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IUP FOOTBALL: Cignetti doesn't want Crimson Hawks resting on their laurels

by MATTHEW BURGLUND mburglund@indianagazette.net on September 05, 2013 10:40 AM

Curt Cignetti is a branch of the Nick Saban coaching tree, and in a lot of ways this apple certainly didn’t fall from that tree.

Three years after leaving Saban and Alabama for IUP, Cignetti has used the blueprint he learned with the Crimson Tide to turn the Crimson Hawks into a Top 10 Division II program with designs on a national championship.

Cignetti says a lot of things that Saban reportedly says, and that’s no coincidence.

“I did this for 28 years as an assistant in Division I,” said Cignetti, IUP’s third-year head coach. “But I really thought the last four, at Alabama, I learned a lot — I mean, a lot from Nick. We had a plan for everything. There were no loose ends. Everything in the program was defined.”

And he means everything. The way the team practices, how it watches film, how the roster is assembled. It’s all done for a reason.

Even further, there are intangible ideas that Cignetti preaches day in and day out, much like Saban does to the wildly successful Alabama teams he coaches. One of those ideals is that there is no use in looking back. The past can’t be changed. It has no impact on today, so let it go. It’s an idea that comes across as kind of gruff, as Cignetti dispatches questions about last year with the same usual six words: “The past is in the past.”

So if you’re wondering how Cignetti and his 2013 Crimson Hawks will follow the achievements of his 2012 Crimson Hawks, he has six words for you, and you can guess at what they are.

Nonetheless, 2012 was a banner year for the IUP program, which two years prior was 6-5 and out of the national spotlight. In the team’s best season in more than a decade, IUP went 12-2, won the PSAC West and the State Game, advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and finished ranked No. 7 in the AFCA Top 25.

IUP’s season ended with a heartbreaking 21-17 loss at Winston-Salem State in the Super Region One final, two steps shy of the NCAA Division II championship.

Those are achievements Cignetti is proud of, for sure. But his training being what it is, the Crimson Hawks have been taught to avoid using 2012 as any kind of stepping stone for 2013.

“We have to focus on this year,” said senior linebacker Alexander Berdahl. “If we focus on the past, we’ll never get to where we need to be.”

Quarterback Mike Box agreed with Berdahl’s statement, but said the Crimson Hawks can use last year’s playoff loss as momentum.

“You come that close, and for it to end the way it did … that was a hit below the belt,” Box said. “But it has been a fuel for everyone on this team, especially the old heads. We’re redshirt seniors and for most of us, this is our last ride. To come that close, we’re not going to let it slip away again.”

So while some teams talk about using momentum from last year, Cignetti and the Crimson Hawks are only talking about one thing: today.

“You always have dreams and ambitions,” Cignetti said, “but what I’ve learned is the best way to take care of business is to stay focused on today and the process of getting better. That’s what we do. That’s what I’ve learned.”

The only downside to Cignetti’s plan is that expectations are largely built on the past, and that has put the Crimson Hawks in the sights for every other team in the PSAC: In the preseason coaches poll, the Crimson Hawks were a near-unanimous pick to win the West Division.

Those lofty expectations come because IUP has a large group of starters coming back this season, including nine players who earned all-conference honors last year. Cignetti has also filled the holes left by last year’s graduation with a number of transfers and incoming freshmen who showed a lot of promise in preseason camp.

“We’ve got a lot of football players who have played a lot of successful football for us, and we have some incoming players who look like they’ll be pretty good football players,” Cignetti said, “so I’m really excited about this team.”

On paper, this team ought to be every bit as good as last year, or maybe even better. But that’s the kind of talk that Cignetti avoids, instead hoping tomorrow’s team is better than today’s.

And to achieve that goal, the Crimson Hawks are not looking back.

“What we did in the past is in the past,” Cignetti said. “This is a new team, this is a different team. Every day, we’re going to have to invest to get the desired results.”

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