College News & Analysis

College Football: JMU reaching new heights under head coach Curt Cignetti

James Madison is among the biggest risers in the college football world over the past half-decade. Since 2016, they’re 60-11 with multiple FCS playoff bids and an FCS National Championship in 2017. But this year, they’ve taken their program to another level — literally — in the jump from the FCS to the FBS' Sun Belt Conference.

The man leading them into those uncharted waters is head coach Curt Cignetti, someone who was a late bloomer as a college football head coach but one who has the Dukes 5-0 and ranked in the top 25 for the first time in program history. Five games into the year, James Madison ranks sixth in the country in scoring (44.2 PPG) and 15th in scoring defense (15.0 PGG).

JMU Stat Rank vs. FBS
Scoring Defense 15.0 points per game 14th
Scoring Offense 44.2 points per game 6th
Total Defense 228.3 yards per game 3rd
Total Offense 488.6 yards per game 16th

The success comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed Cignetti. Since becoming a head coach for the first time in 2011 at age 50, he has a career win percentage of 77.2%, and an 88.37% win percentage since taking the job at JMU in 2016. Though it took a while for him to make the jump to a head coaching position, the coaching lifestyle has long been a part of who he is. Cignetti’s father, college football Hall of Famer Frank Cignetti Sr., was an assistant coach on Bobby Bowden’s West Virginia staff in the '70s before serving as the head coach of IUP from 1986-2005.

It was at West Virginia, watching his dad as an assistant, that a young Curt Cignetti envisioned his future.

“When we went to West Virginia in 1970 [my dad] was with Bobby Bowden,” Cignetti said in an exclusive with PFF. “I was hanging around the sideline quite a bit and was in the locker room during games. That’s when I knew I wanted to coach.”

Curt’s father took over as head coach at WVU when Bowden left for Florida State. Curt committed and played at WVU as a quarterback in the late '70s and early '80s, but after that immediately got into coaching. For the next 28 years, he would bounce around the world of college football on various staffs in various roles. One of those jobs was as a recruiting coordinator for N.C. State from 2000-2006, a gig that taught him all about what really mattered in the ever-important world of recruiting.

“The recruiting coordinator position was very valuable to me in my preparation to be a head coach,” Cignetti said. “Recruiting is identification, evaluation and sales. You create your master list and you fill it with guys who fit your profile. You’ve gotta do a great job of evaluating the right people inside your program. You’ve gotta get the right guys in there and then develop them. 

“I don’t really pay attention to [recruiting] stars. You can recruit a lot of talented guys, but they gotta be made of the right stuff. This is a tough game. It takes tremendous discipline and commitment to be able to persevere and overcome. It’s not all just about talent. It’s about talent and dependability. If you want to be a college football coach, you better be a darn good recruiter.”

It was also at West Virginia that Cignetti met a young 26-year-old defensive backs coach named Nick Saban. The Cignetti family kept that relationship close over the years, and it paid off for Cignetti in a big way when Saban was hired to lead Alabama in 2007. The new head coach was looking for a recruiting coordinator/assistant coach, similar to what Cignetti was doing at N.C. State. So Cignetti joined Saban’s first Alabama staff and was there from 2007-2010, a run that included an SEC championship and a national championship.

It was immediately following that 2010 season that Cignetti decided to switch from being an assistant coach at the highest level to working his way up as a head coach. But he made sure to take the lessons he learned under Saban with him.

“What I learned from Nick [Saban] was really how to run a ‘gram,” Cignetti said. “The organization and leadership standpoint, the way he treated his day in season, the way we practiced, the way recruiting was organized. The way he led staff and players and the way he led the message he crafted. It was sort of a doctoral program on how to be a head coach.”

Cignetti took a job at IUP in 2011, the same school where his father coached for 19 seasons. They finished third in their conference that first year, but first in the one that followed. After a six-year stint there, he took the head coaching job at Elon for two seasons before becoming JMU’s head coach in 2019. And he’s turned the Dukes into one of the best programs in the country.

James Madison is a perfect 5-0 to begin 2022. It started with a 44-7 win over Middle Tennessee State, then a 63-7 win over Norfolk State. Those games showed Cignetti the kind of team he had this year. The next week, they defeated Appalachian State, 32-28, on the road in thrilling comeback fashion after being down 28-3 in the second quarter. That showed the rest of the country what kind of team they had. 

Throughout his four seasons at JMU, Cignetti’s offenses have been among the best in the FCS, but they’ve never looked identical. He’s seen a lot in his 39 seasons as a college football coach and tries to use whatever knowledge he can to craft the perfect offense for his players each year.

“Number one, you have to have good players. But number two, you have to design things around your players’ strengths,” Cignetti said. “Our offense evolves year over year, and it all starts with the [quarterback]; what he can and can’t do. … Last year we had a dropback quarterback and we threw. This year, we’ve got a guy who can run. When you have a guy who can throw it and run it, that’s the perfect recipe. You have to prepare. You ask your players to prepare, you have to prepare as a head coach.”

JMU ranks 16th in the country in rushing, with 213.8 yards per game — an attack led by quarterback Todd Centeio and running backs Latrele Palmer and Percy Agyei-Obese. It’s an offense that was redesigned after JMU’s offense used air yards as its emphasis in 2021, finishing last season with 43 passing touchdowns. As for their defense, it's led by their two linebackers: Jailin Walker and Taurus Jones. Walker has an elite 90.8 grade in coverage this season, while Jones has an elite 90.5 run-defense grade.

When talking to Cignetti, yes, he is proud of the way his team has fought, executed and performed to start the season, but the message moving forward is clear: They’re just getting started. 

“Everything is earned and not given,” Cignetti said. “All this top-25 stuff and the outside noise, none of that should determine what happens between the lines. I believe in our team culture and our mindset that we can handle it and take care of business.”

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