JMU’s Curt Cignetti, Part 1: Back Where It All Began
Two head coaches will face off at Mountaineer Field on Aug. 31, each leading their respective programs into battle for the first time.
For one, it will be his first game ever at West Virginia, new to the sights and sounds that accompany a Saturday in Morgantown.
The other has been on the sidelines for hundreds of Mountaineer games and knows well the history and tradition of WVU football.
The coach with the extensive West Virginia background will be on the visitors’ side of the field, while on the home side, new WVU coach Neal Brown will be participating in his first-ever game at Mountaineer Field.
James Madison serves as West Virginia’s 2019 season opener, which will be the first contest of the Brown era.
It’s the Dukes’ first-year coach who has as history with the Mountaineer football program that stretches back 50 years.
Curt Cignetti, who has spent 36 years in college coaching, is ready to coach his first game for James Madison.
Fate would have it that his initial contest will come against his alma mater.
But Curt is more than just a WVU alum who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from West Virginia in 1982. He’s also a former Mountaineer quarterback himself (1979-82) and the son of WVU offensive coordinator (1970-75) and head coach (1976-79) Frank Cignetti.
For 13 years, Curt lived the Mountaineer life, first as a coach’s son and then as a player. Then he started on his own career path that has taken him to 10 different coaching stops since 1983.
Now he leads his Dukes back to Morgantown.
Curt admits that when he took the James Madison job this past December, he looked at JMU’s 2019 opener with intrigue.
“It will be fun to go back; it’s been a long time since I’ve been back,” noted the 58-year-old Cignetti of the upcoming trip to Morgantown. “A lot of memories will come back for me, I’m sure. But as a coach, you do just approach it as just one game. One game doesn’t make or break a season. We have a 12-game schedule, and we play nine in a row to start the season before we have an open week. At this level, if you go all the way (to the FCS championship), you’re going to play 16 games. That’s a long season. West Virginia is the opener, but it’s just one game out of 12.”
Cignetti is bringing one of – if not THE – best FCS teams in the country this season to Mountaineer Field on Aug. 31. The Dukes were 9-4 last year, and return 20 starters from that club. The only real loss from the 2018 squad is head coach Mike Houston, who left to take over at East Carolina. Houston was 37-6 in three seasons at JMU, made the FCS playoffs each year, winning the title in 2016 and losing in the championship game in 2017. In all, James Madison has earned a spot in the FCS playoff field 15 times since 1987 and has just two losing seasons in the last 20 years.
Other than North Dakota State, which has won seven FCS titles in the past eight years, there probably isn’t a better program in the NCAA division that used to be called I-AA.
“At this level, there is not another place like this east of the Mississippi,” stated Cignetti. “It’s better than half of the Group of 5 (lower FBS programs) jobs out there. When it opened, I had a feeling this would happen, and it did. It’s been a pretty smooth transition.”
With 20 starters back, which includes quarterback Ben DiNucci, a fifth-year senior who transferred to JMU from Pitt prior to the 2018 season, the Dukes have high expectations for Cignetti’s first campaign. Most of the preseason FCS predictions have James Madison ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 heading into the 2019 campaign.
The Dukes’ head coach may be new to Harrisonburg, but he’s not a rookie. He’s not going to let his players’ heads swell before they’ve proven anything.
“We have a lot of guys back, but they lost four games last year, and that didn’t happen by accident,” said Cignetti. “It happened for a reason. We have a chance to be a pretty good team, but we just have to take it one game at a time. We’ll see where we can take it.”
Cignetti knows something about beating JMU, because he did it last year while the head coach at Elon. A fellow member of the Colonial Athletic Conference, the Phoenix came to Harrisonburg on Oct. 6 and knocked off the Dukes 27-24. Prior to that, James Madison’s only loss had been a tough 24-13 defeat at FBS North Carolina State in the season opener. JMU would lose just one more regular season game, 35-24 at New Hampshire, before falling at Colgate 23-20 in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
Elon’s win at then-No. 2 James Madison last year was one of five over ranked teams that Cignetti enjoyed in his two years at the 6,800-student private liberal arts university in North Carolina that sits about at the midpoint between Winston-Salem and Durham.
Cignetti immediately turned around a Phoenix football program that hadn’t had a winning season in the six years prior to his arrival in 2017. He led it to an 8-4 record in year one and then a 6-5 mark last season, taking Elon to the FCS playoffs each time. The school had been to the FCS postseason just once prior.
Curt was happy there, but when James Madison came calling after Houston’s departure for ECU, it was an opportunity Cignetti just couldn’t pass up.
“I really liked it at Elon. It was pretty, I liked the Carolinas, and I had a seven-year contract,” he explained. “I had turned down the Bowling Green job a couple of weeks before this one (at JMU) opened.
“This place is different,” he said of James Madison. “The growth and development here at the university level and also athletics is outstanding,” he added. “We have tremendous facilities, much like an FBS program. The thing about it is, the football program has had great success, especially recently. The last time they played Virginia Tech, they beat them (21-16 in 2010 in Blacksburg). Two years ago they went to East Carolina and beat them by 30. Last year they went to N.C. State and that went down to the wire. There is a good culture here, and there is good recruiting in this area. This program is built to win.”
JMU’s 25,000-seat Bridgeforth Stadium sits alongside picturesque Newman Lake and underwent a major $62 million renovation in 2011. An indoor practice facility was completed last year. The campus growth for the 22,000-student university also includes a new $88 million, 8,500-seat basketball arena, which is slated to be completed next spring. It will replace the 37-year-old, 6,426-seat Convocation Center.