GREEN BAY – Originally, Frank Cignetti Jr.’s coaching career crossed paths with Mike McCarthy for just one year.
It was in 1989 at the University of Pittsburgh, with Cignetti as a graduate assistant and McCarthy a volunteer assistant for the Panthers.
By 1990, they were no longer on the same staff, but they never lost touch. McCarthy took Cignetti’s grad assistant position at Pitt as Cignetti headed off to work on his father’s coaching staff at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), his alma mater.
A few years later, McCarthy broke into the NFL, and Cignetti appreciated the fact his old Pitt colleague never forgot about him.
“We always had a relationship,” said Cignetti, shortly after being introduced as the Packers’ new quarterbacks coach. “When Mike went on to Kansas City with the Chiefs, he’d come back in the summertime and he’d mentor me, he’d train me.
“I can remember sitting back there watching the old Joe Montana tapes in his parents’ living room. ‘Hey Cig, here’s how we’re teaching the drop, the fundamentals.’”
Those tape-grinding sessions back in McCarthy’s old Greenfield stomping grounds led to Cignetti visiting some Chiefs’ minicamps, which helped him make the connections to land an offensive quality control job in Kansas City – the same one that started McCarthy’s pro coaching career – in 1999, the year McCarthy left the Chiefs to coach the Packers’ quarterbacks under Ray Rhodes.
And then the coaching carousel really gets strange, but cool.
When McCarthy became the offensive coordinator in New Orleans in 2000, Cignetti joined him as quarterbacks coach, and Jim Hostler – now the Packers’ pass game coordinator on offense who had worked with Cignetti at IUP for much of the ’90s – took Cignetti’s quality control gig with the Chiefs. Then the following year, Hostler joined McCarthy and Cignetti on the Saints’ offensive staff.
Fast forward a few more seasons, when McCarthy was San Francisco’s offensive coordinator in 2005, and Hostler was his QB coach. Cignetti had jumped back into the college ranks, but two years later, Hostler took over as the 49ers’ offensive coordinator, and guess who became his QB coach? Yup, Cignetti.
The reunion of the trio – and a third go-round for McCarthy and Cignetti in particular – was a long time in the making, but an example of how relationships, particularly ones that date back almost 30 years, always have a chance to come full circle.
“It’s really cool that here we are,” Cignetti said of him, McCarthy and Hostler. “It’s been what, 17 seasons? But here we are with a chance to do it together.
“If I could really bring it to one thing Mike taught us – not just me but ‘Hoss’ and myself and whoever else – Mike taught us how to put an offense together conceptually. The run game, the protections, the pass game, and training the quarterback in a systematic method.”
Cignetti’s first impression of McCarthy was how detail-oriented he is, a trait Cignetti has tried to carry with him in a coaching career that has included stops at six different colleges and now six NFL teams.
It’s those finer details that will matter most as Aaron Rodgers’ position coach, so Cignetti is going to consider himself an “extra set of eyes” for one of the game’s premier players.
“Coaching is what? Coaching is teaching, so it’s constant monitoring,” Cignetti said. “You coach the fundamentals – the footwork, the ball-handling, the eyes and feet being tied together … Every day in the classroom and on the field, you’re making sure things are done right.”
That was the focus of those Montana film sessions at the old McCarthy homestead more than two decades ago, though to Cignetti, “it seems like yesterday,” he said.
“It’s amazing how fast it goes.”