Football success follows a new blueprint

How the Elon football team turned a seven-game losing streak in 2016 into a historic season a year later.

By Madison Taylor

Chris Blair ’18 was at home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for the Christmas holiday on Dec. 20, 2016, when he heard the news. Rich Skrosky, his football coach at Elon University—the coach who recruited him not once but twice—had resigned to take an assistant coaching job at Florida International University.

Blair was stunned. His teammates were, too. 

“We didn’t expect it,” says Blair, then a junior safety who had just completed a frustrating 2016 season in which Elon finished 2-9, with seven straight losses and a last-place finish in the Colonial Athletic Association conference. It was a lost season the players thought should have been much more successful. Veteran players like Blair and linebacker Warren Messer ’19 of Garner, North Carolina, waited anxiously over the break for any word about who might replace Skrosky, who left Elon after three losing seasons to become offensive coordinator at FIU. Skrosky first recruited Blair when he was an assistant to former Elon coach Pete Lembo at Ball State University in Indiana. Blair’s first year at Ball State didn’t work out as he had hoped—he missed his family and North Carolina. When Skrosky took the Elon head coaching job, he asked Blair to take a look at the campus and follow him. “I fell in love with it,” Blair says.

Despite the mounting losses, Skrosky’s sudden departure at Christmas 2016 was unsettling for the players. The team members wondered what might happen next. Before the calendar turned to 2017 they had an answer. One name quickly emerged as Skrosky’s replacement. Curt Cignetti was offered the head coaching job at Elon on Dec. 31, 2016, 11 days after Skrosky’s resignation. Blair and his teammates began researching their new coach immediately. A wealth of information was available online in seconds.

A couple of things got Blair’s attention right away. First, Cignetti’s resume included four years as an assistant coach for the University of Alabama where he was a receivers coach and recruiting coordinator for arguably the best major college football program in the nation. Cignetti was on head coach Nick Saban’s staff when the Crimson Tide won a national Football Bowl Subdivision title in 2009. Second, Blair was impressed by Cignetti’s success at his then-current post at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Under Cignetti, the NCAA Division II school had a record of 53-17 with three playoff appearances. “I knew then we were going to win,” Blair says. “That [type of success] comes from leadership.”

He had no idea then how accurate his prediction would turn out to be.

Hope for the holiday season

What turned into a historic fall 2017 was beyond even the most hopeful prediction in December 2016. Elon’s seven-game losing streak to finish the season included several lopsided defeats. The low point was a devastating 44-14 home loss on Senior Day to Rhode Island, one of the weakest teams in the CAA.

The thought of a break-even season in 2017 appeared impossible to outsiders looking in. So what occurred—a six-game turnaround, an eight-game winning streak, four victories over top-25 FCS opponents, a national ranking in the top 10, a battle for the conference championship with No. 1 ranked powerhouse James Madison, and the first FCS playoff berth for Elon since 2009—seemed unfathomable. By coincidence the turnaround began during the holiday season of hope.

On Christmas Eve of 2016, Cignetti was first contacted about the head coaching vacancy at Elon. He had a house full of people that day. He and wife Manette lived in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father, Frank Cignetti, completed the kind of coaching career that carves statues. Frank Cignetti’s success at IUP landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame. The field there is named for him. When the head coaching job opened at IUP in 2011, Curt Cignetti decided to leave the University of Alabama, where success and all that follows is almost guaranteed. He admits it was a gamble going from such a large and nationally prominent football program to one substantially smaller. There would be less of everything at IUP, including salary. But IUP had one thing Cignetti was looking for most: a chance to be a collegiate head football coach. It was a bet that would pay off.

When Elon came calling in 2016, Cignetti’s Crimson Hawks team was coming off a 10-2 season and second-round playoff exit. He anticipated even bigger things for IUP in 2017. Cignetti was very familiar with Elon and interested in what the university had to say. He first learned about it as an assistant under then head coach Chuck Amato at N.C. State. And in 2005, Cignetti visited the campus and interviewed for the Elon head coaching vacancy created when Paul Hamilton left after a two-year record of 6-16. Elon hired Pete Lembo from Lehigh, who would lead Elon to a 35-22 record over the next five seasons. Not long after Lembo arrived at Elon, Cignetti moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to join Saban’s staff.

