Frank Cignetti: A Force beyond Football

Posted on 9/26/22 6:00 AM
The IUP football team, in silver helmets, red jerseys, and white pants, runs onto a football field next to coach Frank Cignetti, who is clapping in a dark red IUP sweat suit.

In November 2005, Frank Cignetti headed onto the field in Miller Stadium for his last game.

About a week before Frank Cignetti died, his youngest daughter, Theresa Cignetti Koss ’97, asked a few people to call her father, because he was in the hospital and not doing well. She knew he’d like to hear from some friends. Pat Dougherty was one of them, and he made a phone call that he will hold close for a long, long time.

Standing on a long, black podium, Frank Cignetti holds a framed document and lifts his right hand as he speaks, flanked by a man and woman on each side of him and with several people standing behind the podium, some of them clapping.

In 2013, Cignetti was recognized during an IUP football game for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame and for the naming of the football field in his honor.

On-Field Achievement

Frank Cignetti ’60, M’65 served as IUP’s athletics director from 1982 to 1998 and head football coach from 1986 to 2005. A native of Washington Township, Westmoreland County, he was a basketball and football star at Indiana State Teachers College and went on to teach and coach at Leechburg High School. He was a football assistant at Pitt, Princeton, and West Virginia and later led the Mountaineers for four seasons.

At IUP, he won 182 games as head coach and took the program to the national stage, with 13 NCAA Division II playoff berths and two trips to the national championship game, in 1990 and 1993. A member of the IUP Athletics Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1996, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013, the same year IUP named its football field in his honor.

Cignetti’s sons have also gone on to successful coaching careers. Curt, IUP’s head coach from 2011 to 2016, now leads James Madison. Frank Jr. ’89 is the offensive coordinator at Pitt. Cignetti is also survived by his wife, Marlene, and daughters, Lisa Cignetti Ciarrocca ’86, M’90 and Theresa Cignetti Koss ’97.

“We generally don’t tell people how we truly feel until it’s too late,” he said. “I was just glad that I was able to let him know how grateful I am for all the things he did for me.”

Since Cignetti died on September 10, at 84, many people have shown that they, too, are grateful they knew the longtime IUP head football coach and athletics director, who also earned his bachelor’s in 1960 and his master’s in ’65 from the university. The stories they tell reveal that there was much more to the man than could be written in a simple biography.

A black-and-white photo of a college-age Frank Cignetti, holding a basketball and wearing a white uniform made up of a short-sleeved shirt with "INDIANA 54" and shorts, standing in front of a plain wall

Before his 1960 graduation, Frank Cignetti was a member of the Indiana State Teachers College basketball team.

“He made such a difference in my life,” said Tanner Whittaker, who played football for IUP from 2003 to 2006. “Coach Cignetti was a special man.”

Whittaker was a freshman in the fall of 2002. He practiced with the team, but he did not play in any games. In his own words, “I was a nobody.”

Early that November, Cignetti’s team was 9-1 and needed to win its final game of the season to claim a playoff spot. On Tuesday—the most important day of the practice week for college football teams—Whittaker got a call from his position coach, telling him Cignetti wanted to see him.

After classes, Whittaker went to the football office, where Cignetti asked him to sit beside him at his desk. The coach handed his telephone to Whittaker. The player’s mother was on the other end. She told him that his father, Robert, had died the night before.

Because it was such an important day in such an important week, Cignetti could understandably have offered his condolences and then gone on with his work. Instead, he wouldn’t let Whittaker leave his side. But Whittaker needed to get home to Huntingdon to grieve with his family, and he had no way of getting there. He told Cignetti there was a family friend enrolled in evening classes at IUP, and maybe she would give him a ride home that night.

The only problem was Whittaker didn’t know where to find the woman. So, Cignetti grabbed his car keys, and the veteran coach and young player started driving around campus, looking for buildings with lights on. They’d find one and walk in, and Cignetti would burst into a classroom, introduce himself, and then ask for the woman by name.

It took awhile, and the pair visited several buildings, but eventually they found the friend. Cignetti took her into the hallway, explained the situation, and asked her to take Whittaker home.

“He would not leave me until I was with somebody,” Whittaker said. “He did not want me to be alone. I was lost. I don’t know if I would have survived, and the only way I did survive was because of Coach Cignetti.” Whittaker went on to start for three seasons on the offensive line before graduating in 2007. He now lives in Colorado, working as a corporate disability consultant.

Dougherty feels the same way. His mother, Virginia, died when he was in junior high, and his father, Owen, a former IUP football and baseball coach, died when Dougherty was in high school. After graduation, he enrolled at IUP but was unsure if he was equipped to make it on his own.

