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Bulls head football coach Jeff Quinn takes to the field with characteristic candor and tenacity
Story by Dick Hirsch; photo by Paul Hokanson
There are those who insist that the best time to assess the character of an individual is not when there is a background of resounding applause, but rather when things aren’t going too well. Those are the moments that provide the best insight into the mind and heart of the person. So it developed with Jeff Quinn, now in his first season as UB’s head coach of football. Quinn has spent 27 years, every day of his working life, as an assistant coach at several different universities, working diligently to polish his craft and waiting patiently for a chance at the top job at a Division I campus.
That chance came at UB. From the outset the expectations have been high, since Quinn came highly recommended and with a notable record, not only for teaching the game, but also for exerting a positive influence on the players. He had barely finished unpacking when word leaked out that several Bulls players had left the team and the school, players who were likely to contend for starting positions. “What’s your reaction, Coach?” the reporters wanted to know. He answered them in a manner that captured the attention of his squad of players, as well as UB fans: “We are very disappointed when players quit. It’s not what we want ... but we will not leave this program up to the weak, the timid and the noncommitted.”
Bulls Coach Jeff Quinn envisions a “high-tempo, fast-paced” offense style.
People, as they read that statement or saw the interview on the 6 o’clock news, may have paused; this guy sounds like the real thing, a no-nonsense individual who tells it like it is. Some may have been surprised at the blunt response.
One person who wasn’t even slightly surprised was Tom Beck, Quinn’s coach at Elmhurst College in suburban Chicago from whom he learned the rudiments of intercollegiate competition, and who later hired him as an assistant at another school.
“You definitely know where you stand with Jeff,” Beck says. “He has always had certain qualities that separated him from the others: a combination of intelligence and toughness, and a tenacity and will to overcome obstacles and succeed. I’ve known him since he was a college freshman and he has always been goal-oriented.”
Initially, the goal line wasn’t his primary objective, as some aspirations have a way of evolving as the years pass.
One goal was established in the early 1980s at the Quinn household in Downers Grove, Ill., for son Jeff. He would be a dentist. Dentistry is a respected profession, a specialty that provides its practitioners with a certain status in the community and the likely assurance of a comfortable lifestyle. It was his parents’ suggestion, but Jeff liked the idea, too. He envisioned himself beside the dental chair, clad in one of those green smocks, urging patients to relax as he began probing for cavities and any other problems with teeth or gums. As an undergraduate at Elmhurst College, he was on the traditional academic track leading to dental school, and doing well in science-related courses. Then things changed abruptly.
Quinn remembers it this way:
“I was in a psychology class and one day the professor asked each of us to consider and answer this question: ‘What is your passion?’ Once we decided what our passion was, she said, we should follow that passion wherever it took us.
“When I asked myself about my passion, I realized it really wasn’t dentistry. It was football and it was wrestling, and I began to picture myself somehow following a career in athletics, coaching and helping others to find their passion and change their lives.”
At this point, Quinn was already a well–known figure on the Elmhurst campus, a beefy and uncompromising player on the football team, and a swift, tough, unrelenting wrestler. That day he changed direction. Although he still retains a fond respect for dentists and the important work they do, he decided coaching was his goal. Even then he was wise enough to understand it was a challenging and often mercurial endeavor, but he has never lacked confidence that he could achieve his aspirations.
From Elmhurst to Buffalo was a long journey, but it was both eventful and instructive. Now, in his first role as a head coach, his passion is at its peak, and it is his mission to motivate and teach his players. All the learning, he emphasizes, won’t be about the Xs and Os used to diagram plays. Many of the lessons will be useful in later life, when his former players are far removed from the gridiron, tending to family, community and careers.
“I teach more than football,” he said. “I teach life.”
Quinn makes that statement to visitors with the same kind of intensity with which he addresses his players. His jaw is set. His blue eyes gleam, riveted on his audience. He gestures with those big meaty hands, the hands that were his weapons as a champion heavyweight intercollegiate wrestler and as a dauntless offensive lineman. In one of his recurring gestures, he places one hand on each side of his head, pointing the thumb, forefinger and middle finger at each temple and then turning the wrists in a twisting motion, as if turning a key and locking a door. As he does that, his eyes widen and he says:
“You’ve got to be locked in.”
