Curt Cignetti's family has a history with North Dakota State's football program and it's not a good one.
Curt is the first-year coach at James Madison, which will play the Bison in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision title game Jan. 11 in Frisco, Texas. Curt's father is College Football Hall of Fame member Frank Cignetti Sr., who made Indiana University of Pennsylvania into a Division II national power from 1986-2005.
Frank's 1990 team had the grand misfortune of meeting NDSU twice in one season. The first was in the season opener at Dacotah Field, a 28-12 Bison victory. The second was in the Division II championship game in Florence, Ala., in early December. This was a loaded Bison team with the likes of quarterback Chris Simdorn, running back Tony Satter, defensive end Phil Hansen and linebacker Todd Wash.
After a close first half in which the Bison took a 14-11 lead, the final two quarters of the national title game were a wipeout. Simdorn, Satter and a powerful offense blew up for 30 points in the third quarter — five possessions, five touchdowns, no extra points — and NDSU won 51-11 for the program's eighth national championship. The Bison's dominant defense sacked IUP quarterback Tony Alliucci 11 times.
"I guess that halftime talk wasn't very good," Frank quipped to the media after the game. "I won't sell many books on that."
The son, then an assistant at Temple University, was in Florence, Ala., for the game. He remembers, although he might wish he doesn't.
"I hope we have a different result than he had," Curt said. "North Dakota State, they had a great football team. Had a couple of guys play in the pros. And really IUP, as the game went on, was kind of overmatched. But I think it's a testament to their program to dominate at that level and then move up a level and dominate."
(Here is The Forum sports section from Dec. 9, 1990, the day after NDSU beat Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the NCAA Division II national championship game:)
There'll be a chance for revenge, if you can call a game 30 years later a chance for revenge, when Frank's son leads James Madison against NDSU at Toyota Stadium in what promises to be a better contest than the one at Braly Municipal Stadium. The Bison, 15-0, are seeking their eighth FCS title in nine years. The Dukes, 14-1, are seeking their second in four years.
Frank, 82 now, will not be able to travel to Frisco after having what Curt called a health "setback" recently.
"So he'll be watching the game on TV. He'll be there in spirit," Curt said.
Cignetti has James Madison back where the school believes it belongs after taking over for fiery Mike Houston, who parlayed three good seasons and one national championship into a gig at FBS East Carolina. Houston's dalliances with East Carolina late last season helped sink a Dukes team that had thoughts of a return to Frisco and another game against NDSU. Instead, Houston's public job search clearly led to internal friction on the Dukes and they lost a second-round playoff game to Colgate of the decidedly unpowerful Patriot League.
Enter Cignetti, a veteran coach who served as an assistant on Nick Saban's original staff at Alabama and who'd been a head coach for seven years at his dad's old place, IUP, and two more at Elon, a private school in the same Colonial Athletic Conference in which James Madison competes. Cignetti took over an Elon program that had six straight losing seasons and turned it into an immediate playoff team.
Crucially, the visiting Phoenix beat the Dukes 27-24 at a sold-out Bridgeforth Stadium last season, ending James Madison's 22-game conference winning streak and 19-game home win streak. Cignetti's accomplishments in two years at Elon, a historically bad football school, impressed James Madison athletic director Jeff Bourne.
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"I had a chance to watch him at length while he was at Elon. I was very familiar with that program and where they were and what they were able to accomplish," Bourne said. "I think when you couple that with his background across the board, the programs where he was previously and the experience he gleaned, we felt like he'd be a good fit for Harrisonburg."
Cignetti took over a program that has the budget, administrative commitment and location in a prime recruiting area to be near the top of FCS for the foreseeable future. James Madison's administration and boosters speak openly of wanting to challenge NDSU for division supremacy, admitting they keep a close eye on what the Bison are doing.
Cignetti's style is markedly different than Houston's fire-and-brimstone act, and it's worked. While Houston's pregame speeches were stuff of legend, Cignetti preaches a "never too high, never too low" approach. He and his staff have also made changes to the way the Dukes practice, work in the weight room and, perhaps most important, use quarterback Ben DiNucci.
The senior was turnover-prone last year under Houston, culminating in a five-interception game in the ugly loss to Colgate. Cignetti changed the offense to be more run-based, depending less on DiNucci to sling the ball around the field. The quarterback has thrown just five interceptions all season and was named the CAA Offensive Player of the Year.
It's been a perfect transition.
"I think for me it was the fact that I've been a head coach. This is my ninth year and I'd worked through some of the issues, some of the mistakes maybe you make early on. It was my third program," Cignetti said. "I also had familiarity with JMU because of Elon. Obviously we played them the last two years.
"It wasn't broken, kind of like the first two programs I took over. I had great respect for what they had accomplished here in the past. And I had a blueprint. I had a plan. I knew what I wanted to do."
Cignetti knows how to cement his popularity in Harrisonburg, too. When a blogger named Cignetti as a possibility to fill the head coach vacancy at FBS Old Dominion, a JMU fan tweeted, "It's JMU HC speculation season again."
Cignetti replied to the tweet with a three-word response that reached almost mythical status among Dukes fans feeling burned by Houston's awkward departure: "No, it's not."
"I felt like we didn't need that distraction, that false distraction out there on Twitter or anywhere," Cignetti said. "We didn't need that. So I just happened to go home and was on Twitter and saw it and I responded."
A coach taking to Twitter to quash job rumors is just too good.
"It was good and I was very glad to see it," Bourne said. "The last thing you want to do is chase a coach at the end of the season. That didn't work out great last year. We got a great coach, but what that does for your team when you're trying to go into postseason play is it really tears at the fabric and synergy the team is trying to create."
The fabric and synergy stayed together, meaning the son will get a shot at the program that routed his father in a national championship game all those years ago.