HARRISONBURG — To Curt Cignetti, James Madison is the Alabama of the FCS.
He would know. Cignetti, who was named JMU’s new football coach last Friday, succeeding Mike Houston, spent four years as Alabama’s recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach from 2007 to 2010, under Nick Saban.
“A great, passionate fan base that cares, that wants to know, wants to be engaged,” Cignetti said. “And you come out here on game day, the stadium is sold out. There’s no other school at this level like JMU.”
Cignetti was introduced on Monday in a press conference at JMU’s Bridgeforth Stadium. He arrives at JMU after two seasons at fellow Colonial Athletic Association school Elon.
Elon was Cignetti’s second head coaching position, following six at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania from 2011 to 2016, after his stint at Alabama. He’s posted a winning record in each of his seasons as a head coach and is 67-26 overall.
Houston, in three seasons in Harrisonburg, went 37-6 with two CAA titles and a national title, before he as hired as East Carolina’s coach earlier this month. His only loss at home was to Cignetti’s Elon team, 27-24 this past October.
Cignetti’s said JMU is a team that should win conferences titles every year and contend for national championships. He considers JMU the best FCS coaching job east of the Mississippi River, and one of the top two or three in America.
“We have high and lofty goals, and where we would like to go relative to what we have done, which is pretty remarkable,” Cignetti said. “But we’re capable of more. And I don’t mean to put unrealistic pressure on myself, but I know what the expectation level here is, and I do embrace that.”
JMU director of athletics Jeff Bourne hoped Cignetti would show interest in the Dukes’ job. The school had a pool of approximately 30 well-qualified candidates, Bourne said.
That list was whittled down to nine, and of those nine, there were six or seven JMU knew were truly interested in the job.
Cignetti met with JMU in Atlanta, then had another meeting in Harrisonburg, before the deal was sealed. Cignetti’s contract is for six years and $425,000 per year.
“Every box that we asked for, he not only checked, but checked at a high level,” Bourne said.
At Elon, Cignetti went 14-9 and made the FCS playoffs both years. The program had losing seasons each of the previous six years.
Cignetti said it was a difficult decision to leave Elon.
“It was a special place,” Cignetti said. “But there’s only one James Madison, there’s only one.”
Cignetti said he has a great professional respect for Houston. He believes that the two are very similar philosophically and how they view football.
Cignetti said the defense at JMU is going to be similar to what it was under the previous staff with a four-man front. On offense, Cignetti said the Dukes will be balanced.
“We will be a tough, physical, nasty football team running the football,” Cignetti said. “And that’s going to open up the passing game.”
JMU will have much of last year’s team back. It went went 9-4 and reached the second round of the playoffs before falling to Colgate.
“This is not a rebuild, it is not broken,” Cignetti said. “But everybody needs to understand, it does need to improve, because we lost four games last year.”
Of importance now is securing the next crop of players, with the early signing period opening Wednesday. JMU has a class of about a dozen pledges, Cignetti said, and he talked with all of them on Sunday. He said about half of those players likely will sign on Wednesday.
Cignetti also will be working to complete his staff. Among the staffers already on board are wide receivers coach Mike Shanahan, offensive line coach Damian Wroblewski, defensive line coach Jerrick Hall, linebackers coach Bryant Haines, secondary coach Ryan Smith, strength and conditioning coach Brian Phillips and director of football operations James Ferguson.
Offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators are still to be determined.
Cignetti, 57, counts his father, Frank Cignetti — a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, who went 199-77-1 as a coach at West Virginia (1976-79) and IUP (1986-2005) — and Saban among his influences.
He’s had his own success as a head coach. He said his blueprint works.
“It’s a really good football team in terms of the talent material returning,” Cignetti said. “Now, it’s my job to develop this team and make them as lean and mean and tough and smart, and play ball our way. And develop those intangibles.”