Lots to like about IU football hire Curt Cignetti, including Nick Saban's seal of approval

If IU football could’ve done better than Curt Cignetti, please, I’m all ears.

The worst thing you can say about Cignetti is that, at 62, he might not have the energy to coach the Hoosiers for more than six or eight years. Let’s worry about that in six or eight years, OK?

Because IU just hired him, and whenever Cignetti is finished at IU, and he’ll make that decision himself, the program he leaves to the Hoosiers’ next coach will look a lot different — a lot sturdier — than the 3-9 pile of rubble Cignetti inherits from Tom Allen.

Insider: Program with most Ls in history just hired coach with zero losing seasons.

No need to pile on Allen here. He’ll be remembered, someday, as the coach who showed just how high IU football could soar. The past three years haven’t been good, but we’ll always have 2019 and 2020, when the Hoosiers were going 14-7 overall, 11-5 in the Big Ten, and reaching back-to-back New Year’s Day bowls.

Those seasons? They’re among the biggest reasons Curt Cignetti is here.

Because he had options. Syracuse was open for a minute. Duke is open now. Google those schools and the words “candidate” and “Cignetti.” Read what writers who cover those schools — albeit none as well as our Zach Osterman has been all over this IU transition from Allen-to-Cignetti — were writing about Cignetti.

Here’s what you’ll find: Skepticism at Syracuse and Duke that they could lure Cignetti, the hottest remaining name on the board.

Since when has IU football landed the best coach available?

Never, is the word that comes to mind.

James Madison, national darling? Curt Cignetti did that

Here’s one thing to like about Curt Cignetti: He’s the guy from James Madison.

You know, the Dukes. The most lovable underdog in college football this season, with national commentators demanding the NCAA relax its rules for teams transitioning from what we used to call Division I-AA to Division I. Barring a dearth of bowl-eligible teams, NCAA rules state a newcomer to the Bowl Championship Series must wait two years before being eligible for a bowl game. But there was James Madison winning its first six games, then its first eight games, and getting national love.

Come on, NCAA, let the Dukes in!

Next thing you know, James Madison is 10-0 and it’s Nov. 18 and ESPN’s “College GameDay” show is rolling into Harrisonburg, Va., where a record crowd of more than 26,000 showed up to an area they call the Quad. Not a record crowd for the Quad.

A record crowd for “College GameDay.”

Think IU football could use some enthusiasm? Cignetti did that at James Madison, for crying out loud, and this season has been no fluke. He was 52-9 in five seasons at James Madison, and while someone, somewhere — not you — is sneering about the Dukes’ lack of competition, I’ll remind you James Madison can play only the teams on its schedule. And the Dukes beat nearly all of them.

Same goes for IU, you know. The Hoosiers can play only the teams on their schedule — which is why they keep losing to Rutgers and Purdue.

Think Curt Cignetti is going to make a habit of losing to Rutgers and Purdue?

Here’s another thing to like about Curt Cignetti: He has been a head coach in three different conferences, and within two years had been named Coach of the Year in all three. He won top coaching honors in the Sun Belt in his first year at James Madison in 2022 and the Colonial in his first year at Elon in 2017. It took him two whole years at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) to be named the top coach in 2012 at the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference — slacker — and while someone, somewhere (not you) is sneering that they’ve never heard of the PSAC, know this:

There are 16 teams in the PSAC. And it’s the only conference where Cignetti was eligible to win conference coach of the year.

Starting in 2024, he’ll be coaching in the Big Ten. Are you like me? Are you wondering how many years he’ll need to win Big Ten Coach of the Year?

Can Curt Cignetti recruit? Nick Saban nods

Here’s another thing to like about Curt Cignetti: Wherever he goes, the football team immediately improves a whole lot. No, he hasn’t coached in a conference as strong as the Big Ten, but with the occasional exception of a daddy’s boy like Lane Kiffin or the Baby Bowdens, most coaches aren’t born on third base. They have to hit a triple, you know?

Cignetti was hitting triples at IUP, Elon and James Madison.

IUP had lost 10 of its last 14 conference games when Cignetti took over in 2012, and proceeded to turn that history upside down by winning 11 of the next 14 conference games.

Elon was even worse when Cignetti arrived in 2017, with a 9-37 record in the previous four seasons. Cignetti gets there and goes 8-4 in the first year.

James Madison was just fine when Cignetti got there, coming off a 9-4 season, but he went 14-2 in his first year and kept it going from there.

Here’s another thing to like about Curt Cignetti: Nick Saban trusted him with the most important part of college football: recruiting. Doesn’t matter how well a coach can X-and-O — and judging from his 119-35 overall record, Cignetti knows his X’s from the O’s — in big-time football a coach better have talent. Before NIL and the transfer portal, that came from old-fashioned recruiting, a combination of pep and personality. And who did Saban, returning to college football after two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, hire as recruiting coordinator of his first team at Alabama in 2007?

The guy IU just hired as football coach. As far as recommendations goes, that’s a mic drop.

IU athletic director Scott Dolson last week: “So, Curt, talk to me about recruiting.”

Cignetti: “I was Saban’s recruiting coordinator.”


Cignetti will have to prove he can do it here, of course. IU has poured significantly more into its NIL offering plate, but Cignetti still must show he can get it done with high school kids in Indiana and college players in the transfer portal. But show me one place on his resume — one line — that says he can’t do it here. And if you’re still worried about his age, think about it like this:

IU just hired the best coach available after having Tom Allen. Imagine what the Hoosiers will be able to do after having Curt Cignetti.

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at

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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IU football hires James Madison's Curt Cignetti, who wins everywhere