Frank Cignetti, the West Virginia football coach, is trying these days to concentrate on rebuilding his team after a 29 1978 season. Entering the final year of a two-year contract, Cignetti knows he must have a winning season to retain his job. Much as he wants to win, Cignetti is not afraid of losing football games.
He is afraid of dying.
"The whole thing is very scary," he said, feet up on his desk, apparently relaxed except for a slight, occasional tremor in his voice. "You try not to think about it but you can't help it.
"You read something or you see something and it jolts you. You have to take that fear and get it out of your mind. Fear can do a lot of things to you.
"I think because of what I've been through I'm a better person now. A better coach and a better Christian. Every day I pray to God and ask him to let me go on being a productive person.
"I don't want to die."
Cignetti nearly died last December. At the age of 40, he has cancer, a rare and serious form of disease, known as lymphoid granulomatosis. The disease is so rare -- about a dozen cases a year in this county -- that there are no statistics on the survival rate. But the most optimistic thing Robert H. Waldman, Cignetti's doctor, will say about it is, "People have survived it."
Cignetti is determined to be one of those people. In december he underwent a splenectomy and spent 35 days in the hospital. At one point his wife Marlene called her four children and told them, I don't think Daddy's going to make it."
But Cignettie made it. His weight, once down to 168 pounds, is back up to 214 pounds. Recently, he started jogging again. And, with his thick sandy brown hair and soft, youthful figure, he looks more like a healthy 30 than a sick 40.
"if anyone can beat something like this it's Frank," Waldman said. "if he wasn't as tough and determined as he is he probably would have died in December. Last rites were never given but they would not have been inappropriate."
Tan from a two-week vacation, Cignetti does not object to talking about the situation, although clearly he does not enjoy it. "you haceve to understand that my attitude from the first day on this thing has been that I am going to whip it," he said. "i have been through a lot of adversity the last couple of years, first on the football field, then off it. Life has peaks and valleys and lately I've been in a pretty deep valley. But now I feel like i'm ready to start climbing the side of that mountain again."
His climb will be a long one. But those who knowCignetti are convinced that he can make it. "The man is a fighter, that's the only way to describe him," said team captain Jimmy Himmick. "Anything he does, he gives 200 percent.He will never quit
Ironically, himmick's older sister has been battling cancer for over a year. Sitting on a wooden bleacher seat in ancient Mountaineer Stadium, chimmick said softly, "i think I have a pretty good idea of what the coach has been going through. All of us on the team really want to win for him. Sure, that sounds corny, but it's true."
"Cignetti says he is aware of how his players feel and insists it is one of the reasons he decided to continue coaching.
"There are two reasons why I want very much to coach this football team," he said. "First, I've done a lot of work the last three years trying to build this team. But more important the kids have told me they want me to coach. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't coach."
Whether Cignetti would coach this season was an open question until several weeks ago. After his condition was diagnosed in early June there were rumors that he would resign to take a job in the atheletic department and be replaced by former Colorado Coach Bill Mallory.
Dick Martin, who became WVU's athletic director in February, has admitted that Mallory was talked to about the job. But he insists the decision to coach or not to coach was always Cignetti's.
"I have felt all along that we have a commitment to Frank." Martin said. "If he wanted the job and he was physically capable of handling the job, it was his. That is what I have told him all along."
Others say not so, that Martin, former assistant commissioner of the Big Eight, wanted Mallory as coach. They say only a groundswell of support for Cignetti by alumni saved his job.
One prominent alumni fund raiser, Frank Manchin, angrily announced in late June that he would no longer participate in an annual fund-raising dinner which raises the school about $100,000 because Martin and university President Gene A. Budig were, "trying to kick a good man while he is down."
Now Cignetti has a job guaranted him if he is removed from or steps down from the football job, and Manchin is back in the fold.
Cignetti insists that the university has treated him superbly. "I'm not like uou average coach who if he gets like your average coach who if he gets fired can just pick up and go somewhere else," he said. I'm kind of committed to this place. I'm receiving treatment here and my doctors are here."
