MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – For Neal Brown, West Virginia’s season opener against James Madison is a debut. For Dukes coach Curt Cignetti, it’s a return.
In an unusual twist, the home coach’s experience in his home stadium pales in comparison to a visitor who will be ending a 35-year hiatus from the town where he grew up.
Stranger still, Curt is the first Cignetti that will coach a game at Milan Puskar Stadium – a facility that his father Frank pushed for relentlessly before being denied the opportunity to ever use it.
Fighting for a stadium, but losing on the field
Frank Cignetti is not remembered fondly by the West Virginia record book.
In a program full of winners, Cignetti’s .386 winning percentage sticks out like a sore thumb. The only coach in WVU history to do worse was a gentleman named Thomas “Doggie” Trenchard, who managed a .333 winning percentage in 1896 due to three consecutive losses against Lafayette and another to the Mahoning Cycle Club.
But that’s not where fans should look for Cignetti’s contribution to West Virginia football. His biggest legacy stands underneath the feet of the sellout crowd attending Saturday’s game – Mountaineer Field, now known as Milan Puskar Stadium.
Though he was hardly alone, Cignetti banged the drum loudly to get an upgrade from Old Mountaineer Field as the college football landscape started turning into a bigger business in the late ‘70s.
“I remember him going through the state politicking to get that thing built,” Curt said this week. “I think he left the program with a really good foundation for success. The stadium was key long-term to get that done.”
Cignetti was handed multiple burdens when he inherited the program from former boss Bobby Bowden in 1976.
Primarily, Old Mountaineer Field was an antiquated 38,000-capacity facility squeezed into the middle of West Virginia’s campus. Without the aid of old pictures hanging on the walls of local restaurants and bars, it’s impossible to envision where such a structure would even fit today.
The place was hostile to visitors, to be sure.
“Old Mountaineer Field was a tough place to play because fans were right above you,” Curt said.
Unfortunately, its spartan accommodations made it a tough place to play for the home team, too.
“My philosophy was that we were going to recruit the best players we can and do the best job developing them with very limited resources in terms of weight room and facilities,” Frank said on MetroNews Sportsline this week.
At the same time, WVU ramped up its scheduling. Formerly common opponents like VMI and William & Mary were getting swapped out for tougher competition.
“When I took over, there was a transition that took place,” Frank said. “We tried to go to a more national schedule.”
At time time, it was too much for the Mountaineers to bite off.
West Virginia’s problems were exacerbated by the presence of two powerhouses in their own backyard. Pitt won the 1976 national championship and was in the Top 10 in two of the other three seasons of Cignetti’s tenure. Penn State finished in the Top 5 in ’77 and ’78.
Cignetti went a combined 0-7 against the Panthers and Nittany Lions.
A win in the ’79 season finale would have clinched a winning season and given him a chance to open the new stadium he had advocated for. Instead, a humiliating 42-7 loss at Arizona State sealed his fate.
“We had excellent coaches,” said Cignetti, who employed a young secondary coach named Nick Saban. “We just didn’t get it done. That’s my responsibility.”
Debut déjà vu
His dad was gone, but Curt was there to open the New Mountaineer Field on Sept. 6, 1980.
As a Morgantown High graduate who lived in the town since he was a grade-schooler, West Virginia was practically all the younger Cignetti knew. Curt stayed in the program as a backup to quarterback Oliver Luck as WVU began a new era under Don Nehlen.
“It wasn’t finished, so we were taking exchanges in this area next to the locker room. It was just all concrete,” Curt said. “I remember John Denver flying in and playing Country Roads. It was a facility that was much needed, and it was a great day.”
The Mountaineers beat Cincinnati, 41-27, and so began the most successful coaching tenure in program history.
Now Curt Cignetti finds himself in a very different scenario – trying to spoil the debut of the coach that many fans hope to one day speak of with the same reverence as Nehlen.
Though Frank never got to coach at Milan Puskar Stadium, he’ll be there watching his son follow in his footsteps on Saturday – just from a different angle.
He’ll be rooting for James Madison, of course, but not out of bitterness towards WVU. This is no revenge game for the Cignettis.
“I enjoyed every day I had at West Virginia. To this day, that was my family’s favorite place,” said Frank, who went on to have 20 consecutive non-losing seasons at Division II Indiana of Pennsylvania. “My children felt they had a great childhood there. They love West Virginia. They have pride in the program there and a lot of passion for it.
“It was a special place. I’m very thankful for the opportunity that was given to me there. I’d do it all over again if the situation was the same.”