Frank Cignetti easily could have stayed in the classroom and become the best biology teacher in the history of Leechburg High School.
Instead, he gambled and became a college football coach. And almost 50 years later, Cignetti’s roll of the dice has won him the ultimate prize — he learned Thursday that he has been chosen for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Cignetti, the former star player at IUP and later its winningest coach, was chosen in the Division class, which represents men from the non-Division I ranks. The hall of fame induction ceremony will be held in August, in Atlanta.
“It’s a great honor,” the 75-year old Cignetti said Thursday evening from his home in White Township. “I’m humbled. I never really thought of it as a goal, but it’s a great honor.”
Cignetti, who is also a member of the IUP and Indiana County sports halls of fame, was an All-America end as a player for IUP back in the 1950s. He returned to his alma mater in 1982 as the athletic director, added the title of head football coach in 1986 and led the program — and the school — to the national stage with 182 wins in 20 seasons. By the time he retired in 2005, Cignetti had become one of the most successful coaches in any division of college football.
“I think it’s really exciting that he’s gotten voted in,” said Frank Condino, who succeeded Cignetti as IUP’s athletic director. “He’s very deserving of the honor. I’m excited for Frank, I’m excited for our university, and I’m excited for our football program.”
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But 50 years ago, becoming a top-notch college football coach wasn’t really on Cignetti’s radar.
Providing for his young family was the only thing that mattered, and he was content after graduating from IUP to earn a paycheck as a teacher and coach at Leechburg High School, not far from where he grew up, in Washington Township.
Despite being a young coach — he was less than 10 years older than his players — Cignetti quickly gained a name for himself by leading the Blue Devils to the WPIAL Class A championship in 1965. Word got around about the emerging star in Leechburg, and Pitt coach Dave Hart made the call to Cignetti and offered him a spot on his coaching staff.
With his wife, Marlene, and their young son, Curt, at home, Cignetti pondered the pros and cons of the offer before accepting the job. It’s a decision that put him on a 40-year journey that would give Cignetti a career most coaches would envy.
“That was a big decision,” Cignetti said. “I was happy at Leechburg. We were having great success. But I said, Here’s an opportunity to get into college coaching without moving my family across the country. We didn’t even have to move out of Leechburg.”
In 1969, Cignetti took a job as an assistant at Princeton, and a year later he moved on to West Virginia, where he joined Bobby Bowden’s staff. When Bowden left to become the head coach at Florida State in 1976, Cignetti was hired as the Mountaineers’ new boss.
Cignetti’s four seasons at the helm don’t look so good on paper — his teams went just 17-27 and he was fired in 1979. But behind the scenes, Cignetti helped raise money for a new stadium and he worked tirelessly to get WVU on the national map.
His life took an unexpected turn in Morgantown when he was diagnosed with cancer, and Cignetti had to fight for his life instead of wins on the football field. By the early 1980s, Cignetti had been out of coaching for a couple years, but he was finally healthy and ready to get back into the coaching business.
“The thing that drove me at West Virginia is that I wanted to coach in that new stadium,” Cignetti said. “I had worked so hard … to get the new facility. When I was in the hospital, I would look out the window and see the (stadium) construction. It was hard. But after my illness, I knew it was just a matter of time until I got back into coaching.”
He returned to IUP in 1982 as the athletic director. Four years later, he added the title of head football coach to his office door, and he led the Indians to unprecedented levels of national success. His teams won 14 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division titles, advanced to the NCAA playoffs 13 times and twice played on national TV in the Division II championship game.
At a time when the other schools in the PSAC were emphasizing “small college” sports, Cignetti carried the banner for IUP as it sought national exposure through athletics.
“He came here from Division I, from West Virginia, and everyone else in the conference had to sort of catch up after that,” said Jack Benedict, the sports director at Renda Broadcasting, who has called IUP football games on the radio since 1969. “He pretty much set the standard for being a national contender. Before he came, the attitude was that it’s nice to win the State Game. But then IUP started winning the region and getting to the national finals. It was an exciting time, it really was.”
Between 1986 and 2006, Cignetti led the Indians to 182 wins, an unheard-of average of 9.1 wins per year. He never had a losing season, and only twice did IUP finish at .500. He ended his career with a mark of 199-77-1, for a .718 winning percentage.
“Frank is very deserving of this,” said Bernie Kish, a Homer City native, IUP alum and former director of the College Football Hall of Fame. “For any coach, it’s unusual to have a high winning percentage. But Frank does, even when you take into account the rough years at West Virginia. He is very highly thought of in the coaching ranks.”
Looking back at it now, Cignetti says he has no regrets about the path he took. In fact, coming to IUP 31 years ago was, he said, “the smartest decision I could have made.
“I’m happy here. I always thought this was a great community in which to live. When I came back into coaching, I’m not sure I was set to be here for the long term. But once I got into it I said, ‘Hey this is the ideal place to finish it,’ and I never really looked into leaving. It was always a great job.”
He and Marlene settled into the same home they live in today. Their four children all spent time in the home, and their two sons, Curt and Frank Jr., joined the family business and became football coaches. Frank Jr. is now the quarterbacks coach for the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, and Curt had a long career as a college assistant before taking over his father’s former post when he was named IUP’s head coach in 2011.
In two seasons, Curt has lived up quite well to his father’s legacy. His teams have gone a combined 19-5 and last fall he guided IUP to the division and conference titles and a long run in the playoffs.
Curt Cignetti said he is well aware of what kind of impact his father made on the IUP football program. And that’s why he was proud to hear Thursday’s big news.
“It’s a well-deserved honor,” he said. “Dad helped a lot of people in life. His former players and coaches speak of him with the utmost respect. He did it with class.”
Benedict, who has broadcast games for seven IUP head coaches, said he thinks there’s another honor fitting of Cignetti.
“Maybe now they’ll name the field after him,” he said. “They could keep it George P. Miller Stadium, but it should be Frank Cignetti Field at George P. Miller Stadium. He deserves that.”
That would be quite a tribute to a man who 50 years ago was a high school biology teacher just trying to provide for his family.
“I really have a lot of people to thank,” Cignetti said. “I can go back to my first coaching job, back there at Leechburg High School. I had a lot of great assistant coaches and players over the years. I’ve gotten a lot of help from a lot of great people. This really is humbling.”