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Thursday, April 18
The Indiana Daily Student

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‘I expect us to be really good’: How Curt Cignetti rebuilt Indiana football’s roster

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Curt Cignetti was in third grade when he knew he wanted to be a football coach. 

Cignetti, then just 9 years old, watched as his dad, Frank Sr., became an assistant coach under Bobby Bowden at West Virginia University. 

He frequented the Mountaineers’ sideline and listened closely to the halftime speeches given by Bowden, who was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. 

Now 62 years old, Cignetti’s ready for his most prominent job yet — turning around Indiana’s football program. 

Hired Nov. 30 after five years as head coach at James Madison University, Cignetti now lives in a university-provided house a few blocks from downtown Bloomington. He said he didn’t see the town in daylight during his first three weeks. 

“I leave in the dark, I get home in the dark,” Cignetti said at a press conference Dec. 20. “It's been a lot of 4:30, 5 a.m. mornings till 10:30, 11:30 at night. Was even in the office at 12:30 one night. Haven't done that since 1986, but it was crunch time. It had to be done.” 

Cignetti described his start as Indiana’s new head coach as 20 days of 4th and 1, emphasizing the importance of reconstructing a roster that lost over two dozen players to the transfer portal and several staples to graduation. 

Dec. 20 marked the early period for National Signing Day, with the Hoosiers bringing in 31 players then and seven others in the days thereafter. Some, like junior receiver Donaven McCulley and redshirt sophomore running back Trent Howland, withdrew from the portal, while 10 others followed Cignetti from James Madison. 

Toss in a handful of transfers from other schools and 16 high school signees, and Cignetti’s late nights and early mornings culminated in a filled-out Hoosiers roster. 

This was a critical stretch for Indiana’s 2024 season, Cignetti said, but his sleep-deprived ways aren’t necessarily a product of desperation. 

Instead, it was about starting his tenure with the right habits in place, setting the stage to help the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, native build a legacy in Bloomington. 

“What drives me is winning, but we win the right way,” Cignetti said. “I think I'm one of the top winningest active coaches in college football. I think I'm in the top seven. I don't plan on that changing here at Indiana.”

Cignetti boasts a career record of 119-35 as head coach, including a 52-9 record at James Madison. Over the past two years, the Dukes went 19-4 under Cignetti’s guide while leveling up from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. 

A proven program builder in prior stops at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Elon University, Cignetti’s been entrusted to do similar things for the Hoosiers — and he’s already grabbed several wins in his two months on the job. 

McCulley, an All-Big Ten honorable mention who led the Hoosiers in receiving last season with 48 catches for 644 yards and six touchdowns, was expected to go to Florida State University, Cignetti said. 

Instead, a few hours after Indiana landed the commitment of Ohio University transfer quarterback Kurtis Rourke, the 2022 Mid-American Conference Offensive Player of the Year, McCulley called Cignetti with a message: he’s back. 

“That was a great day,” Cignetti said. “I truly was not expecting that, but I think a lot of the guys that went in the portal, they all feel the excitement, and they all believe what's going to happen here.” 

In one afternoon, Cignetti landed his presumptive starting quarterback and No. 1 receiver. He continued attacking the transfer portal, creating the nation’s 20th-best class of newcomers, per 247sports

Cignetti pulled several of James Madison’s most impactful players on both sides of the ball. 

Offensively, Indiana signed the Dukes’ leading receiver in Elijah Sarratt, top-two leading rushers in Ty Son Lawton and Kaelon Black, first-team all-Sun Belt tight end Zach Horton and a pair of starting offensive linemen in Nick Kidwell and Tyler Stephens. 

As for the defense, the Hoosiers snagged James Madison’s third-and fourth-leading sack artists in defensive tackle Zach Carpenter and outside linebacker Mikail Kamara and its top-two tacklers in linebackers Aiden Fisher and Jailin Walker.

Each of these players, apart from Kidwell, who missed all but four games with an injury, received all-Sun Belt honors. 

So did two of the Hoosiers’ other additions, Old Dominion University transfer safeties in Shawn Asbury II and Terry Jones. Linebacker Jayden McDonald, who transferred to Indiana from Troy University, ranked top-30 in the conference with 70 tackles. 

The top of Indiana’s new-look roster is heavily comprised of Sun Belt transfers. Some may look at the level and scoff, instead preferring Power Five Conference transfers with proven skill sets at the highest level. Cignetti isn’t one of them. 

“At JMU, our best transfers were the ones from St. Francis, all these FCS schools,” Cignetti said. “My worst transfers at James Madison were Power Five guys.” 

Cignetti used two examples – quarterbacks Todd Centeio and Jordan McCloud. Centeio transferred to James Madison from Colorado State University, while McCloud ventured to Harrisonburg, Virginia, from the University of Arizona by way of the University of South Florida. 

Centeio and McCloud were unsuccessful on both individual and team levels. In 2022, Centeio won Sun Belt Player of the Year under Cignetti’s guidance. The year after, McCloud did the same. The Dukes lost only four regular season games in that span. 

His track record of development and success is partially why Cignetti said quarterbacks are attracted to Indiana. It’s also why, on a broader scale, so many former Dukes wanted to follow Cignetti and his staff to Bloomington. 

“I didn't have to sell them,” Cignetti said. “They believe that they're going to win. They think like champions. They believe in the coaches. They believe in the program. They believe they're going to step on foot and make a difference. Guess what? I believe that too.” 

The Hoosiers added their fair share of Power Five transfers, including University of Wisconsin offensive lineman Trey Wedig, Wake Forest University receiver Ke’Shawn Williams and running back Justice Ellison, University of North Carolina running back Elijah Green and Texas Tech receiver Myles Price. 

Indiana also netted one of Rourke’s top targets from Ohio in receiver Miles Cross, who caught 47 passes for 617 yards and five touchdowns this past season. 

The 22-man transfer class features 13 players on offense, seven on defense and two on special teams. Of the group, only three saw their teams not make bowl games. 

Cignetti said at his introductory press conference Dec. 1 he wants proven production, not potential — and he believes he added players who fit that bill. 

“We're bringing a bunch of really good football players in here that are used to being successful from all different schools (and) adding them to the guys that we have retained to create a new roster,” Cignetti said. “There will be a new culture, identity and expectation level in the way we play the game.” 

Indiana went 3-9 in 2023 and is just 9-27 in the past three seasons. Cignetti said his biggest challenge is changing the way people think, be it fans who are programmed to feel negativity or players who’ve succumbed to it. 

The Hoosiers have only three winning seasons in the last 29 years. Cignetti’s yet to have a losing record in his 13 seasons as a head coach. 

All he knows is winning, dating back to watching Bowden on the sidelines in the early 1970s. Most of his new additions are wired similarly, eyeing the continuation of strong individual and team success from their last stop to Bloomington. 

Cignetti said he believes the Hoosiers now have the right guys both on and off the bus. This group can change the complexion of Indiana football, he said. 

For now, it’s just a dream — but Cignetti’s been too focused on putting words into action for anything sleep-related. Simply put, Cignetti believes this is the program’s new reality — and he’s ready to see the results ensue next season. 

“We'll see how great we are in the fall,” Cignetti said. “I guess we win a lot of games at JMU so we're great coaches. At the end of the year, we'll see how great we are, but I expect us to be really good.” 

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

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