Another opportunity to coach at Elon was appealing. While at N.C. State, the Cignettis lived in Cary and missed the North Carolina climate. As it turns out, Cignetti was also high on Elon’s list of candidates in December 2016. Elon Athletic Director Dave Blank knew a lot about the Cignetti family from his time as a basketball coach at Lock Haven, which plays in the same conference as IUP. Blank was also well aware of what Curt Cignetti was accomplishing at IUP in his first shot as a collegiate head coach. “I felt it was important, and President Lambert agreed, that we hire someone with head coaching experience,” Blank says. “Curt’s background stood out as someone I wanted to meet.”

Cignetti arrived for his Elon interview on Dec. 30, 2016. The changes in place on campus since 2005 impressed him right away. The athletic facilities were markedly improved, including the construction of Alumni Field House where the football offices, locker room and training facilities are located behind Rhodes Stadium. “When I got down here and saw everything that had been built since my last time here, it got my attention,” Cignetti says, sitting in his immaculate office on the second floor of Alumni Field House. “Everything was in place. They just needed a leader, someone with a blueprint.” 

Cignetti was offered the job 24 hours later and quickly accepted. He was confident in his blueprint even though prior to his arrival, Elon recorded six straight losing seasons. He was about to become the fourth head coach in eight years. He gave away little about how he planned to rebuild Elon’s football fortunes when he was introduced at a press conference on Jan. 3, 2017. He made a vow to “change the culture” and added, “I totally believe we will win here.”

Messer was an early believer. He felt a kinship to his new coach immediately. A linebacker preparing for his junior season, he drove to Elon from his parents’ home in Garner to attend the press conference. “I’m passionate about football and I knew right away he was just as passionate about the game. I felt a connection between us,” Messer says. Blair also liked what he saw in Cignetti that day. The press conference was held in the field house’s second-floor meeting room, which overlooks Rhodes Stadium from one end zone to the other. Blair noticed Cignetti kept looking away from the assembled crowd and out over the field. “I thought, this is a man of action,” Blair says. “A press conference comes with the job but what he really wanted to do was go to work.”

The players would soon find out what that means.

Redefining the Elon brand

The first thing Elon football players see on the left as they enter the locker room is a sign that reads in giant type, “Do Your Job!” A second sign further down provides another message, “Be Relentless!” And as the players leave the room, a sign above the exit offers one final and important piece of the overall message. It simply reads, “FINISH!”

Those are just three sections that make up the core of Cignetti’s coaching philosophy and, by extension, what evolved into Elon’s new brand of football. The locker room signs speak to the change in culture Cignetti began to instill. Cignetti tells his players he expects them to be relentless, resilient, physical, fast and finishers who always do their assigned jobs. These messages are reinforced each day until the players say them as a matter of routine. “You have to be a relentless competitor. We’re going to finish what we start. We don’t have any self-limitations. Don’t look at the scoreboard. Have fun,” Blair says, echoing his coach. “It’s about attitude. If you’re not a relentless competitor, you’re not on the field. That resiliency is something he brought to the program as well.”

When Blair thinks back to the lost season in 2016, he believes an inability to overcome adversity wrecked Elon’s season. It happened after the team’s signature win over nationally ranked William & Mary. “That was a big win, I think they were ranked in the top 10, and we were excited. But after that game, when adversity hit, we didn’t know how to respond.” 

Some changes such as the locker room signs or a different logo on the team’s helmets are cosmetic, reinforcements of the idea that Elon football should be played at a new championship level. When a slogan was discussed for the Elon football Twitter account, Cignetti suggested “A new brand of ball.” Told that was a bit long for a Twitter hashtag slogan, they came up with #FindTheEdge. “It was all about creating a new brand,” Cignetti says.

Greater mental and physical challenges are also part of the Cignetti blueprint honed by not only his father but also his playing days at the University of West Virginia under legendary coach Bobby Bowden, his years as an assistant for Amato at N.C. State and national championship coaches Johnny Majors at Pittsburgh University and Saban. Cignetti started addressing mental toughness a month after taking the job. He began with a series of mat drills at 6 a.m. three days a week. The high-intensity drills are crafted to build agility, speed and explosiveness. Typically in February, the sessions would be conducted indoors but a shortage of gym space at the time forced the workouts outdoors, sometimes in below-freezing temperatures. The sessions were even more grueling than usual and served multiple purposes. “It builds mental toughness and resiliency. I see who will pay the price and who won’t,” Cignetti says. “They weren’t fun times in the beginning for the players but they really responded.” 

Cignetti often introduces some problematic wrinkle during the mat drills, which are supposed to be achieved perfectly or the team must go through the series again, something no player wants. “The first few drills when I introduced adversity it was like shattering a glass ball. The team had no resiliency,” Cignetti says. “In three weeks when I introduced adversity they became like a rubber ball that would bounce right back.”

