HARRISONBURG — Morgantown, W.Va., is where Curt Cignetti fell in love with college football.
It’s also where he’ll patrol the sidelines for the first time as James Madison’s coach when the Dukes meet West Virginia in their opener at Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday.
“Won’t be any different in terms of how I’ll prepare and how I feel,” Cignetti said. “What’ll be a little different for me is running out there in Morgantown, a place where I grew up and haven’t been back in really a long, long time.”
The last time he was there was 1999.
Twenty years ago, Cignetti was the quarterbacks and tight ends coach for Pittsburgh, and at that time — before conference realignment altered the rivalry — the Panthers and Mountaineers squared off annually in the Backyard Brawl. Don Nehlen was the coach at West Virginia then, nearing the end of a two-decade run that began when Cignetti, who spent the majority of his life aligned on the Mountain-state of the rivalry, was still in school at WVU and still a quarterback on the roster his father left behind.
Frank Cignetti Sr. was promoted from within to coach the Mountaineers in 1976 after Bobby Bowden, the man who brought Cignetti Sr. to the town that sits on the Monongahela River, left to coach at Florida State.
“When we went there, I was in third grade,” Cignetti said. “I went to three third grades. We were at Princeton and my dad actually called the moving vans and told them not to come. Bobby Bowden had gotten the West Virginia job and offered my dad a job, and [Cignetti Sr.] couldn’t decide whether or not to take it, so he called them up and said, ‘don’t come.’ And they said, ‘too late buddy, they’re on their way.’”
Cignetti said as his dad settled in at West Virginia, he stayed with his grandparents in Pennsylvania before getting to Morgantown in time for the 1970 football season.
“Back then West Virginia played a lot different schedule than they do now,” Cignetti said “But [Bowden] had taken over for Jim Carlen and our first three games were, and I’ll never forget, but it was William & Mary, VMI and Richmond all in Morgantown. We won all those games like 49-0, 49-7, 45-7 and that really lit my fire on football and coaching.”
For it being almost 50 years later, Cignetti’s memories are spot on, too. He was only a few points off on the final scores of those first three games. West Virginia beat William & Mary 43-7, VMI 49-10 and Richmond 47-10.
Bowden allowed Cignetti Sr. to have his young and enthusiastic son around most of the time. Cignetti said he had access to the sidelines and locker room on Saturdays in the fall and traveled with the Mountaineers.
He watched how his dad, Bowden and the rest of the staff operated. He had a front-row seat to the highs and lows of the profession and learned what it took to win.
“So, West Virginia goes to the Peach Bowl in ’72, loses to Lou Holtz (the then first-year coach at N.C. State) really bad, 49-13,” Cignetti said. “And Coach Bowden caught a lot of flack.”
Cignetti pointed out to earn a bowl berth was an accomplishment then considering only 11 bowl games existed that season. Last year, 39 bowl games plus the College Football Playoff championship game were played to conclude the 2018 FBS season.
“So [WVU] opened at Maryland the next year and Maryland was a very formidable team at the time,” Cignetti said. “West Virginia took a 6-0 lead at halftime and visiting locker room was extremely small. I was always on the sideline and would go in the locker room at halftime.
“And everyone knows about Coach Bowden and his outstanding reputation, but back then he was still making a name for himself as a head coach, so I think the all emotions of the offseason had built up on him and he exploded at halftime, very uncharacteristically. He may have thrown a few choice words out there — I remember them, but won’t repeat them — in that locker room and was very dramatic. And then all of a sudden, he pointed to me in the corner and said, 'Don’t you tell your mother I talk this way.' And I’ll never forget that. But I was a kid and it’s things that stick with you.”
West Virginia went onto beat the Terrapins 20-13 in that season opener.
Over the six seasons he was there, Bowden led West Virginia to 42 wins before putting together a legendary run at Florida State. Cignetti Sr. lasted four years at the helm of the Mountaineers, compiling a 17-27 mark.
But even Nehlen, who replaced Cignetti Sr., has since said that Cignetti Sr. didn’t get the same commitment from the university that Nehlen got in the following years.
Despite his dad’s ousting, Cignetti remained on the team. He said the group of quarterbacks West Virginia had was terrific. Oliver Luck and Jeff Hostetler were his teammates.
“Luck was a great leader,” Cignetti said. “He was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholar, part of the NCAA and ran a couple of professional leagues. Then Jeff Hostetler transferred in from Penn State. Of course, he won a Super Bowl as a quarterback and played in the NFL a long time. They were both great people.”
Cignetti Sr.’s College Football Hall of Fame résumé came together later on, building Indiana University of Pennsylvania into a Division II power. Over the course of his head-coaching career, he went 199-77-1 with 13 D-II postseason appearances.
Cignetti said one of the reasons he took the job at JMU this past offseason was because he believes he can replicate his dad’s success. Between his six-year stint at IUP and two-year run at Elon, Cignetti is 67-19 as a head coach.
“I turned down some jobs that maybe paid more,” Cignetti said. “But this job is built to win and in this business it’s all about winning. My dad won a lot of games and I want to win more games than he did. And I’ve got a long way to go.”