There may not be any white smoke emerging from Memorial Stadium, but Indiana football has its new leader.
The Hoosiers are finalizing a deal with James Madison’s Curt Cignetti as their new head coach, wrapping up a relatively quick coaching search. IU announced Tom Allen’s firing on Sunday, and found his successor in less than a week.
Cignetti, 62, owns a 119-35 career record as a head coach, across three stops. He spent five years with JMU, where he went 52-9. The Dukes competed in the FCS during his first three years, and they won CAA titles in all three seasons. They finished as national runners-up in 2019, and lost in the national semifinals in 2020 and 2021.
The program moved up to FBS in 2022 and joined the Sun Belt. Teams which make that jump can have trouble immediately thriving, but Cignetti and the Dukes did just that. JMU went 8-3 in 2022, with a 6-2 record in the Sun Belt, and the program went 11-1 (7-1 Sun Belt) this year.
That seems to define Cignetti more than anything else. He’s adapted to a lot of different situations throughout his career, and he’s consistently won in all of them.
Among the purported top candidates for the job, Indiana seemed to be targeting someone who’s been a head coach before, whether they were currently a head coach or had been previously. Between those sorts of candidates, there’s multiple ways of looking at them: are they experienced, or are they retreads?
Paul Chryst, one of the reported top choices for the job, toes that line more closely. He had a lot of success at the Power Five level with Wisconsin, though he inherited a strong foundation and things started to tail off by the end of his tenure in Madison. There was certainly a case he would’ve been a sensible hire for the Hoosiers. But IU would have been his third power-conference head coach position, and some skepticism about his methods and his motivations would’ve been fair.
But though Cignetti is older than Chryst, you can’t call him a retread. This will be his first opportunity at a power-conference program. You’d think he’ll come in eager to back up his gaudy record, racked up mostly in Division II, and prove it can translate on a bigger stage.
Cignetti has had success at an even bigger program than Indiana, as an assistant. He served as wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at Alabama, on Nick Saban’s first staff with the Crimson Tide. He coached future Hall of Famer Julio Jones in Tuscaloosa and won a national championship with Alabama in 2009. Before that stop on his career path, Cignetti coached Philip Rivers at NC State, and he recruited Russell Wilson to the Wolfpack.
Now, there’s no guarantee all of this leads to success. NIL will be a far bigger factor for Cignetti’s job at Indiana than it was at James Madison or any of his other head coaching jobs. He wouldn’t be the first coach with this sort of track record to take a new job — whether at IU or elsewhere — and struggle, and he wouldn’t be the last. Cignetti will be swimming in far more treacherous waters in the Big Ten than he did at any of his other stops. Only time will tell how successfully he’ll navigate them.
Cignetti will have a lot of work to do right away in the transfer portal, which officially opens on Monday. The Hoosiers saw a lot of key players enter the portal this week, including starting quarterback Brendan Sorsby, wide receiver Donaven McCulley, running back Trent Howland, and the entire starting offensive line. Some of those players may leave for another school regardless of Cignetti’s pitch. He’ll have to work quickly to bring back the players he deems important moving forward, and to fill in the gaps left by others who depart. He’ll also have to shore things up with IU’s recruiting class ahead of the early signing period in late December.
But for now, in Curt Cignetti, the Hoosiers have their guy. And their guy is a winner.
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