These early lessons were critical as the 2017 season unfolded and Elon faced one close game after another. Elon’s eight wins came by a total of 31 points over some of the best teams in the FCS. Any one great or botched play in those games could determine the outcome. The players learned to succeed during tough moments. Missed extra point? No problem. Starting running back injured? Bring in the next player. Give up a go-ahead touchdown with time running out? We got this. “All our games were close, many coming down to the last play. This year we were able to out-execute other teams,” says Messer, whose fourth-quarter interception led to the game-winning field goal against nationally ranked Richmond. “This year we won almost all our close games, except the last one. We out-executed Furman the first time and they out-executed us in the second.”

Blair also notes Cignetti’s confidence in what he was teaching. During an early meeting with the players the coach named off the teams from 2016 that had big one-season improvements. He told them that three or four teams had six-win turnarounds from the previous season. “I said this could be us if we pay the price,” Cignetti says.

“And he was right,” Blair says.

Springboard to the fall

The formula for turning Elon into the kind of football team “that gives other teams nightmares” began to take shape in spring practice. Players noticed more teaching and attention to conditioning. There was less emphasis on hitting and more on thinking about how to play the game. The team was still working hard, but the focus was directed on game situations rather than scrimmages. “I think the work ethic was always there, but coach Cignetti made us better football players. Our football IQ became better,” Blair says.

Cignetti salutes his assistant coaches. “I felt it was important to hire good people—all of our coordinators are from winning programs—and many of our position coaches spent time at Ohio State or Penn State,” Cignetti says. “Our director of strength and conditioning, Brian Phillips, came to us from (Army) West Point. He made a huge difference. Our players spend as much or more time with him as anyone else.”

Conditioning and strength are critical. Cignetti wants players who are not only strong but explosive. Phillips is tasked with training players to move in all directions quickly, jump and shift gears in a moment’s notice. “Win the line of scrimmage, minimize turnovers and make explosive plays. Those three things determine the outcome of football games,” Cignetti says. By the time spring practice began, Cignetti had a receptive audience. “I was really happy with the way we practiced. They came to practice focused and ready to go.”

As spring practice ended, no starting quarterback was identified. Davis Cheek ’21 from Matthews, North Carolina, enrolled early at Elon, only a handful of weeks after Cignetti was hired and a few months removed from a successful senior year at Butler High School that ended in the third round of the state playoffs. Cheek was recruited by Skrosky and decided early that he wanted to enroll and play for Elon. Cignetti convinced him to stay the course after Skrosky’s departure. “I was in church the day he called. I had a good feeling about Elon after that. Coach talked highly about Elon and what he wanted to do here. And he had a great background,” Cheek says. “I decided to stay with Elon and I’m happy with my decision.”

Cheek was most impressed with Cignetti’s confidence and the blueprint he had for Elon. “It made me think, he knows what he’s talking about. You can always tell when someone is genuinely passionate about something. And he is passionate.” Cheek was told the competition for the starting quarterback job would come down to which player performed best. A bout with mononucleosis during spring drills slowed Cheek’s progress to only a few snaps, but he performed well in the spring as did Jalen Greene ’21 of Durham, North Carolina. As Elon prepared for its first game with Toledo, the matter of a full-time starting quarterback was still unresolved. Cignetti would play both Davis and Greene until one emerged as the clear winner.

Finding a way to win

Winning isn’t the only measure of a college athletic program but it’s a very significant one. Blank tries to view it through the eyes of the players. “We hadn’t won in a while and no one wants that for the guys in our program. You can see the frustration on the faces of our players. They’re asking themselves, ‘why can’t we win?’”

The players were hungry to win. “If you haven’t had a plate in three years, you’re starving,” Blair says with a laugh. Blair heard questions from the public, too. A business management major, he worked an internship at Glen Raven, a textile manufacturing company in Alamance County. “Everybody there kept asking, ‘when are you guys going to start winning?’,” Blair says.

The answer would be surprisingly soon. The players and coaches believed it, but few others did. Two Elon players joined Cignetti at the annual CAA conference preseason media day. That’s when assembled reporters interview players and coaches for season preview stories, select preseason players of the year and rank how they believe the teams will finish by the end of the season. It was a long and lonely day for Messer and his roommate, offensive lineman Alex Higgins ’19. The pair sat at the Elon table with only Burlington Times-News sports writer Adam Smith for company. At one point a Virginia newspaper writer who covers James Madison stopped to ask the Elon players what it was like to play a team like the Dukes, the No. 1 FCS team in the nation. “I thought, you want me to talk about how good they are,” Messer says.

