Freshly hired and just starting to grasp the route from his hotel to Bridgeforth Stadium, Curt Cignetti walked up to the podium in the club suite to address both the media and JMU Nation on Dec. 17 for the first time as the new head football coach.
“You want me to play it safe today or let it rip?” Cignetti asked. “’Sup Charlie? I haven’t heard from you this morning.”
“Day’s young,” Charlie King, senior vice president of administration and finance at JMU and one of the administrators who hired Cignetti, quipped back.
The quick exchange between employer and employee allowed those who made their way to the stadium to catch a glimpse of the personality Cignetti carries. It was also made evident during his first few minutes at the podium that Cignetti is eager to bring a JMU team that fell short of preseason expectations back to the top of the FCS.
While often boasted as the best job in the FCS by those connected to the program, JMU has room to improve in Cignetti’s eyes. To the Pennsylvania native, JMU is the best FCS job east of the Mississippi and among the top two or three in the nation.
“Words can’t express how excited and grateful I am to have this opportunity to lead this program,” Cignetti said. “I heard Jeff [Bourne] say it was the best in America and I think that’s why I’m standing here. I have to make it the best in America because, right now, it’s not the best in America based on our four losses last year.”
The former Elon head coach is taking over a program that sailed to new heights under previous leader Mike Houston during his three seasons in Harrisonburg. Even with an early exit from the 2018 playoffs, two national championship appearances set a high standard for Cignetti to meet. After crossing off the numerous names of possible replacements, JMU didn’t have a hard time choosing Cignetti.
“You don’t have to look much further than Curt’s resume to see he checks all the boxes,” JMU Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne said. “He’s been a head coach for eight years, five playoff appearances in those eight years and a winning season every year, even though the programs where he may have come did not have those kinds of records.”
Cignetti’s life hasn’t only revolved around football during his 36-year coaching career. Raised by Frank Cignetti Sr. — whose name was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013 — Curt has lived the game his whole life.
Curt’s father walked the sidelines of multiple high schools and colleges for 45 years, collecting a career record of 231-86-1. While he never coached with his father — Curt did coach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania like Frank did — and only spent one year playing for him, Curt learned not only about football from his dad, but about life as well.
“He’s such a great role model,” Curt said. “People need role models in life. Let’s face it, there’s not enough.”
To this day, 82-year-old Frank Sr. still makes time to work out two hours a day and watch his sons Curt and Frank Cignetti Jr. — who has coached for three NFL teams — coach every weekend. Throughout his own coaching career, Curt has come to expect a phone call from his dad after every game. The only catch: Curt answers that call only about a third of the time.
Similar to his own life, Curt raised his family in a football household. With three kids — now all adults — the Cignetti residence was often buzzing with different sports practices. Having a father who switched jobs multiple times throughout their childhood led to new homes, schools and friends. However, Curt’s daughters Carly and Natalie appreciated all the different places they encountered.
“You put your roots in a place and you make your friends and you start your life and then all of a sudden, dad says, ‘Hey, guess what? We’re going to go again,’” Curt’s youngest daughter Natalie told Curt Dudley of JMU Athletics. “[Moving] is always hard at first, but reflecting on it now, it was really an incredible experience.”
With their home base now in Harrisonburg, Curt’s daughters are excited to see what their dad can do at the school the family has tabbed “the Alabama of the FCS.” While they’ve yet to experience a season supporting the purple and gold, there are still memories they hold from watching JMU play Elon.
“Do you want to know what I knew about JMU?” Natalie jokingly asked Dudley. “I knew about the streamers they threw at us when we were at Elon.”
It hasn’t just been Curt’s dad who has left a major impact on his life and coaching career. Prior to becoming a head coach himself, Curt worked with football legends Nick Saban at Alabama and Johnny Majors at Pittsburgh.
During his time at FBS-powerhouse Alabama, Curt recruited players who went on to have successful NFL careers like Julio Jones, Mark Ingram and Dont’a Hightower. While recruiting big names to an Alabama team that hadn’t seen an SEC title since 1999 prior to Saban’s arrival, Curt was learning what it took to build a football program from one of the game’s best coaches.
“I learned how to run a program and compartmentalize and how important recruiting and development was,” Curt said. “[I learned] what to look for in people, and how to develop a football team, and how to manage a football game, and how to make decisions, when to make decisions, what decisions are important [and] what decisions are not important.”
After just one season with Saban, Curt felt he was ready to move on and lead a program himself. However, he remained with the team for three more years. Following those few extra seasons, Curt took what he learned from Saban and went to IUP.
“Alabama had a great name and Coach Saban — who I learned a lot from — had some experience,” Curt said. “But he became Nick Saban and they became Alabama again when they got the right guy and the right place together.”
The lessons from Saban and his father have helped Curt turn the programs he led into winning ones. In his eight years as a head coach, Curt has amassed a career record of 67-26 and earned five playoff berths.
While the record speaks for itself, that’s not all Curt wants to be known for both now and when his career comes to a close. To him, what’s more important is the kind of man he is.
“At the end of the day, people will remember how many games I won, how many championships we won,” Curt said. “That’s what will live on the internet, that’s what will be in black and white ... But the people you meet, the relationships that you develop, they’re going to remember, ‘Who was Curt Cignetti? What did he stand for? What were his ideals and values?’ and it’s important to me to be the best person that I can be.”
After being bounced from the playoffs in the second round, the JMU faithful are ready for the 2019 season to get underway. With just under seven months until the Dukes kick off against Curt’s alma mater West Virginia, his expectations are high.
“There’s only one James Madison — there’s only one,” Curt said. “There’s tremendous resources here and I think with the right plan, vision and blueprint, the sky is the limit.”
As his formal introduction came to a close and he got ready to answer questions from the media, Curt closed his formal greeting much to the way he started it.
“I’m just ready to go,” Curt said. “So, did I play it safe or let it all hang out?”
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.
CORRECTION (11:15 p.m.): A previous version of this article had a quote attributed to Curt Cignetti's daughter Carly, but it was said by his daughter Natalie.