Frank Cignetti spent the fall of 1979 fighting to save his job as football coach at West Virginia University. He lost.
But getting the chance to lose that fight was a victory. Frank Cignetti had spent the previous winter fighting for his life. He won.
Today, Cignetti is an out-of-work football coach. He is frustrated. He misses the game. He is working as an administrator in the WVU athletic department. He does not like the job. He also considers himself very lucky.
"If I had been like any other 41-year-old football coach who gets fired I know I would have had an entirely different attitude about it," he said. "It would have seemed like the end of the world. All that mattered in my life would have been gone.
"But when you go through an illness like the one I've been through, you see things in a very different light. It's killing me not to be coaching. But as important as it is to me, it's secondary. I realize that what's most important to me I can't be fired from."
In December 1978, Cignetti almost died. He underwent an emergency 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 he did. He was diagnosed as having cancer, a rare and serious form of the disease known as lymphoid granulomatosis. The prognosis was not good. But Cignetti was determined to beat the seemingly unbeatable opponent.
He returned to coaching the Mountaineers even though he still was weakened by what he had been through. He underwent intensive testing and treatments. Before the season he prepared a contingency plan for his coaching staff in case he couldn't finish the season.
With a young team, one that appeared to be trying too hard in the early stages of the season, Cignetti finished 5-6, winning five of his last eight games. That wasn't good enough for first-year Athletic Director Dick Martin. Cignetti was fired.
Martin is still his boss and Cignetti doesn't want to talk about what went on last season. But he admits that when he watches the 20 returning starters he recruited playing for new Coach Don Nehlen, it hurts.
"There are a lot of coaches today who are successes who might not be in coaching if they hadn't gotten that one extra year when they were about to get over the hump," Cignetti said. "I knew at the end of last season that we were a good football team and would be this year.
"When I took over in 1976 we were just coming off a big year, winning the Peach Bowl. But we had 32 seniors on that team. We had to start almost from scratch.
"I look at the brand new stadium, I look at the team that my staff and I put together and I feel bad. That's no knock on Don Nehlen, but it is a tough thing for me."
Cignetti is not a bitter man. He lost his job in November. He still was being treated for his cancer. Then, in May, he went to the WVU hospital for his normal tests. The next day, on the road, he called his doctor to find out the results.
"The doctor came on the phone and he told me that when they did their test on my bone marrow there was no evidence of the disease in my body. Every other test had been getting better except the marrow. The doctor didn't say I was cured. But he did say there was no evidence of cancer anywhere in my body.
"At that moment being an out-of-work football coach hardly bothered me. I just got down on my knees and thanked God."
Now, his family takes his health almost for granted. Cignetti runs six miles a day to keep fit. Sitting in a living room chair dressed only in shorts he looks like a husky 42-year-old who is a tad overweight but in essentially excellent condition.
His face is youthful, his features soft and remarkably devoid of age lines. He is the picture of the way most middle-aged men would like to look.
Except for his stomach. There the evidence remains in the form of a long scar. "We don't even talk about it anymore," said Marlene Cignetti. "I just think of Frank as being healthy. The illness is part of the past.
"For me the tough thing now is seeing him so frustrated and discontented. I know that for him Saturdays are the toughest thing. That's why for me Saturdays are the toughest thing now, too."
Last Saturday, Cignetti went to the West Virginia-Maryland game. He sat high up in the stands watching the players he had recruited play their hearts out against Maryland. Cignetti dreamed of coaching WVU in the new stadium. He also dreamed of coaching his son, Curt, oldest of four children, who is a sophomore and the backup quarterback for the team.
Cignetti is not the only one who thinks he should still be on the sideline. Shortly after Nehlen was hired, the Cignettis attended a WVU alumni dinner. When Nehlen was introduced, he received a polite round of applause. Cignetti got a five minute standing ovation. After that, Cignetti stopped going to such functions. He doesn't hang around the practice field, either.
"If I were a new coach I certainly wouldn't want the old coach looking over my shoulder every day," Cignetti said. "I'm going through a kind of withdrawal period right now but I know I can handle it. I can handle a lot of things now that I would get very upset about in the past."
Cignetti would like to get back into coaching -- he thinks. He is trying to make it known around the country that he is healthy. But he does not want to become a college assistant again at this stage of his life.
"I know now that football ends for everyone at some point," he said. "If I can get back in under the right circumstances I'd like to do it. If not I'd like to start working seriously towards becoming an athletic director. It may be that this is the time for me to go through my withdrawal, get it over with and move on. I don't know yet."
Cignetti goes to his son Frank's junior high school practice and helps out everyday. "It's my form of therapy," he said.
His wife says she still thinks of him as a football coach. She believes he will return to coaching next year. "He's a football coach ," she said. "I don't expect that to change. I wouldn't want it to."
Being sick has changed Cignetti's viewpoint even on that.
"If I hadn't been sick I would have jumped into the first job -- any job -- that came along after I was fired," he said. "But now I feel differently. I'm more selective. Football is important and if I coach again I'll be totally committed to what I'm doing. But I think twice now before I jump at the football carrot."
Cignetti never raises his voice when he speaks. He talks in a soft, almost southern, drawl and looks you in the eyes when he does. When he was sick, he admitted, he was scared, and said, "I don't want to die."
He looked on his disease in much the same way he looked upon an upcoming football opponent. It was something that had to be beaten.
"If Frank Cignetti wasn't as determined as he is," said his doctor, Robert H. Waldman, "if he wasn't as tough a competitor as he is, he would have died in December of 1978."