With familiar name at helm, IUP football is back

Bob Cohn
| Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 5:12 p.m.

When informed he might have a better chance of winning a national championship than his former boss, Curt Cignetti chuckled slightly and said, “I don't know about that.”

But it's true. In his second year as head football coach at Indiana (Pa.), Cignetti has guided the Crimson Hawks to the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time since 2007. The future is theirs to control. Alabama and coach Nick Saban, on the other hand, need a lot of help to get back into the FBS title picture after Saturday's upset loss to Texas A&M.

Before coming to IUP in 2011, Cignetti worked four years for Saban as recruiting coordinator and receivers coach. He has modeled much of his own program after Alabama's. But it's all about the present. IUP, which is 10-1 and seeded third in its region, hosts sixth-seeded Shepherd in a first-round game Saturday at George P. Miller Stadium.

“Curt is an absolute master at staying focused on the task at hand,” said IUP athletic director Frank Condino.

Cignetti even backed off from dwelling on the multiple significance of last week's win over Shippensburg, which not only clinched a playoff berth and home-field advantage but also captured the school's first PSAC championship since 1987. The coach back then was Cignetti's father, Frank, who put the program on the map during a 20-year career that ended in 2006 after 182 wins.

“This is not a time to reflect on what we've done,” Curt Cignetti said. “We have to build on that.”

Cignetti, 51, replaced Lou Tepper, whose last two teams went 11-11. Several key players remain from the Tepper days, but there was little depth or confidence. Attendance and interest had waned. Cignetti's father, who lives in Indiana, advised him not to take the job, citing budget problems and the uncertainty of an interim president. As coaches have come to learn, the elder Cignetti said, “the president is the key to your success,” or at least your longevity.

Hungry to be a head coach after a well-traveled career as a college assistant (which included two stops at Pitt), Curt Cignetti embraced the challenge. His football bloodlines also include a brother, Frank Jr., a longtime pro and NFL assistant who is quarterbacks coach for the St. Louis Rams.

Condino said he naturally expected good things from his new coach, “but I didn't expect us to have such a good year so soon.”

Cignetti said, “When I took the job, it was in a little bit worse shape than I anticipated, and I was concerned about fielding a team in Year 1. The first thing we had to change was the identity of the team. They had gotten soft.”

The Crimson Hawks went 7-3 in Cignetti's first season, reshaping their persona in the process. Soft? This year's model — a mixture of Tepper holdovers, Cignetti's recruits and transfers from such FBS programs as Penn State, Pitt and Kentucky — features a punishing defense ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Led by senior tailback Harvie Tuck, the offensive philosophy is run first and protect the ball, a break from the pass-happy spread offenses that are en vogue.

The blueprint comes directly from Alabama, where it has been fairly effective, last week notwithstanding.

“You still wear shoulder pads in this game,” Cignetti said. “When you hit the guy hard, he remembers it.”

Frank Sr. regularly visits practice and said the pace is much faster than when he ran things.

“Just very relentless” is how quarterback Mike Box, a UConn transfer, describes the atmosphere. “Every week we go out and believe we're going to win and be the physical team.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bcohn@tribweb.com or 412-320-7810.

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