He majored in biology at Indiana State College, but it was geography that Frank Cignetti truly mastered in his twenty years as football coach at IUP.
After all, he put the school on the map.
When Cignetti returned to his alma mater as athletic director in 1982 and hired George Chaump as head football coach, his avowed mission was to elevate the program to national prominence. While others fixed their sights on winning the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title, he focused his eyes on a bigger prize: an NCAA championship.
“The vision was, hey, we want to compete on the national level in Division II,” said Cignetti, who retired in November after compiling a 182-50-1 record at IUP. “When I first came here, people from the PSAC didn’t think that was a realistic goal. They looked at the State Game [the annual title match-up of division winners] as the ultimate goal. People didn’t think beyond that.”
But Cignetti did. He raised the bar, and the Indians responded with a transcendent run. They earned thirteen NCAA playoff berths under his direction, reached the semifinals on six occasions, and twice played in the Division II championship game before a national television audience.
Cignetti is interviewed by broadcaster Jack Benedict.
That kind of coast-to-coast exposure boosted IUP’s profile to unprecedented levels. Where mention of the school’s name to football fans in Oregon or Texas or North Dakota might once have elicited only puzzled expressions, today it’s apt to result in a nod of acknowledgement.
“I travel around the country in my business, and when people find out I graduated from IUP, they’ll make the comment, ‘Hey, you have a real good football program,’ ” said Stan Celich ’90, a former defensive end who now heads up regional sales for Liberty Mutual Insurance. “People know IUP because of football. Take that away, and it’s possible they wouldn’t have any recognition of the school.”
Prior to the Cignetti era, the Indians possessed little more than a regional identity. They rarely played out-of-state teams or traveled long distances for games. But under Cignetti, the Indians took to the road like Charles Kuralt, alighting wherever a Division II powerhouse was located. They journeyed to Portland State (Ore.), Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota State, New Haven (Conn.), Grand Valley State (Mich.), and Catawba (N.C.) for regular-season games, racking up mileage as well as prestige for the program.
Dick (center) and Charlie Mistretta offer best wishes after Cignetti's final game as coach.
“In my time there we went all over,” said Nick Pascarella ’91, a linebacker on IUP’s national runner-up team in 1990 who owns Grass Roots Landscaping in Sewickley. “We flew clear across the country to play Portland State, we went down to Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, we went out to North Dakota and Michigan. We might have lost some of those games, but we proved that we could play with the best.”
Facing first-rate foes in the regular season toughened IUP for the postseason. Some of those games in September and October resembled the playoff battles waged in November and December, such was their crackling intensity.
Shortly before his graduation from Indiana State College in 1960, Cignetti was a student teacher on campus at Keith School.
“They gave you the sort of confidence that you need going into playoff games,” Celich said. “I believe that was an important step, being able to play those folks during the season and realizing we could play with anybody in the country.”
Their confidence bolstered, Cignetti’s Indians were able to win with regularity in the postseason. They advanced to the semifinals five times in one six-year span—an achievement only North Dakota State has matched—and nearly upended North Alabama in a thrilling 1993 final, on the Lions’ home field no less. IUP posted fifteen playoff victories under Cignetti, tied for fourth best all-time in Division II.
The foundation for that phenomenal success was laid when Cignetti arrived as AD and enlisted the financial support of well-heeled community members. The resulting resources enabled Chaump and later Cignetti himself, once he assumed the coaching reins in 1986, to recruit exceptional players and hire topnotch assistant coaches. Cignetti then went about upgrading the schedule. Not only did the Indians step into the ring against the heavyweights of Division II; they challenged Division I-AA schools such as Liberty, Bucknell, Lehigh, and Howard. And in 1987, IUP broke through with a landmark 10-7 victory at Towson State.
“Towson was the very first Division I-AA school we defeated,” said former fullback Steve Girting ’89, an elementary principal in the Riverside School District. “That was a feather in the cap of Coach Cignetti. That sort of catapulted us into the national limelight.”
Cignetti is greeted by former player Joey Flora ’03.
The Indians made their NCAA playoff debut ten weeks later, battling Central Florida at the 52,300-seat Citrus Bowl in Orlando before bowing, 12-10. IUP soon became a postseason fixture, landing six more berths over the next seven years. By the time he retired, Cignetti had coached the Indians in twenty-eight playoff games, a Division II record.
His only regret is that he couldn’t bring a national championship trophy back to campus.
“It would have been nice,” Cignetti said. “I think this university and this community deserved a national championship in football. I really thought it was a doable goal.”
When Cignetti arrived, some dismissed his lofty aspirations as the delusions of a dreamer whose reach far exceeded his grasp. But he quickly converted the doubters to believers, leading the Indians into the playoffs in only his second season. He raised the bar, and along with it IUP’s national profile. The former biology major mastered geography during his twenty years as coach, taking his football team to Oregon and Texas, to Missouri and Nebraska, to North Dakota and Michigan, to Mississippi and Alabama. Frank Cignetti lifted the program to heights that once seemed inconceivable.
In short, he put IUP on the map.
Frank Cignetti By The Numbers*
199 • Total victories, second-best among active Division II coaches (includes 17 wins at West Virginia
182 • Victories at IUP (George Miller ranks second with 79)
15 • Postseason victories, second-best all-time among Division II coaches
2 • NCAA Division II championship game appearances, more than all other coaches from PSAC schools combined
6 • NCAA Division II semifinal appearances (only Texas A&M-Kingsville, with seven, reached the Final Four more often during the Cignetti era)
9 • Seasons with double-figure totals in victories (no IUP team won as many as 10 games before Cignetti arrived)
14 • PSAC West championships, the most of any coach since the conference formed in 1951
11 • Consecutive winning seasons (1986-96), matching the longest streak in school history (1962-72)
10 • Lambert/Meadowlands Cups, emblematic of Division II supremacy in the East
26 • Consecutive regular-season victories (Sept. 8, 1990, through Oct. 24, 1992), the longest streak in school history
*at the time of his retirement