JMU’s Bowl Ineligibility Could Cost Curt Cignetti More Than $100,000 in Bonuses

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Daniel Merriman

JMU football’s ineligibility for a New Year’s Six Bowl could cost head coach Curt Cignetti a pretty penny.

Included in the Dukes’ head coach’s contract are performance-based incentives for reaching a bowl game, winning a bowl game, and a New Year’s Six Bowl game appearance. JMU Sports News obtained a copy of Cignetti’s contract through a Freedom of Information Act request and discovered that the Dukes’ leader receives a $100,000 bonus if JMU reaches a New Year’s Six Bowl. It’s the largest of Cignetti’s numerous bonus incentives.

Even a bowl game appearance nets a hefty $25,000 payday for the former West Virginia quarterback. Additionally, a $10,000 bonus would be added on for a bowl win. JMU being left out of the Sun Belt Championship game and College Football Playoff rankings also carry potential financial ramifications for JMU’s head coach.

A Sun Belt Championship appearance carries with it a $25,000 bonus for Cignetti. A Sun Belt Championship victory yields a $40,000 bonus. Being ranked in the final CFP Top 25 results in a $25,000 bonus. Cignetti’s contract doesn’t include any bonus for being ranked in the final AP Top 25 poll.

In theory, if JMU goes 12-0 and ends the regular season as the nation’s best Group of Five team, Cignetti could lose out on at least $150,000 in bonuses.

Cignetti still has a few attainable contract bonus incentives this season. He received $15,000 for JMU’s win over UVA, as he earns $15,000 for every Power Five win. He’ll also receive at least $35,000 for the Dukes winning eight regular-season games this season. That bonus will increase with each of JMU’s future wins, with a cap of 11 FBS victories.

The ineligibility backstory

After transitioning to the FBS, James Madison University was subject to a two-year transition period enforced by the NCAA. The Dukes missed out on the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game and a bowl game in 2022 because of that jump from FCS to FBS.

JMU applied for a waiver to reduce the transitional period to a singular year but it was denied in April of 2023. Regardless of this waiver denial, Cignetti has continuously believed that “common sense will prevail” when it comes to the Dukes’ bowling chances in 2023.

The NCAA bylaws allow a team that is in their second transition year to participate in a bowl game if there are not enough six-win, bowl-eligible teams. This path seems promising, as JMU would need 52/133 teams to not hit the 6-6 or better threshold. However, even if the Dukes became bowl eligible, they would not be able to participate in a New Year’s Six bowl. 

Cignetti achieving some of his performance-based incentives in 2023 seems far-fetched at best. However, over the past month, there have been significant rumblings from several Virginia politicians of legal action against the NCAA. Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, a JMU graduate, sent a letter to NCAA president Charlie Baker requesting a waiver for the Dukes so that they could skip the second year of the FCS-FBS transition. This request was swiftly denied. 

Lawsuit coming?

Miyares recently appeared in an exclusive podcast interview with JMU Sound Off, a fan-operated podcast that covers the Dukes and helps to promote the Duke Club as well as the Montpelier Collective. During this episode of the podcast, Miyares said that he and his civil litigation team were exploring any and all legal options in response to the NCAA’s ruling.

This mention of his civil litigation team was very intentional, according to reporting from the Daily-News Record. This likely means that part of Miyares’ team is crafting a lawsuit against the NCAA. 

There has been no legal action currently from any political figures in the Commonwealth, though.

The Dukes are still ineligible for the College Football Playoff rankings and a New Year’s Six Bowl, even if they go 12-0 and are ranked higher in the AP Top 25 than Air Force (8-0) and Tulane (7-1). Maybe “common sense prevails,” but realistically the only way the Dukes get any movement in their guaranteed bowl eligibility or CFP status is through political action. 

Cignetti underpaid?

Curt Cignetti is currently outside the top 100 of highest-paid coaches in the NCAA, according to USA Today. One spot higher than him is Ball State’s Mike Neu — Ball State is currently 2-6. One spot lower is Thomas Hammock of Northern Illinois — the Huskies are 4-5 and 3-2 in conference play.

Even with his possible bonuses, Cignetti is grossly under compensated given JMU’s success. He’s deserving of a big payday, and a recent contract adjustment includes a clause that Cignetti and JMU will meet following the conclusion of the 2025 season to “begin negotiating in good faith an appropriate increase in Coach’s Annual Salary.”

The head coach is on contract through 2029 after an extension was signed in December of 2022. JMU is owed $1.2 million should he leave for a Power Five program before Feb. 1, 2024.

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