Hoosiers hire JMU’s Cignetti as football coach

FILE - James Madison head coach Curt Cignetti watches from the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Norfolk State in Harrisonburg, Va., Saturday, Sep. 10, 2022. The Indiana Hoosiers are finalizing a deal to hire Curt Cignetti as their new football coach, two people with direct knowledge of the decision have told The Associated Press. (Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record via AP, File)

Curt Cignetti learned the coaching profession from his College Football Hall of Fame father.

Now, like his father, he’s about to get his chance on the big stage.

The Indiana Hoosiers have hired Curt Cignetti as their new coach, school officials announced Thursday. Shortly after the announcement, James Madison officials said Cignetti had resigned.

“I am excited to lead this program forward and change the culture, mindset, and expectation level of Hoosier football,” Cignetti said in a statement. “I want to thank director of athletics Scott Dolson and President Pam Whitten, and I look forward to working with both in building something special at IU. Both share my vision and belief that big things are ahead for the IU program.”

Cignetti spent the past five seasons at James Madison, where he presided over an FCS powerhouse and then over one of the most successful transitions to FBS in NCAA history.

There, he went 52-9, winning three Colonial Athletic Association conference titles at the FCS level before leading No. 24 James Madison (11-1, 7-1 Sun Belt) to East Division crowns in each of its first two seasons in the new conference. The Dukes are not eligible to play in Saturday’s league championship game but will be bowl eligible.

While Cignetti’s experience has been primarily on the offensive side — working with quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends — James Madison’s calling card lately has been a stout defense. The Dukes have allowed just 4.9 yards per play this season (No. 18) and he has two defensive linemen ranked among the top 10 nationally.

What the Hoosiers are getting in the 62-year-old Cignetti is an experienced head coach who was considered one of the hottest names in this year’s coaching ranks. Indiana hired first-time college coaches with each of its last two choices — Tom Allen and Kevin Wilson.

Allen was fired Sunday after seven full seasons. He was 9-27 overall and 3-24 in league play during the three seasons since Indiana finished 6-2 in 2020. Since then the college football landscape has changed dramatically with the introduction of name, images and likeness deals as well as the popularity of the transfer portal.

“We had a very talented and deep pool of candidates, and Curt stood out thanks to an incredible track record of success over more than four decades in college football,” Dolson said. “As a head coach he’s succeeded everywhere he’s been, and as an assistant he has been a part of championship cultures while working alongside some of the game’s best coaches.”

Like Allen, Cignetti learned the game from his father.

Frank Cignetti Sr. won nearly 200 career games before being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013. He went 17-27 in four seasons at West Virginia from 1976-79, battling cancer during his final season. Then in 1986, he took the reins at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he had been the athletic director since 1982, and finished his career there in 2005. He went 182-50-1 at IUP.

Not surprisingly, there were many similarities between the Cignettis careers.

Both had short tenures as assistants at Pittsburgh and the younger Cignetti also played quarterback at West Virginia.

Both also spent more than a decade climbing the assistant coaching ranks before landing a head coaching job, and now Curt Cignetti, like his father, has landed a job at a Power Five school.

But while the elder Cignetti spent most of his career at smaller schools, the younger Cignetti took a different career trek, primarily working at Division I schools.

Curt Cignetti started his career as a grad assistant on Foge Fazio’s staff at Pittsburgh, coached receivers at Davidson, quarterbacks at Rice, Temple and during a second stint at Pitt. He also was quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator at North Carolina State from 2000-06 and served as Alabama’s recruiting coordinator-receivers coach from 2007-10.

Then, the younger Cignetti took the head coaching job at IUP and went 108-34 in 12 seasons, making three playoff appearances. Then it was off to Elon, where he was 14-9 and led the school to playoff appearances in each of his first two seasons. In 2019, he left for James Madison, where he took the Dukes to three straight playoff appearances and a national runner-up finish in 2019 before making the jump to FBS in 2022.

Indiana lost all three of its bowl games under Allen and played its best football in 2023 over the final five games after two second-year players, quarterback Brendan Sorsby and running back Trent Howland, emerged as the starters.

Cignetti was the 2017 CAA coach of the year and finished in the top six in balloting for the Eddie Robinson Award, which is presented to the nation’s top FCS coach.