Growing up in Morristown, N.J., the next coach of the Falcons spent part of his youth hurdling over couches – doing his Sam “Bam” Cunningham impersonation — and staying up late charting games.
After a strong high school career at Morristown High as a defensive lineman and as a hammer thrower in track and field, he arrived at Salisbury State on the eastern shore of Maryland knowing that one day he wanted to become a head football coach.
“You knew that he was going to be a coach,” said Robb Disbennett, 52, the assistant head coach/defensive coordinator at what is now Salisbury University. “You could tell. That was what he wanted to get in to. He loved sports. He loved competing. He loved to challenge himself. He’d always push himself to the very limit physically.”
Disbennett has been at the school since 1991 and was the offensive coordinator when Quinn was a star player from 1990 to ‘93.
“I didn’t want to play against him, I knew that,” Disbennett said.
It was at Salisbury, a Division III school, where Quinn’s personality and skills were starting to surface. He was the youngest of six children.
“He was a great kid,” Disbennett said. “He was leader when he was here. He was a captain his senior year. He may have been a two-year captain. He was an outstanding player, a big defensive tackle.”
Quinn’s father, Jim, played baseball at Northwestern before settling down in the insurance business in Morristown, a quaint town of about 18,500 people about 30 miles from New York.
Shortly after his college days were over, Quinn set out on an improbable coaching journey with his first stop at William & Mary in 1994.
He went on to coach at Virginia Military Institute (1995) and Hofstra (1996-2000).
Hofstra had two players with the 49ers in 2000, including safety Lance Schulters and that led to Quinn getting an interview for a spot on Steve Mariucci’s staff. Jim L. Mora, who would later become head coach of the Falcons (2004-06), was the defensive coordinator.
Mora was impressed with Quinn and hired him as a defensive quality control assistant. Two years later, Dennis Erickson made him a defensive line coach.
His time with the 49ers would turn out to be transformational after he met legendary defensive coach Bill McPherson, who was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator from 1989-93. McPherson moved into their front office and worked there through 2005. His span with the team covered all five of their Super Bowl victories.
Pete Carroll, who was San Francisco’s defensive coordinator from 1995-96, was also a student of McPherson.
“Meeting coach Mac was huge for me,” Quinn said. “What a mentor for a guy. He might have been 70 at the time and to take a 30-year old guy under his wings, who was coming out of the college (ranks).”
Quinn is forever grateful.
He and McPherson would have long and in-depth discussions about defensive principles and the nuances of the pro game. McPherson, who was with the 49ers for 24 seasons, also taught Quinn how to evaluate pass rushers.
In 2005, Quinn joined Nick Saban’s staff with the Miami Dolphins.
“My time in Miami with Nick was completely beneficial,” Quinn said. “I had not been as much of a 3-4 coach up until that point. You talk about throwing a great practice, he knew how to do it in terms of every detail and being organized.”
Quinn went on to work with the New York Jets under Eric Mangini Jets (2007-08) and then he reunited with Mora in Seattle (2009) for one season.
In 2010, Carroll was impressed with the student of McPherson and kept Quinn.
After 10 years of coaching defensive lines in the NFL, Quinn needed a bigger challenge with the hopes expanding his reach in the game. He wanted to lead more than just the line and felt joining Will Muschamp’s staff at Florida as the defensive coordinator would afford him that opportunity.
“So when Will got that opportunity, he was the one, who said, ‘Hey, come down and run this thing,’ ” Quinn said.
After two solid seasons with the Gators, Carroll was in a bind. His defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, left to take the head coaching job in Jacksonville.
“To me he was a logical choice because he had been with us,” Carroll said. “He is special. Dan is a tremendous football coach, a great communicator and a great leader.”
Quinn quickly made an impact with the Seahawks. His unit led the franchise to its first ever Super Bowl title and made back-to-back appearances in the Super Bowl. Despite blowing a 10-point fourth quarter lead, they were 1-yard away from winning back-to-back titles.
The Seattle defenders speak as highly of Quinn as his coaching peers do.
“He brings that energy to the group and he finds your strengths,” safety Kam Chancellor said. “He finds your strengths and puts you in a position where you can maximize them and use them effectively and efficiently.”
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman developed from a fifth-round pick to an All-Pro while playing under Bradley and Quinn.
“I think he’s going to be a fantastic head coach because he relates to his players extremely well,” Sherman said. “He’s a guy that’s not close-minded in his approach. He’s very approachable. He’s a great leader of men.”
ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. believes that Quinn can make an impact with the Falcons.
“You have to respect the job that he’s done,” Kiper said. “ They’ve got a lot of talent there (in Seattle). He’s going to bring an attitude.”
The upcoming free agency period and the NFL draft will be important for the Falcons, who must improve the talent level on the 32nd-ranked defense in the league.
“Atlanta needs pass-rush ability,” Kiper said. “They are in a division with a lot of good quarterbacks. You’ve got to beat (New Orleans’) Drew Brees. You’ve got to beat (Carolina’s) Cam Newton to win that division.”
Quinn’s folks back in New Jersey and Maryland are proud.
“Coach Quinn has continued to do some things with our program,” Salisbury coach Sherman Wood said. “We are extremely excited and happy for him and his family and obviously, the Salisbury family.”
Those who have known Quinn the longest are not surprised or stunned that the Falcons picked him to turn around their football fortunes.
“You know that he could lead guys, so he’s just developed,” Disbennett said. “He was just a first-class guy and you’ll be impressed when you meet him. He treats people very well.
“He’s a professional. As he started to get into the coaching profession and just meeting with him over the years, I saw his development and his growth.”
Apparently, so did the Falcons.
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