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Monday, March 4
The Indiana Daily Student

sports football

COLUMN: Curt Cignetti wants to change Indiana football narratives. His past says he can.

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Indiana University President Pamela Whitten looked to her left and made eye contact with her newest employee, head football coach Curt Cignetti. 

Whitten leaned back, smirked and uttered seven words that resonated throughout the walls of Indiana’s team room at Memorial Stadium on Friday afternoon. 

“You were born to be a Hoosier,” Whitten said. 

Cignetti agreed, still just hours into his new job after five years at James Madison University. A Pittsburgh native, Cignetti’s prior experience at Indiana came over seven hours northeast – in Indiana, Pennsylvania, with a population of less than 14,000 people. 

The last time he was at Memorial Stadium was Sept. 9, 2000, when true freshman quarterback Philip Rivers threw a late touchdown pass to lift North Carolina State University over the Hoosiers, 41-38. Cignetti was the Wolfpack’s quarterbacks coach and developed Rivers into the No. 4 overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. 

Rivers is one of several NFL stars Cignetti’s coached. Julio Jones, a seven-time Pro Bowler, is another. Cignetti spent four years at the University of Alabama working under Nick Saban as receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. 

Indiana athletic director Scott Dolson said Cignetti’s experience under Saban was impressive and fostered an enlightening conversation. This discussion centered around all Cignetti learned from Saban, which the former said was more than he’d gathered in the previous 27 years of his coaching career. 

“Just everything from A to Z,” Cignetti said during his introductory press conference. “Monthly calendar, how to lead and manage people, how to avoid complacency, which he was so good at on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute, second-to-second count. How to practice, how to play the game, plan for winning the game, how to recruit, how to evaluate, how to staff or restaff every year.” 

As Cignetti’s chapter in Tuscaloosa ended, the next edition of his story began. 

Cignetti left Alabama to become the head coach at Indiana University-Pennsylvania. He inherited a team just removed from its worst two-year stretch in nearly 30 years, going 11-11 and just 4-10 in Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference play. 

In his first season, Cignetti led the Crimson Hawks to a 7-3 record while going 5-2 against conference foes and winning six of their last seven games. The year after, they won the PSAC and went to the NCAA Regional Finals, going 12-2. 

Over his final four years at IUP, Cignetti went 34-12 with two more NCAA playoff bids and another conference title, bringing the Crimson Hawks back to their winning standard. 

Cignetti departed Indiana University-Pennsylvania for Elon University, accepting the head coaching position in 2016 on New Year’s Eve. 

In the five years preceding Cignetti’s arrival, Elon went 12-45 and just 6-34 in the Coastal Athletic Association. The Phoenix went 14-9 in Cignetti’s two seasons at the helm, including 10-5 in the CAA, and made the FCS Playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in program history. 

While unsatisfied with the final record, Cignetti used the change in the program’s trajectory as proof his blueprint works. 

“I don't like 14-9,” Cignetti said. “That's not very good. But we know how to do it.” 

Cignetti’s second season at Elon peaked with a road victory against James Madison in Week 5, snapping the Dukes’ 22-game CAA winning streak and 19-game home winning streak, then the longest mark in the FCS. 

Between that victory and his overall body of work, Cignetti became the top candidate when James Madison head coach Mike Houston left for East Carolina University after the 2018 season. 

As it had in each of the two previous stops, success followed Cignetti, who took the Dukes from 9-4 the year before to 14-2 and FCS runner-ups in his opening act. James Madison went 19-3 and made two FCS Semifinal appearances in the spring and fall of 2021, which was altered by COVID-19. 

That’s how Cignetti’s time as an FCS coach ended. James Madison leveled up to the FBS in 2022, but its success didn’t stop. The Dukes went 8-3 in their first year at the NCAA’s highest subdivision and followed suit by going 11-1 and becoming nationally ranked this season. 

Cignetti took IUP back to its standard and elevated Elon to a new one. He kept James Madison humming and proved the quality of the program by maintaining success while navigating a change in level. 