“I was an orphan,” he said. “I was 18, and both my parents were gone.”

But that summer, the trajectory of Dougherty’s life changed in a big way. Cignetti called and asked him to come to his office. There, he laid out a plan in which Dougherty would work as a student coach, assisting in the day-to-day operations of the football program.

“He said, ‘You need to be a part of something, so you might as well be a part of the IUP football family,’” Dougherty said. “Probably the best decision of my life was saying yes to that opportunity.”

By joining Cignetti’s staff, Dougherty found what he had lost. It was a family of coaches and players who included him in their work. During staff meetings, he had a seat to Cignetti’s left, and that sense of belonging carried him through a difficult time for someone his age.

“He knew what I needed to get through it,” Dougherty said. “He gave me the opportunity to be a part of something on campus that very few people ever get to be a part of. From the very beginning, he treated me like a regular member of his staff.”

Dougherty, who went to law school after his 1997 IUP graduation and is now an attorney in Indiana, said Cignetti’s impact on him showed how much he cared about everyone.

“He gave me the opportunity to be a part of something on campus that very few people ever get to be a part of.”

“It didn’t matter if you were a groundskeeper or the president of a university, he treated you the same,” Dougherty said. “It didn’t matter if you could do something for him or not, he just cared about people.”

Cignetti’s influence went well beyond players and coaches.

Anthony Fucinari was working for the Penn in the fall of 2005 when he was assigned the student-run newspaper’s biggest sports beat: IUP football. He received a copy of the team’s media guide and dived in. When he read about Cignetti and his career to that point, Fucinari realized he was not dealing with an ordinary football coach. He learned about the wins, the championships, and the national accolades, and he also read about Cignetti’s commitment to bettering IUP and its students. Fucinari felt intimidated. The first time he attended Cignetti’s weekly in-season news conference, he was admittedly nervous.

“But he put me at ease, because he treated me like anyone else,” said Fucinari, a 2007 graduate who now lives in Souderton and is director of operations for a national medical group. “There were times that season when I’d go to him and ask if he had a moment to talk, and he always said yes, and he was always so nice. I didn’t expect that.”

Four days before the 2005 season finale, Cignetti announced he was retiring. During the game at Miller Stadium, Fucinari was reporting from the sideline when he noticed dozens of former players—from Cignetti’s first IUP team in 1986 to more recent teams—there to show their support for the coach who changed their lives.

Fucinari realized that the story wasn’t the game. IUP lost, but it didn’t matter. What did matter was the outpouring of love for the legendary coach in his final tour of the sideline.

“There were so many guys on the sideline, and it was hard to maneuver to cover the game,” he said. “That’s when I stopped taking notes on the actual game and started talking to people, and I learned a lot about Cignetti.”

Fucinari heard stories from former players and assistants ranging from funny to heartfelt and everywhere in between.

“One guy told me that if he was going to war, he’d want to go with Coach Cignetti,” he said. “I heard all these profound things about him, and they were things that you don’t hear about just anyone.”

Seventeen years later, Fucinari doesn’t remember much about the game, but he does recall the emotions he saw and felt afterward. There were current players in tears, upset that they couldn’t win their beloved coach’s last game. There were former players wishing they could suit up for their coach one more time. Those memories came rushing back to Fucinari a few weeks ago.

“It was just a privilege to be there and to be able to tell part of that story,” he said. “When I heard that he had passed away, I just thought of all those players up and down the sideline, and I knew they all had their own stories of why they were there. Coach Cignetti meant a lot to them, to everyone.”

Whittaker was watching a college football game on September 10 when he saw the news that Cignetti had died. He immediately thought of that day 20 years ago when his coach supported him when he could barely stand on his own.

“It made me so sad,” Whittaker said. “He seemed like the kind of guy who would live forever, but I guess in our memories he does.”

Dougherty was driving to East Stroudsburg to do the color commentary on the radio broadcast of the IUP season opener when he heard the news, and his mind went back to those days more than 30 years ago when he found a family at a point when he thought he had lost it all.

“I truly believe that he felt there was an obligation to take care of me,” Dougherty said. “He knew that he could somehow help me fulfill my potential, and I could never repay him for the things he has given me.”

Across the country, there were certainly hundreds of others who had an experience with Cignetti that made a positive impact on their lives. Those memories came rushing back, bringing new life to the former coach after he was gone.

“In life,” Fucinari said, “don’t we all want to have that kind of impact?”