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Frank Cignetti’s greatest win in life was not on the field: It was a victory over cancer

RIP: Frank Cignetti 1937-2022

… lymphoid granulomatosis discovered at the age of 40

When the legendary Coach Bobby Bowden left West Virginia University in 1975, his departure led to the elevation of a former player from the Indiana State College in Indiana, Pa.

Frank Cignetti had been an assistant coach on Bowden’s staff for five years, and he was elevated to the head coaching job. The native of Apollo, Pa. had worked his way from a high school coach to a Div. I head coaching job in less than 15 years, a tremendous accomplishment.

However, Cignetti’s greatest accomplishment in his 84 years did not center upon anything that he did on the football field. Instead, in 1978, he lay in a hospital bed in West Virginia not knowing if he was going to live to coach another game or to see his four children mature into adults.

Coach Cignetti passed away this week at the age of 84, according to an announcement form the family.

1979: “He is afraid of dying”

In an interview with the Washington Post in July of 1979 when he was head coach of the Mountaineers at West Virginia, Cignetti admitted that he harbored fears of dying from cancer just about eight months earlier.

This was not hyperbole,

Cignetti nearly died last December. At the age of 40, he has cancer, a rare and serious form of disease, known as lymphoid granulomatosis. The disease is so rare -- about a dozen cases a year in this county -- that there are no statistics on the survival rate. But the most optimistic thing Robert H. Waldman, Cignetti's doctor, will say about it is, "People have survived it."

Cignetti is determined to be one of those people. In December he underwent a splenectomy and spent 35 days in the hospital. At one point his wife Marlene called her four children and told them, “I don't think Daddy's going to make it."

But Cignetti made it. His weight, once down to 168 pounds, is back up to 214 pounds. Recently, he started jogging again. And, with his thick sandy brown hair and soft, youthful figure, he looks more like a healthy 30 than a sick 40.

John Feinstein, “Cignetti finds winning isn’t everything,” Washington Post, July 31, 1979

Part of a herculean struggle

In his first year as coach succeeding Bowden, 1976, the Mountaineers finished with a 5-6 record. However, the following season WVU started out well and built a 4-1 record, including an upset of a top ten team.

However, injuries took their tool, with 11 of the top 24 players out. They finished 5-6 and fell to 2-9 in 1978, a time when Cignetti was coaching with the cancer.

By 1979 when there were moves afoot to replace him, only a vocal group of alumni prevented that from happening.

However, it changed Cignetti in many ways,

Frank Cignetti, the West Virginia football coach, is trying these days to concentrate on rebuilding his team after a 29 1978 season. Entering the final year of a two-year contract, Cignetti knows he must have a winning season to retain his job. Much as he wants to win, Cignetti is not afraid of losing football games.

He is afraid of dying.

"The whole thing is very scary," he said, feet up on his desk, apparently relaxed except for a slight, occasional tremor in his voice. "You try not to think about it but you can't help it.

"You read something or you see something and it jolts you. You have to take that fear and get it out of your mind. Fear can do a lot of things to you.

"I think because of what I've been through I'm a better person now. A better coach and a better Christian. Every day I pray to God and ask him to let me go on being a productive person.

"I don't want to die."

John Feinstein, Washington Post, July 31, 1979

Felt weak during the season

In the latter stages of the 2-9 season in 1978, Cignetti began to know that something was wrong with him physically,

As the long season wore on, Cignetti found himself feeling tired and weak.

"At first I just thought the long season was wearing me down," he said. "Losing can do things to you. But then about Thanksgiving, right after the season ended, I began feeling worse."

Early December, his family doctor, unable to understand why Cignetti was weak and runnig high fevers sent him to the university medical center for tests.

"He was getting worried." Cignetti said with a wistful smile. "We were rapidly running out of minor things it could be."

Once in the hospital, after days of tests. Waldman determined that Cignetti swollen spleen had to be removed. After the operation Cignetti developed an intestinal blockage and a second operation was necessary.

John Feinstein, Washington Post, July 31, 1979

That led to chemotherapy and a long recovery.

Cignetti’s return to Indiana led to a Div. II “powerhouse”

After the 1979 season, Cignetti resigned the football job after a 17-27 record in four seasons, although West Virginia allowed him to continue working within the athletic department. However, in 1982, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) was seeking an athletic director, and he was named as the AD at his alma mater.

In 1986, he returned to the football field, taking over the duties of the IUP Indians, now known as the Crimson Hawks. He coached for 20 years, putting together the glory years of IUP football. He compiled a record of 182-50-1 (78 percent), including 12 trips to the NCAA Div. II playoffs. His teams reached the Div. II national championship game in 1990 and 1993 and the semifinals six times.

IUP became a veritable powerhouse.

Nothing, however, equaled his victory over cancer, living 44 years after the cancer was diagnosed, allowing him redemption on the field and to see his family grow, including two sons who became college and NFL coaches.

The courage and tenacity that he demonstrated to recover and build IUP’s athletic programs into national contenders is what is most impressive about his legacy.

[Frank Jr. is the offensive coordinator at Pitt after coaching in the NFL for about 20 years, and Curt is now the head coach at James Madison University.]

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