The conclusion of the 2003 football season was as disgusting to IUP coach Frank Cignetti as the entrées served to Fear Factor contestants.
A plateful of squirming worms seemed less revolting than what the NCAA dished up.
The Indians tied a school record with ten regular-season wins, finished sixth in the final NCAA Division II poll, and claimed a share of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Western Division crown, but they were unaccountably snubbed when the playoff invitations were handed out. The No. 6 team in the nation finished only fifth in its region, a turn of events both mystifying and maddening.
“I never, ever expected that. It was a shock to me,” Cignetti said. “What hurts is, I didn’t see a dominant team in our region, so we as a staff felt, hey, we can make a run at a championship. And then, boom, we don’t get in. That was a bitter pill to swallow.”
Especially difficult to digest was the fact that the Indians (10-1) dropped from fourth place to fifth in the East Region rankings following a victory. Their reward for a 27-14 win over Slippery Rock November 8 was a demotion that left players and coaches reeling.
Edinboro (9-2) leapfrogged the Indians into fourth and finished there, effectively squeezing IUP out of the playoff picture. Saginaw (Mich.) Valley State, Bentley (Mass.), and Grand Valley State (Mich.) also received invitations. The Indians were slighted, despite their impressive credentials.
“We have a group of seniors who are just devastated,” Cignetti said.
“I feel it was totally unjust,” Cignetti said. “We certainly deserved to be in it. I think we were one of the four best teams in the region. I just don’t understand it.”
Nor do IUP’s seniors. After leading the Indians to a 37-8 record during their four years in the program and twenty wins in the last twenty-one regular-season games, they were poised to cap their careers with a prolonged playoff run. Who could have foreseen IUP spending the postseason on the sidelines?
“We have a group of seniors who are just devastated,” Cignetti said. “The underclassmen have another shot, but the seniors don’t. I feel bad for that group, because they did an outstanding job here. They really did.”
The dark mood that prevailed at the finish of their final season contrasted sharply with the euphoria surrounding the opener. Behind sophomore quarterback Kevin Weidl, the Indians rallied from a thirteen-point deficit to defeat a formidable Nebraska-Omaha team 28-26, Josh Telenko providing the margin of victory with a last-second thirty-one-yard field goal.
“Here we are, breaking in a new quarterback, we have a young secondary, and when we beat them—especially the way we came back in the fourth quarter—I figured we were in pretty good shape, that this was a playoff-caliber team,” Cignetti said. “I thought if we stayed healthy and the ball bounced our way and we had a little luck, we could be real good.”
They were nearly perfect, in fact. The only blemish on IUP’s record was a 28-20 loss to Edinboro, which battled back from thirteen points down to spoil the Indians’ homecoming. And their season, as it turns out.
“I guess the disappointing thing, when you look back on it, is that it came down to one bad quarter of football,” Cignetti said. “I can remember when we went up 20-7 in that game feeling very comfortable. We totally had them under control with our defense. Then we had a series of mistakes—a failure to convert a third-and-one, we drop a pass, we throw a couple interceptions. It was just a bad quarter of football.”
And it cost the Indians dearly. Not even a 10-1 record was good enough to punch their ticket to the playoffs, where they had hoped to expunge the memory of last year’s 62-21 quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Grand Valley State.
“I felt like this team had something to prove after the way things went down at Grand Valley last year,” Cignetti said. “But they never got the opportunity. That’s the tragedy.”