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July 21, 2009

Cignetti returns home to revive Pitt offense

Even as a serviceman wheels in a dishwasher to install in his new house, Frank Cignetti still can't believe it he's back home in Pittsburgh, serving as Pitt's new offensive coordinator.

"My sister is near us [in a suburb called North Hills]," says Cignetti, who was offensive coordinator at California last season and quarterbacks coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 2007. "She has three daughters, like me. And she married one of my college teammates and best friends. My family would come back every summer to vacation, and now we live here.

"It has been a dream come true."

But Cignetti didn't join Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt's staff just for the chance to be close to family and get a Primanti Brothers sandwich whenever he wanted one. No, Cignetti really believes he can put some pop in a Pitt offense that mostly has flopped in four seasons under Wannstedt.

Under previous coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, who left to be quarterbacks coach with the New York Jets, the Panthers' attack never ranked higher than 37th in the nation. And the last time we saw the Pitt offense, it was stumbling around in a 3-0 Sun Bowl loss to Oregon State.

"You aren't going to leave a great job," says Cignetti, who took a pay cut to come to the Steel City. "I had one at Cal. We had a very good offense coming back. So you can't leave Cal just to come home unless things were right."

Things have been a little off under Wannstedt, who is 25-23 overall and 14-14 in the Big East, with one bowl appearance, in four seasons at Pitt despite some sterling recruiting classes.

OK, here's the plan
New Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti's three offensive goals:
1. Be a physical, hard-nosed attack that runs the ball downhill.

2. Protect the quarterback with multiple protections and have the ability to move the launch point of the quarterback within the pocket and outside the pocket.

3. Pass consistently while taking shots down the field. It also is vital to complement the run game with a great play-action game
The Panthers haven't won the conference title since they were part of a four-way tie for the crown in 2004 under Walt Harris. Since then, West Virginia, Louisville, Connecticut and Cincinnati have won at least shares of the title. And USF and Rutgers have enjoyed great success, too.

Cignetti's job is to get Pitt into that mix. He didn't know Wannstedt personally before taking the job.

"I was driving home on a Friday, and I got a phone call," Cignetti says. "Would I be interested [in coming to Pitt as offensive coordinator]? Naturally, I will have interest because I love Pitt and the town. And I always had heard tremendous things about Dave Wannstedt.

"[Cal coach] Jeff [Tedford] understood what it meant to my family to get back to Pittsburgh, if that's what we wanted to do. So, Jeff gave us his blessing to pursue the job. And, hey, things worked out."

Cignetti is more than ready, beginning with bloodlines that trace to his father, Frank Sr., who was a Pitt assistant from 1966-68 and head coach at West Virginia (1976-79) and Indiana, Pa., (1986-2005), where Frank Jr. was an all-conference safety. Cignetti also has an extensive NFL background, having served on staffs in New Orleans and Kansas City in addition to his stint in San Francisco. Because of that background, expect Pitt's attack to have an NFL look and feel to it.

By the numbers
Pitt's total offense under Dave Wannstedt:
Year YPG (Rank)
2008342.5 (77th)
2007319.5 (108th)
2006372.3 (37th)
2005 335.8 (85th)
Pitt's passing offense under Wannstedt:
Year YPG (Rank)
2008203.4 (68th)
2007178.1 (104th)
2006249.3 (20th)
2005219.0 (67th)
"Me and Matt [Cavanaugh] have a similar background," says Cignetti, whose brother, Curt, is receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at Alabama. "So the transition for the staff and players has been pretty smooth. We will run a similar offense."

But don't think Cignetti and Cavanaugh are the same coach. Cignetti is more of a college coach than Cavanaugh. And Cignetti is more charismatic and energetic than Cavanaugh, especially from a recruiting standpoint. Cavanaugh did little recruiting outside of looking for quarterbacks. Conversely, Cignetti not only is the point man for quarterback but also has taken geographic regions, something Cavanaugh didn't do.

A major goal for Cignetti is getting production from his quarterback, which has been an inconsistent position in recent seasons. Incumbent starter Bill Stull kept his job in spring drills, but Cignetti swears the competition will continue in camp with Pat Bostick and Tino Sunseri also in the mix.

Would Cignetti play two quarterbacks? He isn't saying. But he expects big things.

"As I talked to Wannstedt and [athletic director Steve] Pederson, there was no doubt in my mind that things at Pitt are going in the right direction," he says. "There is no doubt in my mind that Dave is going to get that 10th national championship [for Pitt]. Everything is in place for that to happen. Hey, the sky is the limit."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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