By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Frank Cignetti, the man who preceded Don Nehlen as head football coach at West Virginia University, was elected to the College Football Divisional Hall of Fame Thursday for his two decades at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Cignetti is the winningest coach in IUP history, having compiled a 182-50 record.
Joining Cignetti in this year’s class are linebacker Shelby Jordan from Washington University in St. Louis, 1979-72; quarterback Joe Miccia of Westminster, Pa., 1987-89; offensive tackle Art Sell of Maryland Eastern Shore, 1964-67; and fullback Jeff Wittman of Ithaca, N.Y., 1989-92.
The coaches going in with Cignetti are James “Boots” Donnelly of Austin Peay and Middle Tennessee State, 1977-98, and Jess Dow of Southern Connecticut State, 1948-65.
“This is a truly exceptional group of College Football Hall of Fame inductees from the divisional ranks,” said National Football Foundation Chairman Archie Manning, a 1989 Hall of Fame inductee from Ole Miss. “We look forward to celebrating their accomplishments this summer, and we applaud them for reaching the pinnacle of recognition in our great sport.”
Cignetti attended Indiana as a player and was an NAIA All-American end during a playing career that went from 1965 to 1968. His outstanding coaching ability led to him becoming offensive coordinator under Hall of Fame coach Bobby Bowden from 1970-75 before taking over as the Mountaineers’ head coach for four seasons (1976-79).
Unfortunately, Cignetti was fighting a tougher fight than winning football games at the time, battling cancer as he continued to coach. To make matters worse, this was a period when the Mountaineers’ two top rivals, Pitt and Penn State, were at the top of their games.
Cignetti had built a strong staff with assistant coaches such as Rick Trickett, Joe Pendry, Gary Stevens, Tommy Bowden and current Alabama head coach Nick Saban but could not win, leaving after the 1979 season with a record of 17-27. If he did not leave behind a winning record, he did leave behind a number of winning players such as Oliver Luck and Darryl Talley upon whom Nehlen could begin building what would be a Hall of Fame career of his own.
“In my opinion, Frank Cignetti was never given the dues that he should have been given,” Nehlen once said. “He coached under a deplorable situation. No one could ever have won here.”
Cignetti remained at WVU through June 1982, working on facility projects.
In 1982, cured of cancer and eager to start over, he returned to his alma mater as football coach and athletic director, doing both so well that he was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1996.
It didn’t take long for Cignetti to find success at IUP, leading the Hawks to conference titles in his first two seasons in 1986 and 1987 and subsequent Division II national title game appearances in 1990 and 1993.
He took IUP to 13 Division II playoffs appearances, including six trips to the national semifinals, and he led the Hawks to at least a co-share of the PSAC Western Division title 14 times. Under his tutelage, IUP ranked in the Top 20 each season from 1986-2004, achieving undefeated regular seasons in 1991 and 1993. He retired after the 2005 season as the third-winningest active coach in Division II.
Cignetti’s teams received the Lambert Cup 10 times as the top Division II team in the East. He was named the PSAC West Coach of the Year five times and the Kodak College Division Regional Coach of the Year three times en route to earning Chevrolet Division II National Coach of the Year honors in 1991. Cignetti coached 11 first-team All-Americans and 124 first-team All-PSAC performers.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.