Whitten had a simple yet loaded question for Cignetti when interviewing him earlier in the week of his hiring: what’s the secret to having a winning record every year? 

“He responded to me, ‘I wage a tenacious battle against complacency,’” Whitten said. “When you look at what he's accomplished, I think those words actually ring true.” 

*** 

Cignetti’s next challenge may be his biggest. Indiana is 9-27 in its past three seasons and just 3-24 against Big Ten opponents, leading to the firing of head coach Tom Allen. Over 20 players have entered the transfer portal and several recruits have decommitted. 

The most difficult element of rebuilding a program? 

“Changing the way people think,” Cignetti said. 

Cignetti is in the office at 5 a.m. each day. Staff meetings don’t start until 7 a.m., but he wants to be prepared and ensure everybody around him has the right mindset. Avoiding complacency is a top-down approach, Cignetti said, and it starts with him and his staff. 

The process of instilling belief is on Cignetti’s shoulders. He preaches high standards and expects accountability, commitment and work ethic in return. For this reason, Cignetti values production over potential in his recruits. He’ll look at high school transcripts, believing academic results reveal a player’s habits. 

Cignetti’s blueprint may be old school, in his words, but it’s proven successful – and it starts with the mentality he embodies. 

“It's wanting to be great versus wanting to be normal,” Cignetti said. “Normal kind of equals average. Average is okay. There's no problem with average except in my business. My business, average is the enemy, and to be great, you've got to have special focus, special commitment, special preparation, and discipline and the ability to say no to some things.” 

Stacking days is one key. Being able to compartmentalize each play and approach every snap as its own is another. Cignetti believes these traits allow teams to play free and focus on the task at hand rather than the scoreboard, creating better performance in crucial moments. 

Cignetti’s teams have frequently won close games. In his first year at Elon, the Phoenix won eight straight games, each coming down to the final play. Entering this season’s final few weeks, James Madison led the country in one-score wins with five. 

In comparison, Indiana went 2-4 in one-possession games this past year. Each of its final three contests – all losses – were decided by four points or fewer. 

“It's a way that you do things, and it's a mindset,” Cignetti said. 

Cignetti learned this mindset from Saban, who’s won seven college football national championships. While Indiana’s newest coach is still chasing that level of success, he’s routinely led strong, well-rounded programs. 

The 62-year-old Cignetti noted each of his past four quarterbacks have won Conference Player of the Year. At James Madison, his offenses led the conference in scoring each season. Defensively, the Dukes had the best run defense in college football, allowing 61.5 rushing yards per game, and finished tied for third in sacks with 45. 

Many assistants from Cignetti’s staff at James Madison have followed him to Bloomington, including offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, defensive coordinator Bryant Haines and quarterbacks coach Tino Sunseri. 

Cignetti acknowledged other teams in the Big Ten may have more resources, whether it be recruiting or NIL costs, but it won’t be detrimental to what he’s trying to build, because he’s focused on finding players with the right mental makeup rather than the biggest price tags. 

Stars have never mattered to Cignetti in recruiting; he trusts the work he and his staff do in the film room, and the on-field results endorse it. 

Success has been synonymous with Cignetti at each stop, and Dolson believes that trend will continue in Bloomington due to the experience, evaluation skills, developmental track record and recruiting his new coach provides. 

What defines success in 2024? Cignetti hasn’t thought that far ahead – but he aspires to build a team that listens to coaching, applies it, commits to the program and follows the process-oriented approach the staff will implement. 

If the Hoosiers do that, Cignetti believes they’ll be just fine, and his past success proves he’s more than all-talk. 

Dolson said he thinks Indiana’s a sleeping giant; he told Cignetti as such in their interviews. The latter bought in, and the former made it happen. Now, it’s time for Cignetti to prove Dolson right – and take the Hoosiers to new heights. 

“This is a tremendous institution that its time has come to make some noise and make a statement,” Cignetti said. “And we're going to work every day to make that happen.” 

Follow reporters Matt Press (@MattPress23) and Dalton James (@DaltonMJames) and columnist Daniel Flick (@ByDanielFlick) for updates throughout the Indiana football season. 

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