Waldman says that one of the reasons he and the other doctors treating Cignetti told him he could continue coaching was that it was so important to him.
"With a disease like this, mental attitude is very important," he said.
"The stress involved in the job could hurt him and he knows that. But it isn't that likely. If I were him, i'd give up coaching. But i'm not a football coach; football isn't everything to me. It is to him."
Football has been Frank Cignetti's life ever since he was a boy, growing up in the tiny steel town of Apollo, Pa. It got him a scholarship to Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he was a Little All-American, graduating in 1960.
He started his coaching career at Leechburg (pa.) High School, compiling a 32-9 record for four years before spending three years as an assistant at Pittsburgh and one year at Princeton. He joined Bobby Bowden's staff at West Virginia in 1970. When Bowden resigned in 1975 to take the job at Florida State, Cignetti succeeded him.
The downward trend for Cignetti started in 1977. After a respectable 5-6 year in 1976 the Mountaineers started off '77 like gangbusters, winning four of five, including an upset over Maryland -- ranked in the Top 10 at the time.
"We went into the sixth game of that season with a record of 4-1 and 11 of our first 24 players out, a bunch of them for the season," Cignetti said. "We just didn't have the depth to deal with that and we fell apart."
Fell apart to a 5-6 record and them plummeted last year to 2-9 with a team filled with freshman and sophomore starters. As the long season wore on, Cignetti found himself feeling tired and weak.
"At first I just thought the long season was wearing me down," he said. "Losing can do things to you. But then about Thanksgiving, right after the season ended, I began feeling worse."
Early December, his family doctor, unable to understand why Cignetti was weak and runnig high fevers sent him to the university medical center for tests.
"He was getting worried." Cignetti said with a wistful smile. "We were rapidly running out of minor things it could be."
Once in the hospital, after days of tests. Waldman determined that Cignetti swollen spleen had to be removed. After the operation Cignetti developed an intestinal blockage and a second operation was necessary.
"To say we were all scared is the understatement of the year," said Donnie Young, Cignetti's top assistant and close friend. "But somehow the guy who got us through it all was Frank."
Martin says quite bluntly that if Cignetti does not at least have a winning season he will change coaches. The schedule is difficult, the team again is young. Preseason practice, according to Cignetti, will be no different than in the past.
"I don't plan on saying anything about what has gone on or acting any different than I have in past years," he said. "All the players are aware of what's happened. They don't need to be reminded. I want things to be as normal as possible."
One of the freshmen on that team will be Cignetti's son Kurt, who except for having darker hair is a carbon copy of his father in size (6-foot-3, 215) and appearance.
Cignetti is undergoing chemotherapy and having his chest X-rayed every two weeks. Waldman says he is "cautiously optimistic," emphasizing the word "cautious."
"You know doctors are supersititous even though they aren't supposed to be," he said. "When Frank first came in I was very nervous because it always seems that the worst things happen to the nicest guys.
"But he never wavered from the first day. He's really been remarkable. I wish I could take his attitude and bottle it."
Cignetti says much of his attidute comes from a strengthened belief in God -- an experience he points out is not unusual in people faced with a crisis.
When he talks about his illness Cignetti's tone changes frequently, from adamant and insistent to soft, vulnerable and nervous. However, he is not afraid to admit that the word cancer upsets him. In fact he won't say the word. He just talks about "my disease."
"The word scares you," he said candidly. "I don't even like to think about what it all means. I think, though every new experience now is a little easier for me. Maybe it's because the more tough experiences you have, the easier they are to deal with.
"But I know that any time I go into that hospital, I'm very apprehensive. I want my tests to be positive in the worst way. Those are the toughest moments for me.
"I'd like to look at this as a fight that's behind me," he continued. "I feel good now, I feel much stronger. But I know that at any minute, at any second I could find myself back in one hell of a fight again.
"If that does happens, that's just what it will be, a fight. Because I am just not going to let this thing whip me. It didn't whip me in December and it won't whip me now." CAPTION: Picture, Frank Cignetti