The first time Frank Cignetti Jr. made the trip to El Paso was technically for the Sun Bowl. Except, it was known then as the John Hancock Bowl.
The Sun Bowl is college football’s second longest-running bowl game, but for a stretch from 1989-93, John Hancock Financial was the title sponsor. Pitt’s reward for a 7-3-1 regular season was a date with Texas A&M in the 1989 edition of the game.
Cignetti was a first-year graduate assistant in 1989, following in the footsteps of his father Frank Sr. and brother Curt.
Pitt, led by Alex Van Pelt and Curvin Richards, knocked off No. 16 Texas A&M 31-28. It’s a game that still hasn’t left Cignetti’s memories, even as an assistant.
“I have great memories of when I was here in 1989 at the Sun Bowl,” Cignetti said Tuesday at his first media press conference in El Paso. “We played Texas A&M, beat Texas A&M. What an unbelievable game, what an unbelievable week we had.”
Van Pelt threw for 354 yards and two touchdowns, Richards ran for 156 yards and a touchdown and Pitt won its second Sun Bowl — the first since 1975.
Cignetti made it back out to El Paso again in 2003, leading the Bulldogs to a 23-20 WAC win over UTEP at Sun Bowl Stadium as the Fresno State offensive coordinator. Pitt would be back again in 2008, an infamous 3-0 loss to Oregon State, which was the season before Cignetti returned as Pitt’s offensive coordinator.
Pitt is, obviously, headed back to El Paso for the 2022 Sun Bowl, and the goal is to win a bowl game. But he’s gotten to expeirmce the culture that’s stood out to him on every visit.
“Man, just the food and the culture is special,” Cignetti said. “Just like last night, the event we were at. And I think everyone there was so impressed with the talent. The shows and the skits that were put on. It was really special.”
Pitt has a few more days in El Paso before Friday’s Sun Bowl, which kicks off at 2 p.m. EST. Cignetti will be tasked with replacing Kedon Slovis and Israel Abanikanda in Pitt’s offense against No. 18 UCLA.