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Indiana football hires Curt Cignetti: Q&A with Patrick Mayhorn

The Hoosiers hired a Ball Coach.

James Madison v Appalachian State Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

Indiana has its man.

Curt Cignetti is the new head coach of the Hoosiers. He comes from a winning background and emerged late in the process, at least from a public perception standpoint. If you follow college football closely, you’ll know about Cignetti and his great JMU squads. If you don’t, we have you covered.

We spoke (again) with Patrick Mayhorn (of The Aggship, Flipping the Field and Meet at Midfield) to talk about just what it is that Indiana is getting with Cignetti.

If you wanna talk even more about Indiana, Cignetti or college football in general, Meet at Midfield is the perfect place to do it.

Based on candidates mentioned, openings available and the result, how do you feel Indiana did with this hire?

Well, given that it appeared to be down to Jason Candle and Paul Chryst about 48 hours ago, this feels like a terrific hire for the Hoosiers. Maybe there was a bit of marketing there to drum up hype for the eventual hire, but I would have appreciated this move with or without that grim look at what could have been.

Cignetti is a damn good ball coach. He doesn’t have a specific schematic niche in the way that some of the other candidates did, but he’s one of the best people managers in college football, and it shows in the teams he puts on the field. When we look back at his James Madison coaching staffs a decade from now, we’ll see a lot of head coaches and high-profile coordinators. He does a terrific job of hiring coaches, and those coaches are excellent in talent identification and development.

They’ll need to find their footing in a very different recruiting situation, but the fundamentals still apply. James Madison prioritized freaky athletes in the trenches and on the perimeter, bringing in talented but unproven recruits and transfers and building them into stars. At quarterback, they prefer veterans who can lead those still-developing skill guys through their growing pains. It’s a program about talent development and continuity, and Cignetti knows exactly how to hire to keep that rolling, no matter where he is.

What all do you know about Cignetti?

Like I said, Cignetti is a ball coach. He comes from the offensive side of the ball as a former quarterback at West Virginia, committing to play for his father but spending much of his career under the excellent Don Nehlen. Though Cignetti only spent a few years with him, there’s an old video about Nehlen that I like a whole lot, and in that video is a quote that might as well be about Cignetti.

“This team was quickly gaining the undeniable spirit of a winner. There was a sense that a seed had been planted. It was the seed of confidence.”

“Coach Nehlen was very positive. The first thing he did when he came in here is, he made people feel good about themselves. I think that’s the No. 1 thing I noticed when he came here is through our weight program and through the things that he changed, he had the coaches believing in themselves, he had the players believing in themselves, and that’s why he’s successful.”

That’s where Cignetti comes from. He’s the son of damn good coach, he played for a damn good coach, and he spent the early stages of his career working for damn good coaches – Foge Fazio, and later Johnny Majors and Walt Harris at Pitt, Chuck Amato at NC State and Nick Saban at Alabama.

He’s a direct descendent not only of Saban’s tree, but of Bobby Bowden’s (through both his dad and Amato), Woody Hayes’ (through Amato, with a Lou Holtz-sized degree of separation), Bo Schembechler’s (through Nehlen) and Frank Broyles’ (through Majors). Just about every coach in the sport right now is connected to at least one of five, and Cignetti is either directly connected to, or one generation removed from, all five of them.

Coaching tree ties aren’t everything, but they can explain a lot about how man operates in this game.

Do you think Cignetti will work out here and why?

I think it would probably depend on your definition. He’s on the older side and his tenure won’t likely extend beyond six or seven years, but a lot of good can be done in that time, and I believe he will do a lot of good.

What that will look like in the record books, I really cannot say. I think he’ll succeed, in so far as he’ll elevate the talent at Indiana above where it has been in the modern era, both on the field and in the coaching staff. What does that look like in the new Big Ten? There’s no telling. The Hoosiers will be better when he leaves than they were when he found them.

Is there anything Indiana fans should know about Cignetti and his style? Schemes, recruiting, types of player, etc?

I hit on it a bit above, but the answer here would be focused more on the last point. He ran fairly standard schemes at James Madison, and I don’t say that as a bad thing. It’s a modern program that keeps up with trends by hiring new coaches who understand those trends.

Where JMU got its juice was from the kind of player it brought in, and the way it developed those players. Just look at the stars of the last two seasons. Todd Centeio and Jordan McCloud were both veteran quarterbacks secured through the transfer portal. WR Terrance Greene Jr. was a standout at Monmouth before joining JMU. Elijah Sarratt came from St. Francis (Pa.), Ty Son Lawton was at Stony Brook, and Phoenix Sproles is from NDSU.

The portal is there to bolster, not to build. There’s continuity all over those teams, too, with an offensive line that has been together for years and skill players like Kaelon Black, Reggie Brown, Zach Horton, Percy Agyei-Obese and Kris Thornton. It’s the same deal on defense. James Carpenter is a standout DT who has been there FOREVER. They identified future stars like Chris Chukwuneke, Jalen Green, Mikail Kamara, Taurus Jones and Jailin Walker, and then fortified with high-potential transfers like Jamare Edwards, Jamree Kromah and Josh Sarratt.

They do a great job of talent identification on the recruiting trail and bring a ton of those guys along by playing them early and often. When recruits don’t pan out, they aren’t afraid to hit the portal – and not just for P5 castoffs. This is a program that wants good football players and unique body types, no matter where they come from.

Are there any players on Indiana’s current roster Cignetti absolutely should keep around?

Honestly, you guys would know Indiana’s roster a lot better than I do. Donaven McCulley would certainly be nice to have, as would Louis Moore. Whatever it looks like, next year’s roster will have more athleticism and talent than this one did.

NOTE: (For what it’s worth on our end, McCulley and Moore would be nice but Indiana has to do what it can to keep tackle Carter Smith, already looking around at other programs, in Bloomington)