Indiana announces hiring of James Madison’s Curt Cignetti as new head coach

Indiana is hiring James Madison coach Curt Cignetti as its next head football coach, the school announced Thursday.

"I am very excited to welcome Curt Cignetti as the head football coach at Indiana University," Indiana athletics director Scott Dolson said. "We had a very talented and deep pool of candidates, and Curt stood out thanks to an incredible track record of success over more than four decades in college football. As a head coach he's succeeded everywhere he's been, and as an assistant he has been a part of championship cultures while working alongside some of the game's best coaches."

The Dukes are 11-1 this season in their second year transitioning to the Bowl Subdivision. In Cignetti’s first year with the program in 2019, he took the team to the Championship Subdivision national title game. They would go on to reach the semifinals each of the next two years.

Cignetti replaces former Indiana coach Tom Allen, who was 33-49 with two bowl appearances in seven seasons. The athletic department negotiated a reduced $15.5 million buyout with the coach.

James Madison coach Curt Cignetti leads his team onto the field before their game against Coastal Carolina in Conway, S.C., Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.
James Madison coach Curt Cignetti leads his team onto the field before their game against Coastal Carolina in Conway, S.C., Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

He had an annual salary of $677,311, which ranked No. 108 in the USA TODAY Sports annual coaching database. Allen’s annual salary was $4.9 million after he received an extension in March 2021.

According to people with knowledge of the situation, Indiana prioritized candidates with significant head coaching experience who had Midwest ties. Those people said Dolson also wanted someone who would come in with a ready-made recruiting plan and overarching recruiting philosophy.

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While there has been a focus on Indiana’s NIL efforts in recent days — Allen put out a statement saying the university needed to “ fully embrace those changes” — the feeling from administrators was that Indiana’s recruiting efforts had lost focus in recent seasons despite resources that were competitive with Big Ten schools they were recruiting against.

The top candidates who emerged after an initial wave of interviews checked those boxes, none more so than Cignetti.

While his head coaching experience mostly came at the lower levels, Cignetti never had a losing season as head coach. He was 52-9 in five seasons with James Madison, 14-8 at Elon and 53-17 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Indiana hopes Cignetti is the instant success story he was for James Madison.

The university hired him as the program’s eighth football coach on Dec. 14, 2018 and was at the helm while the Dukes transitioned into the Bowl Subdivision and the Sun Belt Conference.

There were no growing pains as James Madison landed in the Sun Belt and the Dukes were Cinderella story this season going 11-1 after opening with 10 consecutive wins and being ranked in the US LBM Coaches Poll for the first time.

Under NCAA rules, the team was prohibited from competing from a national championship or bowl game over that two-year period. Lawmakers in the state initially threatened a lawsuit after the NCAA denied multiple waiver requests to reduce the transition from one year instead of two.

The school backed off the legal action, but ended up gaining bowl eligibility for the first time in program history since there weren’t enough 6-6 teams that qualified.

James Madison had a top 25 scoring offense (35.2 points per game) and defense (18.5 points allowed).

The Pittsburgh native was a quarterback at West Virginia before getting into coaching, which was a family profession of sorts. His father Frank Cignetti Sr. is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, he was the winnest coach in IUP history with 182 victories. His brother Frank Cignetti Jr. has spent 30-plus years as an assistant in the NFL and college.

Curt Cignetti spent the early portion of his career working primarily with quarterbacks that included lengthy stints at Pittsburgh and NC State.

While working at North Carolina State for coach Chuck Amato, he was the team’s recruiting coordinator while coaching tight ends (2000-02 and 2005-06) and quarterbacks (2003-04). Cignetti worked with Wolfpack quarterback Philip Rivers, who earned ACC Player of the Year honors in 2003.

That success helped land him a spot on Nick Saban’s original coaching staff at Alabama. He maintained his role of recruiting coordinator and was the team’s wide receivers coach. The program had the country’s top recruiting class in 2008 under Cignetti’s direction.

The Tide went 14-0 in 2009 and won the their first national title in 16 years.

“I probably learned as much in Year 1 at Alabama as I did in the previous 28 years of coaching,” Cignetti said. “With Nick, it was football 401 every single day.”

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Indiana lands Curt Cignetti from James Madison as new football coach