FRISCO, Texas — Asked to to reflect on the past year, James Madison coach Curt Cignetti acknowledges that it was a whirlwind to start.
Cignetti was announced as the Dukes’ coach on Dec. 14, 2018, after two seasons at Elon. Signing day was five days later and, in the midst of that, Cignetti had to assemble a staff.
But, 391 days after his hire, he found himself on the field at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, talking to media, after piloting JMU back to Saturday’s FCS national title game.
“This was a team that fell a little short of expectations last year, which was a great motivational tool heading into the season,” Cignetti said. “And when you’re able to hire good people and you’ve got great resources and administrative support and you got a plan to sort of develop your team on a daily basis — and really good players.
“So it just all came together and here we are.”
At the forefront of that administrative support is JMU director of athletics Jeff Bourne. Bourne took over at JMU in 1999, and has overseen two national championships in football, in 2004 and 2016.
Now, after making what was his third football coach hire in six years, Bourne gets to see the program make what is its third national title game appearance in four years.
“It helped validate our decision to hire Curt Cignetti,” Bourne said Thursday, of the success of this season. “That made me feel really good. And the job he’s able to do with his assistant coaching staff. Kids have had a great experience.”
Bourne got to watch Cignetti work at Elon, a fellow member of the Colonial Athletic Association. He found what Cignetti did there impressive, taking the Phoenix to the playoffs both years, just the second and third playoff appearances in school history.
The experience with Cignetti in charge at JMU has been what the Dukes hoped it would be.
“And how he embraced the culture was there and then he helped it grow,” Bourne said.
The transition has come across fairly seamless, from Mike Houston — who went 37-6 over his three years at JMU, including the 2016 national title — to Cignetti. The Dukes have made the playoffs each of the last six years total.
From Bourne’s perspective, the level of success the Dukes have reached in recent years has a lot to do with the way they recruit. Then the tools for them are there once they get on campus.
“We have a support mechanism around them now, with regard to sports medicine and academics and strength and conditioning and nutrition, that’s a holistic experience,” Bourne said. “And when you can pull all that together and get it moving in the right direction, you’re able to create some continuity.”
In terms of those kinds of resources, Bourne said they have talked to university administration and JMU’s Board of Visitors about them and that, in order to achieve success long term, there has to be consistent funding.
The Dukes can’t slip in one of the major support areas, Bourne said. Those areas, whether it be academics, sports medicine or nutrition, are crucial to the continuous improvement of the program, he said.
One question that seems to persist about the JMU program, considering its success, is whether the Dukes would make the jump from FCS to FBS. Bourne told the Times-Dispatch last month that wasn’t really anything new on that front.
Any opportunity that might present itself would be weighed against the program’s success at its current level.
“At this point, though, there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty with regard to how the sport is going to evolve outside the Power 5 going forward,” Bourne said. “Our young men like wearing national championship rings, and that’s going to mean a lot to them not just now, but when they’re 40 years old, looking back on their careers.”
The JMU fanbase, no doubt, likes seeing the school play for national titles, too. JMU was allotted 4,281 tickets for Saturday’s game against North Dakota State — and sold out.
The Dukes have positioned themselves as a program that can be one of the best in the country, and Bourne remains behind the scenes, continuing to try to ensure the success continues.
“Continuity with our coaching staff,” Bourne said when asked about the keys of keeping the success going from an administrative perspective. “Consistency with how we’re recruiting student-athletes. And then, last but not least, continued support.”