[Discussion] Thoughts on Curt Cignetti becoming IU's next football coach
Indiana's football coaching search has ended with Curt Cignetti of James Madison being named head coach. What are your thoughts on his hire?
Update: It’s official.
So I changed the headline to remove the word “potentially.” :-)
Ever since Indiana announced it would be moving on from Tom Allen, I’ve been pretty adamant about the primary criteria I’m looking for in a new coach: winning experience at the Power 5 level.
This is Indiana, so I didn’t expect an endless list of candidates with such bullets on their resume, but a couple emerged pretty quickly: Tom Herman and Paul Chryst.
Each has been a head coach at a Power 5 school, and each compiled an excellent record (relative to Indiana expectations), in their Power 5 stops. They immediately jumped to the top of my list — though I quickly soured on Chryst given the history of ex-Wisconsin coaches (see: Bret Beilema) not being able to recreate their Madison success elsewhere.
Given how far Indiana has fallen the last three seasons, and how unserious and unorganized our football operation has felt, it seemed important to minimize the amount of “learning on the job” that would need to be done.
We need to get back to serious, competitive football ASAP.
So what about Curt Cignetti?
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By all accounts, he is the name at the top of Indiana’s list.
Nothing is official as of me typing this on Thursday morning, but it sure feels like it’s trending that way.
Football Scoop published this piece on Wednesday night, saying Cignetti “has emerged as a top target at Indiana University.” This matches everything I’m hearing, and that Zach Osterman stated in his latest Hot Board.
The amount of smoke around Cignetti’s name compelled me to dive in and do a little research. I’ll share a bit about what I’ve learned, my thoughts on the potential hire, and then open it up for discussion.
First, I’ll direct you to this appearance Cignetti made on The Pat McAfee Show.
My takeaway from the video is Cignetti’s general disposition — his attitude, his confidence, his command of his domain — would be a great fit at a school like Indiana. We probably need a football coach with a little bit of irrational confidence and an ability, like Mike Woodson has, to subtly but authoritatively put fans in their place.
I also enjoyed this appearance he made on the FCS Coaches Show. I’ve embedded the audio here:
You get a sense of his background and coaching philosophy, and, again, a sense of earned belief in his way of doing things that reminds me a bit of Bill Mallory. (And if you know me, you know that’s not a comparison I toss around lightly.)
So, from a personality standpoint, at least based on what can be gleaned from a couple of media appearances, I like him. I can see why JMU fans love him.
He’s a coach’s coach, and he has the kind of calm, self-assured, commanding presence that IU fans respond well to — assuming he’s able to come in and put a competent football product on the field.
Which, ultimately, is all that matters.
What can we glean from his coaching history to suggest he can turn around IU football?
He doesn’t fit my criteria of having Power 5 head coaching experience, but he has coached at the Power 5 level.
He was at NC State under Chuck Amato, where he coached Phillip Rivers and helped recruit (and retain) Russell Wilson.
He also coached the wide receivers at Alabama, where he had talents like Julio Jones. He recruited high profile players like Mark Ingram and Dont’a Hightower.
It’s not head coaching experience, but it matters. Power 5 football won’t be a culture shock to him, like it could be for a coach whose never even had a cup of coffee at that level.
And if you’re not going to bring Power 5 head coaching experience to the table, my expectation is that a reasonable candidate would have won big at his other head coaching jobs at smaller schools. Cignetti certainly has done that.
His took IU (Pennsylvania) from a 4-10 conference record the two years before his arrival to a 33-11 record across six seasons and three appearances in the Division II playoffs.
He took Elon from a 4-20 conference record and six straight losing seasons to a 10-5 conference record and consecutive appearances in the FCS playoffs in two seasons.
Then he took over at James Madison (a monster at its level in terms of facilities and support), immediately improving their record by seven games in his first season. He ultimately compiled a 31-4 conference record across give seasons, an FCS championship, and helped JMU successfully transition to the FBS, where he immediately won two straight Sun Belt conference championships.
That’s an impressive resume.
What I like most about it is the fact that he has won — and won big — at three different places. That suggests he has a system and philosophy that works; he wasn’t just capitalizing on winning at places that usually win (like a Chryst at Wisconsin or even a Jason Candle at Toledo).
To get a flavor for how Cignetti’s teams play, here are a couple of condensed highlight videos a friend shared with me recently that you may find interesting:
If you want an interesting comp for Cignetti, look at Kalen DeBoer. (This came up in a text exchange I had withlast night, so credit to him for introducing the comp.)
Prior to taking over at Washington and immediately going 23-2 in two seasons, DeBoer coached at two smaller schools (NAIA Sioux Falls and Mountain West Fresno State) and went a combined 79-9 in those two stops, with some Power 5 assistant work mixed in.
So no, DeBoer didn’t have Power 5 head coaching experience, but the fact that he’d won big at multiple other schools suggested there was something about his way of doing things that could potentially transfer anywhere, including up a level. (Getting a supremely talented Heisman-level quarterback to follow him to Washington also didn’t hurt!)
The bottom line is I think there is a lot to like about Cignetti, but also still a lot we don’t know that will factor into his ultimate success or failure.
Will he be bringing his entire staff with him? (His young offensive coordinator is highly regarded.)
Will he be able to recruit at the Power 5 level and does he fully embrace NIL?
Will he be able to develop the recruiting contacts he needs in the Midwest, despite never coaching in this region of the country?
And on and on.
I’m not going to be a hypocrite and just dismiss my initial desire for someone with a more demonstrated track of record of success at this level. There is a certain assumed reduction in risk knowing a guy has done it before, even if the variables of the IU job make it much different than a Wisconsin or a Texas.
So I’d certainly feel better if Cignetti had that somewhere on his resume.
But in the absence of that kind of experience, Cignetti seems to have everything else you’d want in a coach for Indiana. I’m finding it hard to poke holes in his candidacy and not get viscerally excited to see what he could do at IU.
Last thing: no, I’m not worried about his age.
Cignetti is 62. Even if you tell me he’s only coaching for five more seasons (and he apparently has plans to coach much longer than that), I don’t care. If he’s the best guy to turn this program around quickly, hire him. We can figure out a replacement when the time comes.
Indiana football can’t afford to have anything more than a 3-4 year time horizon for this hire. We have to get back to playing serious, competitive football now. Things are moving too fast and the stakes are too high.
Okay, so that gives you a general sense of how I feel about it. Now I’m curious how you feel.
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Best of luck to Scott Dolson as he winds down this search and charts the future course for Indiana football!