Frank Cignetti Jr. has worked his way around the football landscape at both the collegiate and professional levels. He’s coached Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning in the NFL, and he’s coached Bill Stull and Phil Jurkovec at the collegiate level.
If there’s a coach who has seen it all, Cignetti’s three decades as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at the highest level of football come close.
After serving for two seasons as Boston College’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, he decided to return home to Pittsburgh to fill the same roles at Pitt this season. It was a move the Pittsburgh native couldn’t pass up once he received the call from head coach Pat Narduzzi.
“When coach Narduzzi called me, I was just so excited to get this process moving,” Cignetti said Wednesday at Pitt’s South Side facility. “I can’t say enough great things about the city of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh.”
As Cignetti walked into the Pitt media press conference on Wednesday, it was clear he couldn’t be happier to be back in Pittsburgh. After a decade away, Cignetti’s third stint as a Pitt coach is a homecoming years in the making. His father has coached at Pitt, his brother has coached at Pitt and how he’s back again.
“Pittsburgh is a football town,” Cignetti said. “When you walk in those front doors every day, you know football is important. It’s not like that everywhere. This is the City of Champions.”
Despite his short period of time being back in Pittsburgh, through watching tape and his limited interactions, he can already see just exactly the sort of top-notch staff he’s integrating into. With guys like offensive line coach Dave Borbely, tight ends coach Tim Salem and running backs coach Andre Powell, he already has relationships with all three.
And with a new name stepping in as the wide receivers coach, he’s excited to see what he can offer to the program.
It’s a different team from the 2021 squad that Cignetti is stepping into, but if you look back at his resume as a coach, you’ll be able to see that he’s worked with a lot of first-year quarterbacks during his time. So, while Kenny Pickett may be gone, Cignetti is no stranger to seamless transitions.
Cignetti’s philosophy relies more upon developing interpersonal relationships as opposed to solely looking at wins and losses. And it’s worked out throughout Cignetti’s career as a coach, but now it’ll be up to …
With USC transfer Kedon Slovis entering the program to compete with Nick Patti for Pitt’s starting spot post-Kenny Pickett, Cignetti is looking forward to building relationships with both quarterbacks, but he said ultimately, the best player will start the Backyard Brawl on Sept. 1.
“I see it as a competition in every room when a new coordinator comes in,” Cignetti said. “A new set of eyes to evaluate every position, not only the quarterback position. The bottom line is, the best players will play.”
It’s going to be a competition, which is slightly handicapped with Patti rehabbing from offseason surgery — that Narduzzi said is going well — but Cignetti is looking forward to the competition. Through learning from mentors like his father and Mike McCarthy, Cignetti has learned to communicate with his quarterbacks and look at situations through their eyes.
Cignetti will ask his quarterbacks what they saw, how they diagnosed the play, in order to better understand the thought process that led to the execution. Practice is going to be hard, but it won’t be unreasonable.
“In practice, we’re going to be demanding, on game day we’re going to be cool,” Cignetti said. “We’re going to be at our coolest.”
And while Cignetti is the quarterbacks coach, he’s also the offensive coordinator, and his impact on the offense as a whole will be a ripple effect across every position. One of the biggest impacts of his first tenure as Pitt’s offensive coordinator came for tight end Dorin Dickerson — who Cignetti said was an outlier. But someone like Gavin Bartholomew will still be able to benefit.
“Bartholomew is a good football player,” Cignetti said. “And coach Salem has done a good job coaching him. He was a freshman last year, and as I watched the tape, I saw some Nate Bynum in him on the toughness, the physicality, a guy who could play on the line. But then I saw some Hunter Long in him. The tight end we had in BC a couple years ago.”
As an unheralded recruit out of Schuylkill, Pa. in 2021, Bartholomew emerged immediately as a true freshman complement to Lucas Krull. With 317 yards and four touchdowns on 27 catches, Bartholomew provided Pickett with yet another reliable target in the passing attack.
At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, Cignetti is excited about Bartholomew’s possibilities. With a big body and excellent receiving skills, he mentioned Bartholomew lining up along the offensive line in both pass and run protection and also across any spot out wide as a receiver.
With a new quarterback entering the fold, to supplement an offense that scored 40 points per game last season and returns almost every member, the offense isn’t going to undertake any drastic changes. It’ll incorporate phases of both Pitt and Boston College’s offenses from 2021 — but most importantly, it’ll utilize the personnel already in place at Pitt.
Cignetti’s focus before the season is building an offensive system that is easy for the players to pick up while still implementing the changes that he’s seen while watching film and getting a look into Pitt’s current offensive personnel.
“We want to build a system that makes sense to the guys,” Cignetti said. “We want to have great teaching methods. You want to keep as much the same as possible, and then things you believe in that you feel you need to change, you’ll make changes.”
Cignetti has sat down with Pitt’s offensive staff since taking the job, watching tape and evaluating his new players, and he’s gotten an idea of what’s worked and what hasn’t — but with spring ball starting up at the end of February, that’ll be the real opportunity to test new and existing ideas and see just exactly what works and what doesn’t. Ideas brought up and tested in spring ball just might not make it to the regular season.
“We want to be great at things,” Cignetti said. “We don’t want to be good, we want to be great.”
Cignetti will be coaching from the box when the 2022 season finally rolls around, pointing to the ability to see the entire field from upstairs, but the quarterbacks won’t be alone. Former Vanderbilt offensive analyst Jonathan DiBiaso is joining Cignetti at Pitt, serving as an assistant quarterbacks coach and the sideline go-between for Cignetti and the quarterbacks — he had spent a few seasons at Boston College as a graduate assistant.
While Cignetti will serve as a difference-maker for Pitt’s offense, he’ll also take on an increased role in recruiting — which is a change from Mark Whipple. Cignetti doesn’t have a designated area yet, something he’s still working out with Pitt’s recruiting staff, but he’s excited to get on the road to meet with the offensive recruits, especially quarterbacks.
With the 2023 recruiting class expected to be one of the best under Narduzzi, Cignetti will be a big factor. And he’ll be a big factor on the field in 2022 as well.