By Mickey Furfari
For the Times West Virginian
Frank Cignetti, head coach at West Virginia University from 1976-79, has been a longtime admirer of Nick Saban’s football coaching ability.
He gave the Marion County native one of his first jobs, as coach of the Mountaineers’ defensive secondary in 1978-79.
Cignetti said Tuesday that he certainly wasn’t surprised that Saban piloted Alabama to a 21-0 victory and the national championship over No. 1 Louisiana State on Monday night. It was his third national title.
Cignetti, who became a legend as coach and athletic director at Indiana University (Pa.), recalled that he remembered first seeing Saban as a quarterback and defensive back at Monongah High School. Kerry Marbury, a great halfback, was a teammate who later starred at WVU.
“Nick absolutely has had an amazingly successful coaching career,” Cignetti said. “It depends on the situation you are in. And Nick has been around a lot of really great mentors.”
He was a graduate assistant at Kent State, his alma mater, when Cignetti took over the reins at West Virginia from Bobby Bowden in 1976.
“But most of the defensive coaches decided to stay (from Bowden’s staff),” Cignetti recalled. “But two years later, I brought in Nick Saban for an interview.
“I was really very impressed, and I hired him. I didn’t know much about his coaching, but I had known he was a great recruiter.”
Why did he offer Saban, then at Syracuse, the position?
“No. 1, he was very intelligent,” Cignetti said. “No. 2, he was very focused, and No. 3, a great teacher. And No. 4, I was really very impressed with the guy.”
So much so, Cignetti recommended Saban for a job on the Ohio State coaching staff after Don Nehlen succeeded him as head coach after the 1979 season.
Cignetti battled life-threatening health issues in the last two years of his four-year tenure at WVU. He served as an administration aide until July 1, 1982 before leaving.
He could tell from the short time he had Saban on the WVU staff that the then-young coach had a wonderful career in front of him.
Cignetti recalled that he and former Pitt coach Johnny Majors attended one of Saban’s practice sessions three days before his Alabama team played Texas in a championship playoff.
Majors told Cignetti, “Frank, this is the best practice that I’ve ever seen in football preparation for an upcoming game.”
To Frank Cignetti, Nick Saban is “very quiet, but a great football head coach and a good person.”