To be honest, Saturday’s IUP football game felt more like a family reunion than an 11-on-11 battle for turf.
There were a lot of hugs exchanged and a few tears were shed. But it was a joyous occasion all around as the university honored a part of its recent history during the Crimson Hawks’ 62-3 thrashing of Millersville at George P. Miller Stadium.
At the end of the first quarter, the 1993 IUP team was honored 20 years after its magical run to the NCAA Division II national championship game. More than two dozen of the players, plus numerous staff members, were on hand as the school saluted a team that went 13-1 and came within inches of winning the school’s first NCAA title.
And then at halftime, the field at Miller Stadium was named in honor of Frank Cignetti, who coached IUP teams from 1986 to 2005, including that magical 1993 team.
Frank Cignetti Field at George P. Miller Stadium was christened to a thunderous applause from the large halftime crowd that took in the beautiful weather and watched its team roll to an easy win.
“It’s awesome. Believe me, it’s awesome,” said Cignetti, who went 182-50-1 in his 20 years as the IUP coach. “It’s humbling. It’s great to see the players come back. The stories, the memories, that’s what this is all about.”
The festivities began with a tribute to the second IUP squad, following the footsteps of Cignetti’s 1990 team, to play in the NCAA title game. The players who returned, plus Cignetti and some of his staff, were praised on the field between the first and second quarter, and the crowd showed its appreciation for a team that lost in the title game by only seven points, to North Alabama, on Dec. 10, 1993.
It was a chance for the players to reunite and return to the campus where a lot of great memories were made two decades ago. For ones like Zack Gibson, a senior defensive back in 1993, it was the first time since he graduated that he set foot on IUP soil.
“This is my first time here in 20 years,” said Gibson, who now lives in Tallahassee, Fla. “It was important not only to be here for Coach, but to be here to see these guys. I’m not a Facebook guy, so to be able to come see them in person is amazing.”
And considering how tight-knit the 1993 team was, the long overdue reunion wasn’t awkward at all.
“This is my family. These are my gridiron brothers,” said Harold Brister, who was a freshman cornerback in 1993. “It’s surreal. It’s a great feeling. To see these guys after all these years is special. And to come back and honor the greatest coach I ever had means a lot, too. Being here makes me thankful for having this experience.”
The players who returned for the reunion stood on the sideline and watched as the 2013 IUP team dismantled Millersville to their delight. They told stories from their days on campus and got caught up on the past 20 years or so.
They also brought up that title game appearance, when North Alabama rallied for the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds and denied IUP the ultimate celebration.
Twenty years later, the sting from that defeat is still there.
“I think when you’re over something, it doesn’t get to you,” said Brister, who now lives in Phoenix, Ariz. “But when I watch the film, yeah, it gets to me. You don’t ever really get over it, but you’re thankful for having the opportunity to do it.”
Cignetti said he also thinks a lot about that game and the way it unfolded.
“I think about it quite often,” he said. “It’s one of those games when you feel like you belong and you have a chance to win it, but you let it slip away in the fourth quarter.”
For Gibson, the pain of that day lingers, but so do the good things.
“There’s moments in your life when you’re just driving down the road and you start thinking about these guys and this team and you always wonder what could have been,” he said. “But just to be able to remember those special times means a lot.”
At halftime, Cignetti was honored for his recent induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, as well as his upcoming entrance to the Division II Football Hall of Fame, in Florence, Ala., the site of the 1993 championship game.
To add onto Cignetti’s honors, the university decided last month to name the field after the former coach, and it was made official Saturday when a banner was revealed atop the scoreboard that read “Frank Cignetti Field.”
After a brief ceremony, the crowd gave Cignetti and his family a standing ovation for his career as an ambassador to the university.
IUP president Dr. Michael Driscoll said naming the field for Cignetti was a no-brainer.
“Frank set an example for what a successful athletic department is all about,” Driscoll said. “It raises the visibility for IUP across the country. He developed young men into incredible leaders on the field, but also off the field. He’s just a guy with perfection across the board, and he has high character. So we need to recognize the great example that he has set for all of us.”
Cignetti was humbled by all the praise and love heaped upon him during the brief ceremony.
“I knew George Miller, and he was a great man,” Cignetti said, of IUP’s first head coach, who guided the program from 1927 to 1947. “So it’s an honor to have the Cignetti name on this field.”
For his former players, it was a fitting tribute to a man who so many people adore.
“He’s someone I patterned myself after,” Brister said. “He had poise under fire. He always saw the big picture and he personified what leadership meant. He had such an impact on every one of us.”
PHOTO: At Saturday's homecoming game, former IUP football coach Frank Cignetti was honored by the naming of Frank Cignetti Field at George P. Miller Stadium.
Susan Delaney, of IUP’s council of trustees, presented the trustees’ resolution to Cignetti. His wife, Marlene, is at left. (Teri Enciso/Gazette photo)