Once a person witnesses this expressive demonstration, it becomes a snapshot image not easily forgotten; it reflects a total dedication. He wants the players under his direction to be totally focused on—locked in—the task at hand. That applies to the classroom as well as the football field.
Quinn says it is his intention to train his players physically, intellectually, socially and spiritually. And when he makes that sweeping claim, it is clear that it is much more than an idle boast. He means it. He has heard many motivational speeches in many different locker rooms during a long career as a player and assistant coach, and now, in Buffalo, he is the main attraction and he has seized control. Becoming a head coach was always an obvious goal, but it was a long time coming: 27 years as an assistant or coordinator, during which time he was recognized as one of the best. Indeed, Quinn was one of five finalists in 2009 considered for the prestigious Frank Broyles Award presented annually to the nation’s top assistant coach.
His coaching career started in 1984. With his Elmhurst diploma in hand, he became a graduate assistant at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. Nick Mourouzis, who retired in 2003 as DePauw’s winningest head football coach, hired him, and says: “I was positive from the get-go that this guy would be successful. He was bright, intense and enthusiastic, and he proved to be a great teacher and recruiter.”
From DePauw it was on to Ohio Northern University, Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., Central Michigan University and the University of Cincinnati, initially coaching both wrestling and offensive line play, but eventually devoting his full energy to the offense, with emphasis on the line. At Grand Valley, he was hired by Tom Beck, his one-time head coach at Elmhurst. Both men remember those two special seasons together, with the former player now on the staff of his old coach. Over the years, he was either offensive line coach or offensive coordinator; it was during that time that offensive linemen lost their anonymous status.
“Now everyone knows about the importance of the offensive line,” says Quinn, who was the left guard while at Elmhurst, where he was known for playing at 225 pounds, and for being tough, strong and nimble, with what players and coaches revere as “quick feet.” “The offensive line is 50 percent of the game. If the quarterback doesn’t have time, the offense goes nowhere.” He has mentored many linemen who have compiled reputations for speed and dogged determination.
At UB, it didn’t take long for him to establish rapport with his players, according to Josh Violanti, the junior center and Dean’s List student from Lackawanna, N.Y., who anchors the offensive line. “You can tell he cares about the players, and he is a great motivator,” Violanti says. “We’re all very excited.”
Quinn, 48, spent 21 years working as an assistant with Brian Kelly, who in December left Cincinnati to become head coach at Notre Dame. He initially agreed to accompany Kelly to South Bend as offensive coordinator in a program with the highest of profiles. However, it wasn’t too long before opportunity came knocking, in the person of UB Director of Athletics Warde Manuel. Their conversations climaxed when Quinn, with the blessing of his friend Kelly, changed his mind about Notre Dame and accepted his first head coaching job with the UB Bulls.
“Jeff has a really comprehensive perspective about what it means to coach young men,” Manuel observes, in describing the critical factor that resulted in Quinn’s hiring. “He knows the football side of it, but, perhaps more important, he has a deep–seated belief in the mission of mentoring young men, seeing them through graduation and preparing them for their future lives. His pedigree shows that he can bring it all together, and he exemplifies the kind of individuals we want coaching at UB.”
What can UB fans expect on the field? Excitement.
“We will be using the no-huddle, spread offense. It’s a fast game and often the opposition finds that difficult to defend against,” Quinn says. “We really want to keep the defense on their heels and keep them off balance and try to attack them with a lot of different formations with a high-tempo, fast-paced style. We build the offense around the type of players we have ... we adapt, adjust and improvise.”
Quinn brought with him to Buffalo a cadre of assistants who worked with him at Cincinnati, who, like Quinn, believe the players will adjust well to new systems on both offense and defense. Quinn introduced full tackling during some scrimmages, rather than the less physical two-handed tagging or wrapping. It is an important aspect of his style of preparation. He also tapped his wife, Shannon, for a football-related assignment. Along with members of the coaching staff, she presented a preseason program designed for women, to explain some of the intricacies of football and suggest ways to enhance their enjoyment as spectators.
“Football is simple, but it is not easy,” Quinn likes to say. “Players and coaches have to pay attention to details, avoiding the little mistakes that result in losses and stressing the little things that win games. In Division I football, all the coaches are good and they all have the same number of scholarship athletes and the same techniques. That is why it is so challenging to win a Division I game. You need to be locked in and not be thinking about something else.”
Dick Hirsch is a veteran Buffalo writer.
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