It is no secret that Indiana — the losingest program in FBS history — has an extensive past of being an unfortunate, derelict football program.
With conference realignment and powerhouse schools such as Oregon, USC, Washington and UCLA joining the Big Ten, Indiana needs to revamp its football team to maintain its residency in the Big Ten, let alone compete.
In the first stage of its face lift, Indiana fired head coach Tom Allen and hired former JMU head coach Curt Cignetti.
So, who is Cignetti and how can he help this team?
He’s done a lot of winning lately
Cignetti has 40 years of coaching experience, with his head coaching career beginning in 2011. Cignetti boasts a 119-35 record as a head coach, 52-9 in five seasons at JMU. Since Cignetti joined the Dukes in 2019, JMU is 31-4 across the CAA and Sun Belt Conferences.
To put that in Indiana perspective, you have to count up all Big Ten wins since 2010 to get to 31 wins. Thirty-one wins and 87 losses.
Before becoming a head coach, Cignetti’s duties were found in the quarterback, tight end and wide receiver rooms. If Indiana is looking for an entirely different identity than the defense-centric team it has seen the past seven years, it has it in offensive-minded Cignetti.
In his assistant coaching roles, Cignetti coached under Nick Saban at the beginning of his Alabama tenure, learning from who some might consider one of the greatest minds in college football.
He’s a proven recruiter at multiple levels
One of Cignetti’s biggest, most urgent challenges will come in the form of recruiting. As of right now, Indiana’s roster is thin. Nineteen Hoosiers have their name in the transfer portal in addition to many staple names they will be losing regardless, such as linebacker Aaron Casey, who have exhausted their eligibility. Just because names are in the portal does not mean their choice to leave is definite, but it will take effort to retain what is left of the roster.
Cignetti will have the opportunity to pull in transfers from the portal, but the world of NIL is brutal, unforgiving and will run you over if not willing to dish out the big bucks to pull together a roster capable of competing in the Big Ten. On Wednesday, Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule said just a good quarterback from the transfer portal costs $1-2 million right now.
Again, to look at it through an Indiana lens, the athletic department has promised $3 million in NIL to the new coach, which in today’s age of college football is pennies to what other programs are spending.
However, Cignetti is familiar with recruiting in the Power 5 as a recruiting coordinator at NC State and Alabama. Cignetti brought Russell Wilson to NC State. At Alabama he recruited Mark Ingram and Dont’a Hightower. His ability and history with recruiting make him a desirable coach considering what his first task will be and looking towards reaping the portal in future years.
Cignetti’s recruiting will be essential to his establishing a foundation of culture and success in his first years at Indiana.
He’s a quarterback specialist
A quarterback himself at West Virginia, Cignetti was a quarterbacks coach at Davidson, Rice, Temple, Pitt and NC State prior to his time as a head coach. Cignetti left for Alabama before coaching Wilson, but he did coach 2003 ACC Player of the Year — Philip Rivers.
Indiana has struggled to successfully fill the quarterback position following the transfer of Michael Penix Jr. In the 2023 season, Brendan Sorsby and Tayven Jackson emerged as the future quarterbacks of the team. Both young, inexperienced redshirt freshmen, they have potential and would develop well under a head coach with a quarterback mind. Sorsby is currently in the portal, but even if left to Jackson, Cignetti might be able to carve a reliable, winning quarterback out of the promise that is already there.
An example of that is JMU’s quarterback Jordan McCloud. McCloud has improved his stats since going under Cignetti’s wing. Originally at University of South Florida McCloud had a 55.4% completion rate and averaged a total of 1,385 yards over his two years there. At Arizona he had only 481 yards. Once at JMU, McCloud has improved to a 68.9% completion rate and has 3,413 passing yards and has thrown for 32 touchdowns. The second highest number of touchdowns he threw was 12 in his first year at USF.
Going back to what Rhule said about a good quarterback costing good money, it will be key for Indiana to cultivate the talent it already has. That goes beyond just the quarterback position, though that would be a good place to start.
He’s shown the ability to turn a team around
As a head coach, Cignetti has now joined four programs in desperate need of a makeover.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania (no connection to IU-Bloomington) had just a 4-10 conference record over two years before Cignetti came in. In Cignetti's first seasons he was 7-3, 5-2 in conference. Not only was he defeating teams, but by impressive margins, averaging a win by over 28 points a game. He finished his time at IUP with a 53-17 record.
At Elon, Cignetti stepped in after a 2-9 season. In his first season, the Phoenix went on an 8-0 run to start the season. Cignetti spent only two seasons at Elon and left with a 14-9 record.
It is safe to say that Indiana is in a relatable drought. The Hoosiers are 9-27 over the past three years, with only three conference wins. A coach undaunted by an unsuccessful history is exactly the hire the program needed to make. While neither programs were Power 5 schools, it helps that Cignetti knows he has the capability to improve a team that is in such a bleak, desolate state like one that Indiana is in.
There are still some worries about the future
Speculation of Cignetti’s hire has been flooding the internet for a few days now, and like all hires there are some obvious concerns.
First has been age. Cignetti is 62 years old, so there is no telling how much longer he is planning to continue his coaching career.
A bigger one has been his lack of experience in the head coaching position at a Power 5. It is an intimidating time to be a historically unsuccessful football program in the Big Ten. It is not for the weak. NIL will certainly throw some bumps in the road. While JMU has NIL opportunities, it was not trying to compete with the dynasties of Ohio State and Michigan. Cignetti will run into some learning curves, but with the support of the university a program with at least a winning record is achievable.
However the support of the university might be one of the biggest challenges itself. Indiana has never prioritized the football program nor allocated the necessary funds and it may be what led to Allen’s demise. In his parting message Allen stressed how important it would be to fund the program in the growing NIL landscape. Former players have also come out saying how this hire will be futile if the university doesn’t properly invest in the players.