Full Circle

In the fall of 1967, Bill Neal, Frank Cignetti, and Lou Tepper toiled together in the same office at the University of Pittsburgh.

Assistants under head coach Dave Hart, they were destined to later reunite, in a sense, when the course of their coaching careers, by divergent routes, led to IUP. Three men who once pledged allegiance to the blue and gold ultimately cast their lot with the crimson and gray.

Neal, Hart’s defensive coordinator, directed the Indians for nine years (1970-78). Cignetti raised the program’s national profile in his twenty seasons as head coach before retiring in November. Now Tepper is at the helm, providing yet another link to that long-ago Pitt staff.

Lou Tepper and Tony Atwater

At a news conference that announced the new coach’s hiring in January, Lou Tepper, foreground, and President Tony Atwater fielded questions from the media.

“Frank and I first met in 1967 at the University of Pittsburgh,” said Tepper, who spent the last six years piloting Edinboro to a 40-26 record, three Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West co-championships, and two NCAA Division II playoff berths. “I was a graduate assistant doing my master’s work. Frank was there as a quarterbacks coach. I did all the grunt work that graduate assistants do. My prime job was to make sure the coffee and donuts were ready every morning.”

Tepper should be flagged for excessive modesty, for Cignetti recalls not a go-fer, but a go-getter in whom he discerned qualities that augured success in the profession.

“You can always tell young coaches that have great potential,” said Cignetti, “just by their work ethic, their commitment to football, their passion for the game.”

Those attributes have served Tepper well. He has won big games as a head coach and turned out some of the most dominant defenses in the nation as an assistant at Virginia Tech, Colorado, Illinois, and Louisiana State. Tepper spent five seasons as head coach of the Fighting Illini, posting a 25-31-2 record, including a pair of victories over Big Ten heavyweight Ohio State, a win at Michigan before a crowd of 106,385 in the “Big House,” and a 30-0 rout of East Carolina in the 1994 Liberty Bowl.

He later resurrected the program at Edinboro. Tepper led the Fighting Scots to a 26-7 record over the past three seasons, including an NCAA playoff victory in 2004, and was twice named PSAC West Coach of the Year.

His credentials surely caught the eye of everyone on the IUP search committee.

“There are very few coaches in the country at any level who have developed the résumé that Lou Tepper brings to IUP,” said athletic director Frank Condino. “The fact that someone with his history of success would target IUP for his next coaching position strongly indicates the position the university has in the football community.”

It was Tepper’s Edinboro team, ironically enough, that knocked IUP out of playoff contention in 2003 and 2004. His 2005 squad handed the Indians yet another setback, making Tepper one of only two coaches (Slippery Rock’s George Mihalik is the other) to deal Cignetti back-to-back-to-back defeats during his transcendent reign at IUP.

“I know this: There aren’t many coaches—in fact, there’s probably no one—who had a winning record against Frank Cignetti,” said Tepper, who was 3-3 against his predecessor. “Probably most everybody had a losing record against him.”

When the former Pitt quarterbacks coach stepped down, the former Pitt grad assistant stepped forward as a candidate for the job. There are three reasons IUP appealed to Tepper.

“One is location, both for my family and for recruiting,” he said. “We’re in the heart of the WPIAL. Second is tradition. There’s no school in this conference with a more storied football tradition than IUP. And third is the vision of the administration here for the future.”

Tepper might also have mentioned family ties to the university. His wife, Karen, majored in chemistry at IUP and graduated in 1968. Tepper’s sister, Nancy Ondrejik, received her IUP degree in 1958. And his father-in-law, Bill Oleszewski, played football for the Indians before graduating in 1949.

Despite growing up in the Westmoreland County hamlet of Keystone, located only about thirty miles from campus, Tepper bypassed IUP in favor of Rutgers after graduating from Derry High School. He played defensive back for the Scarlet Knights, received a B.S. degree in physical education, and then embarked on his coaching career, joining Neal and Cignetti at Pitt.

He has now come full circle, returning to his home area as IUP’s tenth head coach. Tepper will count on the ninth for assistance as he navigates the treacherous waters of the PSAC.

“Frank Cignetti is a living legend. He is a tremendous resource for me,” Tepper said. “He can’t visit me too many times, he can’t call me too many times, he can’t give me advice too often.”

Cignetti feels comfortable passing the torch to Tepper, although he did lobby for Tom Rogish—his loyal, long-time assistant, who remains on the staff—to succeed him.

“I just think Tom should’ve been given that opportunity,” Cignetti said. “But I have great respect for Lou Tepper as a coach. There’s no doubt that the program’s in good hands. He’ll do a great job with it.”