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Indiana football: Curt Cignetti’s lessons from Nick Saban

Indiana’s head coach spent time with the greatest to ever do it before going his own way.

Syndication: The Herald-Times Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times / USA TODAY NETWORK

Nick Saban had a few names in mind back when he was assembling his first staff at Alabama.

One of them? Indiana head coach Curt Cignetti.

Saban was on the staff at West Virginia, his home state, back in 1978. The Mountaineers head coach was Frank Cignetti Sr., Curt’s father. The younger Cignetti was a high school quarterback at the time, but spent plenty of time around the facilities.

It was enough for Saban to follow his career. Cignetti already had over two decades of experience as an assistant at the FBS level when he got the call from Saban, who entrusted him to coach wide receivers and coordinate the Crimson Tide’s recruiting operation.

Having already been at the top of the sport, Saban knew what it took to get there: players making plays. With one of the top players in 2008 recruiting class already in the state, Cignetti went to work.

Just one year of recruiting later and Julio Jones grabbed an Alabama hat on signing day. He, and others, would to on to win Saban’s first ring with the Tide in 2009, which also doubled as Cignetti’s last year in Tuscaloosa and as an assistant.

Cignetti played a crucial role for Saban and the latter returned the favor through example. Ask him about it now and Cignetti doesn’t shy away from giving credit where it’s due.

“When I went with Coach, I’d been coaching about 28 years at that point,” Cignetti said at his introductory press conference in Bloomington. “Learned more from him in year one about how to lead and run a program than the previous 27, I would say.”

Cignetti’s practices at James Madison looked like Saban’s at Alabama, according to a story in the Daily News-Record. No time goes to waste with short sessions at a fast pace. The Dukes’ offense was balanced but he emphasized the same strong rushing attack that led to that 2009 title with Alabama.

Above all? Adapting to the times.

What made Nick Saban great was his ability and willingness to see how the game was changing and change with it. The Tide went from a strong rushing attack and overpowering defense to a high-flying passing game that produced multiple NFL starting quarterbacks.

When the transfer portal rules changed, Saban was willing to use it. When NIL emerged, he was there to maximize its impact.

The same can be said of Cignetti at James Madison. There’s a reason he went from the class of the FCS to the best team in the Sun Belt in just two years. He, like Saban, has adapted from making the right hires to navigating NIL.

Those are the same traits that can make him great in Bloomington.