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A Season-Opening Homecoming for James Madison Head Coach Curt Cignetti

The Cignetti name carries a lot of weight at West Virginia University but the focus will be on winning a football game on Saturday for Curt.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Elon at Toledo Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A Cignetti man will prowl the sidelines in Morgantown again for the Mountaineer season opener this Saturday for the first time in 40 years. This time, it’s for the opponent.

Curt Cignetti is in his first year as head football coach for James Madison University. He will make his debut for the Dukes in Morgantown against West Virginia, where he played from 1979-1982, and where his father coached as well.

“When I was announced as a head coach and looked at the schedule and saw the opener, that definitely caught my eye,” said the 1982 graduate and former backup quarterback.

The last name will bring back conflicting emotions for WVU football fans. Curt’s father, Frank Cignetti Sr., was the last coach of the “Dark Ages” of Mountaineer Football and owns the second-worst win percentage of any WVU head football coach. Though his teams were lackluster and never managed a winning season, Frank is often credited for paving the way for Nehlen’s success by warming up the university to the idea of a new stadium (among other initiatives).

“Obviously have a lot of great memories (in West Virginia),” said Curt during his weekly press conference. “We moved there as a family in 1970, and I was in third grade.”

But for Curt, this isn’t meant to be a nice vacation back to his childhood home. He said, “Come Saturday, when we walk into that stadium, you’ve got a job to do. It’s all business.”

Curt came into the WVU program during his father’s last season in charge but stayed on through the first seasons of Don Nehlen’s program-changing tenure. It’s probably a nice consolation for Frank that his son was on the team that opened the new stadium that he championed during his time.

“I remember him going through the state politicking to get that thing built,” Curt on a teleconference. “I think he left the program with a really good foundation for success.”

Yes, Frank wasn’t very successful as the head coach of the Mountaineers, but maybe he was the perfect man to finish laying the groundwork for the modern era of the program. He not only helped raise money and support for the new stadium, but he also navigated a tougher schedule.

In each of his four seasons, Frank’s teams played Syracuse, Maryland, Virginia Tech, Penn State and Pitt—all teams that any Mountaineer would consider hated rivals. His teams also played Kentucky (1976, 1977 and 1979), Oklahoma (1978), N.C. State (1978 and 1979), Colorado State (1978) and Arizona State (1979). Unfortunately, he was a combined 5-21 against those teams.

One of the unknown secrets to the Cignetti era was that Nick Saban and Rick Trickett served on his staff. Saban was a defensive backs coach in 1978 and Trickett was a line coach from 1976-1979.

“I enjoyed every day I had at West Virginia and my family, to this day, that was their favorite place,” said Frank on WV MetroNews Sportsline this week. “My children felt they had a great childhood there; they loved West Virginia.”

Frank took about six years off after his WVU stint before taking the head job at Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania, where he coached for 20 seasons. His success was immediate and sustained, compiling a 182–50–1 record, 14 division titles, two conference titles and two national championship game appearances. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013.

Both of Frank’s sons, Curt and Frank, Jr., are football coaches; however, the Hall-of-Famer wasn’t too fond of his sons sharing his profession.

“I did try to keep them out (of coaching football),” said Frank. “When they made the decision to go that way, I said, ‘Well, you better have a passion for it.’”

After graduating, Curt took a graduate assistant job with the rival Pittsburgh Panthers in 1983. He bounced around college jobs, mostly as a quarterbacks or receivers coach, before landing his first head-coaching job with IUP in 2011. Following in his father’s footsteps, Curt led the program to a 53-17 record in his six seasons in charge, making three FCS playoff appearances.

Curt moved to Elon in 2017, coaching two seasons in North Carolina. He turned around the Phoenix football program, which only won 24 games from 2010-2016. Frank won 14 games in two seasons, making two FCS playoff appearances.

Now, Curt takes over one of the premier football programs at the FCS level at this time. JMU has won two championships this century, in 2004 and 2016; the Dukes have also won seven conference championships. He takes over for Mike Houston, who moved to East Carolina.

His walk into Mountaineer Field will be his first since 1999, when he was a coach at Pitt.