Curt Cignetti Leaving JMU for Indiana

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

Curt Cignetti is leaving JMU for Indiana, ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported

Under the terms of Cignetti’s contract, JMU will receive a $1.2 million payout for the coach taking a Power Five job before Jan. 31, 2024. 

Cignetti went 52-9 over five seasons with JMU, making the FCS semifinals in all three seasons the Dukes competed at the FCS level. When the Dukes made the FBS jump in 2022, JMU found continued success under Cignetti, going 19-4 over two seasons. The Dukes finished atop the Sun Belt East in both the 2022 and 2023 seasons. 

JMU will play in a bowl game later this month, the first bowl appearance in program history. 

“This was a really difficult decision and I really wrestled with it hard,” Cignetti said via press release. “These were the best five years of my professional life. We accomplished a lot every year but particularly the last two and this season was so special. I had total intentions and plans to retire here. I had a great job. The university really upped their commitment and did everything possible to keep me and the staff here. They couldn’t have done any more than they did.”

Pressure to find a replacement

With Cignetti leaving for the Big Ten, pressure quickly flips to Athletic Director Jeff Bourne and President Jon Alger to hire a new football coach. It’s likely the duo (plus any outside consulting firm used) already has a list of possible options prepared. 

“In the coming weeks, I want our full focus and support to be on our student-athletes and the pending bowl game we have all anxiously awaited,” Alger said via press release. “Given our long track record of success, we are confident that the coaching job at JMU will be a highly coveted position, and that we will attract a very strong national pool of candidates.”

The Dukes will want to secure as many of their 2024 recruiting class commitments as possible, with early National Signing Day looming on Dec. 20. A new coach will also have to work to retain projected returning players who could enter the transfer portal, including standout defenders like James Carpenter, Jailin Walker, and Aiden Fisher. 

JMU finished the 2023 regular season with incredible momentum, going 11-1 overall and 7-1 in the Sun Belt. The Dukes hosted ESPN’s College GameDay in late November and steamrolled Coastal Carolina 56-14 in the regular season finale. 

Can a new head coach build off that momentum? Cignetti had the Dukes poised to make a run at the expanded College Football Playoff in 2024. 

Fortunately for JMU fans, Bourne’s recent football hiring track record is impressive. Everett Withers, Mike Houston, and Curt Cignetti went a combined 37-7 in their first season as JMU’s head coach. All three led JMU to the FCS playoffs, with Houston and Cignetti taking JMU to the national title. Houston and the Dukes won the championship in 2016. 

Given JMU’s commitment to winning across the athletic department and the football team’s recent success, the job is plenty attractive to prospective candidates. It will be interesting, however, to see how a new coach will view the unusual situation of a new athletic director taking over before their first football season begins. Jeff Bourne is set to retire in the spring.

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