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‘We are Pitt Panthers’: Pittsburgh is Home for the Cignetti Family

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Home is where the heart is.

It’s an oft-spoken proverb that reinforces the idea that no matter where one is or who they’re with, home is the place where one feels the most love — and it helps if it’s the place where one’s loved ones reside.

It just so happens that for Frank Cignetti Jr. and his family, Pittsburgh is home. And while Morgantown, West Virginia will always hold a piece of history for the Cignetti family, the heart resides in Pittsburgh.

“Hey, we’re Pitt Panther fans, let’s make no mistake,” Cignetti said Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Our family heritage is from western Pennsylvania, we had a little stop in Morgantown that didn’t end very well and make no mistake — we are Pitt Panthers.”

However, when it comes to the Backyard Brawl, there isn’t a family that’s as accustomed to both sides of the rivalry as the Cignetti family.

Frank Jr. was born in Pittsburgh while his father served as the head coach of Leechburg High School, a school 30 miles northeast of Pittsburgh along the Kiskiminetas River that now features 2023 Pitt commit Braylan Lovelace, but after a few seasons at Leechburg, Frank Sr. took a new opportunity. He arrived at Pitt, the first of the family to start at Pitt.

Three years later, after three seasons as an assistant at Pitt, Frank Sr. accepted a job with West Virginia as an assistant. So, the Cignetti family, which included a young Frank Sr. and his older brother Curt, uprooted and moved to Morgantown.

Frank Jr. was five years old when the Cignetti family moved to Morgantown, and when his father was eventually named the head coach in 1976, he was just about 11 years old. While Frank Sr.’s 17-27 tenure at WVU — including four losses in the Backyard Brawl — resulted in being let go, Curt did enroll at WVU as a quarterback in 1979.

While Frank Jr. was just a kid growing up in Morgantown, his father was the head coach of the biggest team in West Virginia. And his brother would eventually serve as a quarterback under his father.

“As a kid growing up in Morgantown, it was awesome,” Frank Jr. said. “My father became the head coach at West Virginia, my brother played at WVU. Have great memories of football and living in Morgantown. Obviously, my father is from Western PA, I was born in Pittsburgh, we’ve been on both sides of this rivalry. I’m not sure how many years, it might be up to 30 at this point, but what a great rivalry to be a part of as a Pitt Panther and a Mountaineer.”

Frank Jr. himself eventually began his college career at Indiana University (Pa.), playing as a safety for his father’s squad, but he got his coaching career started at Pitt. Following a season as a graduate assistant at Pitt, he would spend nearly a decade as an assistant under his father at IUP, but Pitt was the first stop.

And while he grew up in Morgantown watching his father coach and his brother play as a quarterback, he also watched Curt coach at Pitt too. He’s experienced both sides of the passionate rivalry. Now that Cignetti is back at Pitt, he’s able to reflect upon the memories.

“It’s a privilege to be a part of it, great memories whether it’s going back to 1975 when Bill McKenzie kicked the game-winning field goal for West Virginia to beat Pitt, and then great memories watching my brother coach at Pitt and having victories,” Frank Jr. said. “It’s once again great to be a part of.”

Frank Sr. served as WVU’s head coach from 1976-79, coaching Curt as a WVU quarterback for one season in 1979, but Curt — like his father — picked up his first college coaching opportunity at Pitt from 1983-84. Pitt would win two Backyard Brawls during that time, two chances for Frank Jr. to watch Pitt with his own eyes, and just five years later, Frank Jr. would get his own start at Pitt.

Frank Jr. served as a graduate assistant at Pitt in 1989, before making his mark at IUP under his father, while he would jump around the college and NFL level, Pitt has always held a spot in his heart.

Frank Jr. returned to serve as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2009-10, and through further college and NFL opportunities, he returned once again this season to serve as Pitt’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

The magnitude of the Backyard Brawl is not lost upon Frank Jr. He’s been a coach’s son — on both sides of the rivalry. He’s been a fan of both teams. He’s coached at Pitt multiple times. And now he’s just focused on football at Pitt.

“We’re focusing on the football,” Frank Jr. said. “It’s going to be a great game Thursday night, it’s going to be a great environment. We’re focusing on ourselves, we’re focusing on things that win and lose games, but we’re going to have a lot of fun out there.”

It’s tough to say that any single game has an added meaning on the schedule, every single game is worth either one win or one loss, but it’s something more than a coincidence that Frank Jr.’s first game back at Pitt is against WVU.

“This game has always been special for anyone that’s in Western PA or West Virginia,” Frank Jr. said. “Not just the Cignetti’s. But yeah, this is the one game when you come back to coach at Pitt and you see that you open up with West Virginia Thursday night, it’s gonna be special.”

It’s fitting that Frank Jr.’s offense will head into the Backyard Brawl for the first time in 11 years. After 12 years away from home, the Backyard Brawl is the greatest homecoming imaginable for the Cignetti family.

Frank Jr. and his family are back home.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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