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Confirmed: Indiana finalizes deal to hire JMU football coach Curt Cignetti

Chris Graham
(© Steve Heap – shutterstock)

JMU is losing its head football coach, Curt Cignetti, to Indiana, and if you want to know why this is happening, consider that IU was paying the coach that it just fired seven times what JMU has been paying Cignetti.

This is the hard reality for programs like JMU that are trying to compete in FBS football.

It’s a money game.

Cignetti, who was named the Sun Belt Coach of the Year on Thursday, was 52-9 at JMU, including an 11-1 mark this season, Year 2 of the program’s move from FCS to FBS.

Because of the NCAA rule that requires teams making the transition to sit out the postseason for the first two years of the transition period, supposedly to make it easier for them to make the transition – that almost, but not quite, makes sense – JMU was not in the running for a berth in the championship game in the Sun Belt or a possible New Year’s Six game.

JMU, as it turns out, is still going to be able to participate in a bowl in the 2023 postseason, but only because there weren’t enough eligible teams with at least six wins to fill the 82 spots in the 41-game bowl schedule.

You can’t devise a dumber set of rules.

A similar issue with the rules kept JMU out of the 2022 postseason after the Dukes finished with an 8-3 record.

So, you’ve got Cignetti with a 19-4 mark in two years in FBS, and he’s on his way to take over the long-irrelevant program at IU.

The guy he’s replacing, Tom Allen, was 33-49 in parts of eight seasons at Indiana, with an 18-43 mark in Big Ten play, and he had just two winning seasons, in 2019 and 2020, the latter being the COVID-shortened season, in which IU finished 6-2, and Allen was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.

The school signed him to a contract extension in March 2021 that was paying him $4.9 million annually, but the extra money for the coach didn’t translate to additional on-field success – the Hoosiers were 4-8 in 2022 and 3-9 in 2023.

Meanwhile, Cignetti, at JMU, was being paid $677,311 a year, less than many Power 5 coordinators.

It seemed an inevitability that Cignetti would end up moving on because of the money issue at JMU.

The athletics program at JMU ranked 62nd in annual athletics revenues in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, reporting $57.8 million in revenues, $45.5 million of that total coming from so-called activity fees assessed to JMU students, which the program needs to rely on because of a dramatic lack of money coming from donors ($3.8 million), ticket sales ($3.6 million) and TV revenues ($1.7 million).

Indiana, as a member of the Big Ten, ranked 13th in annual athletics revenues in the last fiscal year, with $166.8 million in athletics revenues, with none of that money – not a single dollar – coming from student-activity fees.

Jeff Bourne, the AD at JMU, has shown himself to be adept at finding football coaches, replacing Mickey Matthews, who won an FCS national title at JMU in 2004, with Everett Withers, who was 18-7 in two seasons before taking an FBS job at Texas State, and was replaced by Mike Houston, who led the Dukes to the 2017 FCS title and was 37-6 in three seasons before leaving for an FBS job at East Carolina.

The lack of donor and TV money will make this an every-few-years occurrence for JMU Athletics, with Bourne, after finding his next football coach, maybe needing to update his list of possibilities for a new men’s basketball coach, given the success of Mark Byington, who won 22 games last season, and has the Dukes out to a 7-0 start and Top 25 ranking early in the 2023-2024 season.

JMU is paying Byington $450,000 a year, less than, yes, a lot of Power 5 assistants.

Byington doesn’t even need to pull a March Madness upset or two to get his name on the short lists for the coming offseason’s top jobs, because he has that season-opening win at Michigan State already on his resume.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].