younger years. I think the veteran guys kind of know the routine and get focused in on team success and becoming a leader helping the younger guys. I think this transition was a pretty smooth transition. However, throughout the team, based on the feedback we were getting early on and throughout the season, but I do think it's probably an advantage to have one guy for your five years here, without a doubt.
Now saying that, sometimes when there is a coaching change, guys get a second chance maybe that wouldn't have (indiscernible) on the previous staff and maybe some of that went on here.
Q. With these players, obviously many of them are, all of them are on your depth chart and many of them are starters. How important were they in this transition, do you feel?
COACH CIGNETTI: I think the thing about this team is we have great leadership. I mean, throughout our whole senior class. When you look at Ron'Dell Carter, Dimitri Holloway Rashad Robinson, Mac Patrick, (indiscernible), Mike Greene, Adam Smith, Ben DiNucci and the Stapletons, we just have so many guys that bring positive energy every day. We have a great locker room, great morale. And so this team has been a joy to coach. It's been an easy team to coach, to be quite honest with you. And I think what there is here, there's a winning culture that has been developed over the years. And these guys like to compete. They expect to compete for championships. They like to practice and they like to compete against one another.
So there's a great culture here, and I think it's a result of many people that players and coaches have been a part of this program in the past.
Q. I know when you get down there to Texas, you are going to be in preparation mode extremely, but will you try to make yourself, I don't know, enjoy the experience like step out of that preparation mode for a moment or two and just enjoy the fact that you are there and this is happening?
COACH CIGNETTI: Believe it or not, I have stepped back and enjoyed this season a number of times and during this preparation. And truthfully, our preparation for this game, the most important preparation happens up here, because once we get down there, there's a number of functions we need to attend and this and that, about maintaining everything down there. But there's no question about it. But at the end of the day there's still one more hurdle to overcome.