Elon was picked to finish 11th in the 12-team conference by the media that day. “It was hard to represent Elon at that time. Being that irrelevant was hard. It was like we didn’t exist. That’s when I said, ‘things have to change,’” Messer recalls.

The players were also taking a cue from their coach, who believes “you have to balance what’s attainable. Stay focused on the present moment. Work as hard as you can and improve. Take control of the controllables and maximize your opportunities. This gives you the best chance to be successful.”

But the season-opening game posed a daunting challenge. Toledo entered 2017 as preseason favorite to win the Mid-American Conference and notch a postseason FBS bowl berth. It accomplished both with an 11-3 mark, a conference title and a spot in the Dollar General Bowl. Elon entered as an almost seven-touchdown underdog. Cignetti tried to keep the focus on what’s attainable. “Our goal when we went to Toledo was to be relentless, physical, fast and finish from beginning to end,” he says.

The final score was a 47-13 loss for Elon, but Cignetti liked what he saw from his team. The Phoenix only trailed 19-7 at halftime. Some big plays in the third quarter made the score deceptively lopsided. “If we continue to fight like that, we’re going to improve and we’re going to celebrate in the locker room this year quite a few times,” Cignetti told the Burlington Times-News after the Toledo game. The postgame locker room celebrations began a week later at Furman and continued for seven games thereafter. With Cheek set at quarterback and Kortez Weeks ’21 emerging as a receiving threat, Elon was able to establish an ability to run the football behind a veteran offensive line. The eight-game winning streak included four victories over opponents ranked in the FCS top 25, including No. 8 Richmond. Meanwhile Elon rose to No. 7 in the FCS rankings.

The eight-game winning streak came to an end, 16-6 at frosty New Hampshire. That still left what would be a monumental game in recent Elon football history, a Nov. 18 showdown at Rhodes Stadium against No. 1 James Madison with the CAA championship on the line. In front of a crowd of 8,662, the stronger, deeper and more experienced Dukes methodically outmuscled Elon on the line and rolled to a 31-3 win to close the regular season. For the players, being a part of a game like that one was significant. “In the offseason we wanted to get to this point. It was basically a confidence builder to see we could compete with the No. 1 team in the nation. It was our goal. We strived to be great,” Messer says.

The growing interest in Elon football on campus and in the community was also important, Blair adds. “To see the larger crowd as the season went on gives you a feeling of pride.”

Elon’s season ended a week later with a disappointing 28-27 loss to Furman in the first NCAA football playoff game contested in Rhodes Stadium. “At the end of the day, we would have liked to finish better. But as we sit here today, none of our players are satisfied. They all have that hunger. They understand that everything will have to be earned. Nothing is given,” Cignetti says. “There can’t be contentment or complacency about what happened last year. That’s in the past.”

Built to last

Cignetti doesn’t like the expression “magic season.” He believes it connotes something that might happen once in a lifetime. He’s looking for long-term success and the magic moments that occur as a result. Cignetti arrived at Elon in January 2017 with a blueprint. He was greeted by talented players who were ready to win. “We wanted to work hard and improve, and we did that,” Cignetti says.

Blair graduates in the spring and already has a job lined up with Compass Group USA, a food and hospitality services company where he completed an internship. First he’s working toward a larger immediate goal, playing professional football. He sums up his senior season at Elon this way: “It’s the start of a new beginning. People here are ready for a winning team. This place can be rockin’. This place can be sold out every home game.” 

“We won more games this year than in all my three previous years combined,” Blair adds. “We were looking for the right leadership and we got that. You can see the results.”

Meanwhile, Elon’s returning players are already pointing to the 2018 season. “The class I came in with, the Class of 2019, we knew we would be the class that would get it done and change things around at Elon,” Messer says. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy. We still know there is more to change. We still haven’t played our best football game.”

Toward that end, Messer says he wants to be a better leader next season. Cheek is working to get bigger, stronger and faster. “We have to do the little things and it starts now and continues through the season,” Cheek says. “A national championship, that’s the goal. There are smaller goals along the way but if you’re not playing for a national championship, you’re playing to lose.”

Cignetti knows the path ahead won’t be any easier. A blueprint is merely that until it’s completed. Nothing is given. Respect is earned. There is plenty of work ahead for the coaches and players. “Football is about recruiting and development,” Cignetti says. “Last year we had to develop the players we had. We had to adjust some things. We wanted to become the kind of team other teams hate to face. We’re not at the point where we’re creating nightmares, yet.”