FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — There Dan Quinn was, ready to go, pen and pad in hand.
The then-23-year-old Quinn had just completed his collegiate career as a two-sport athlete at Division III Salisbury State (Maryland), where he played defensive line and threw the hammer. Now it was time to fling himself into the coaching world as a volunteer football assistant for William & Mary (Virginia), the second-oldest university in the United States behind Harvard.
Quinn stepped into the staff meeting room in August 1994 and saw 10 seats arranged, front to back. One of the assistants, Russ Huesman, said, “Hey, just sit right there.” So Quinn followed the advice, not knowing he just got played.
In walked William & Mary head coach Jimmye Laycock. He glared at Quinn and said, “I think you’re in my seat.”
So much for first impressions.
“I was like, ‘m—–f—–,'” Quinn said. “The whole room cracked up. So it was like, ‘Go sit against the back wall.'”
Quinn got the last laugh. He’s the one standing front and center now.
The Atlanta Falcons head coach catapulted up the coaching ranks from there, taking his expertise on the defensive line and using it to become a well-respected NFL defensive coordinator and now the Falcons’ top bird. Quinn would be the first to say his one season at William & Mary — where future NFL coaches Mike Tomlin and Sean McDermott played wide receiver and safety, respectively, for the 8-3 Tribe — wasn’t just a casual stop along the way.
“It was what I needed to do,” Quinn said. “I was fortunate because early in my life, I knew what I wanted to do. I grew up watching the Giants and [Bill] Parcells. I loved football so much that I wanted to be in it, and I knew I wasn’t going to play on Sundays.
“William & Mary was an awesome first job. It was exactly what I needed because I played at a small school.”
How Quinn got to William & Mary is a story in itself.
His quest to coach began with more than 100 handwritten letters to every NCAA Division I-A football program. Quinn said he received 70 responses from guys such as Lou Holtz at Notre Dame and Don Nehlen at West Virginia. All were rejection letters, but Quinn wasn’t deterred. He already had a fallback plan, student-teaching at a pair of Maryland elementary schools. He taught reading to first-graders and spelling/language arts to third-graders. He envisioned eventually taking a high school teaching position and beginning his coaching career there.
That spring, Quinn interviewed with Kutztown University, a Division II school in Pennsylvania. Then-coach Al Leonzi offered Quinn a chance to be a graduate assistant and have grad school paid for simultaneously.
His football coach at Salisbury State, Joe Rotellini, was friends with one of the coaches at William & Mary, a Division I-AA school. Rotellini asked Quinn if he’d be interested in the volunteer position with no compensation. Quinn had to convince his parents it was the right decision.
“I told them I needed to be on their scholarship program for one more year,” Quinn said with a laugh. “I remember calling them and saying, ‘I have an opportunity to go to a bigger school [than Kutztown], but I’m not going to get my master’s. And I’m not going to get paid.”
The value of the experience outweighed the financial benefits or lack thereof. Quinn, an all-conference hammer thrower, finished in the top 10 of the Division III outdoor championships that May, then traveled to William & Mary the very next day to start volunteering. Once he arrived, Quinn slept on a couch in the locker room through the summer.
“I just had my bag of stuff,” he said. “And that’s all I needed.”
Eventually, Quinn graduated to a studio apartment within walking distance of the school. He didn’t want to lean on his parents to pay for everything, so Quinn worked at a Villeroy & Boch outlet in the evenings after the season. His minimum-wage job was to stock china on the shelves and clean up.
“He was a great worker, and everyone loved him,” said Myra Legg, the store manager, and wife of then-William & Mary outside linebackers coach Dave Legg.
After the football season, Quinn worked as a substitute teacher in Williamsburg, Virginia, while other coaches were out recruiting.
He worked just as diligently during the season. Quinn got to be more hands-on than he initially anticipated. He assisted then-defensive line coach Mike London.
“They let me coach, which I thought was cool,” Quinn said. “Mike let me coach … Most of the time, you’re holding cards or being in meetings. But after a while, it was like, ‘Dan, why don’t you go work with the tackles?’
“I had never drawn a card or broken down a tape. … The coaches I enjoyed the most were teaching us on the field, but I didn’t know the amount that went into it behind the scenes.”
Quinn’s work ethic certainly impressed his peers.
“I don’t remember how we got him there or anything because I’m an old dude, but I know ‘Quinny’ was a hard worker,” Huesman said. “I don’t think you sit in the head coach’s seat, now, but Dan was tremendous. Sometimes when you’re that young, you don’t know what it takes to coach. But, man, he was conscientious. He was probably mature beyond his years.”
There was another reason Huesman admired Quinn.
“Did Dan tell you he used to cut my hair back in the day? Every time I needed a cut, he did it,” Huesman said. “We never paid him, but he’d always come to eat at our house. I’m sure that was some of the pay for cutting my hair.”
Quinn, the volunteer coach/student-teacher/china shop employee/barber, was right in his element. Being a young coach, he was able to relate to the players, much like he still does now 25 years later. Back then, he even got permission to attend fraternity parties with the players, considering his age.
“I was hanging and having beers with the guys,” Quinn said. “Heck, I was only a year older than them.”
Quinn, in some ways, figured he reached the pinnacle in his first year of coaching when he was asked to do an episode of the William & Mary television show.
“I had a flattop, weighed about 260 pounds, and there were probably like 200 viewers,” Quinn recalled. “For me, you might as well have been on CBS.”
“William & Mary was an awesome first job. It was exactly what I needed because I played at a small school.” Falcons coach Dan Quinn
Quinn’s first-year memories included being somewhat overwhelmed when the Tribe visited the University of Virginia — a 37-3 loss — and faced quarterback Mike Groh, running back Tiki Barber and linebacker Jamie Sharper, the brother of William & Mary defensive back Darren Sharper.
Perhaps even more memorable was the game against Virginia Military Institute. Quinn was engaged to his future wife, Stacey, who was VMI’s assistant athletic trainer.
“We got after their ass,” Quinn said of William & Mary’s 45-7 win over VMI.
Ironically enough, Quinn’s next stop after William & Mary was as a restricted-earnings defensive line coach at VMI. Bill Stewart’s program also had an opening at receivers coach, and Quinn made a call to his buddy, Tomlin, helping pave the way to Tomlin’s coaching start.
As Quinn left William & Mary, he did so feeling good about his coaching growth.
“They were awesome guys, with a really established head coach,” Quinn said. “You really saw the vision on how to run a program.”