WASHINGTON — When the Atlanta Falcons take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI Sunday, Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn will be looking for his second Super Bowl Championship but first as an NFL head coach. Considering his humble, local roots, the fact that he’s coaching on such a stage at all is remarkable.
Coming out of what was then known as Salisbury State University (the “State” has since been dropped) on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Quinn has returned the Falcons to the Super Bowl for just the second time in his second season in Atlanta. Quinn won the first two games of his postseason coaching career, knocking off recent Super Bowl champions in the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.
The 46-year-old from Morristown, New Jersey, was a four-year starter in the late ’80s and early ’90s on the Salisbury defensive line, where he was team captain a couple of those seasons. In the spring, he participated in track and field, setting a hammer throw record that stood until 2012. It’s where he met his future wife Stacey, a Sea Gull alum as well. The couple has not forgotten the Division III university since leaving Salisbury, donating to the school’s athletic department to help fund the new football stadium, locker room and field that opened this past season.
Quinn spoke with WTOP during the Falcons’ bye week about his post-Salisbury career and 20-plus-year journey as a coach, which he never thought would lead him to the biggest stage in the sport.
“I figured I’d try and get my degree and maybe go coach high school,” said Quinn. But after watching the work the coaches put in at Salisbury, he started to focus his thoughts of coaching in the college ranks.
As a player, Quinn only won six of his 32 career college games. His journey to where he is now was fueled by watching his coaches enduring a tough time at the program, but also, he could never have gotten started without his head coach, Joe Retelling, who had a connection to Joe Bottiglieri, the defensive coordinator at William & Mary.
“I was fortunate enough,” said Quinn, laughing, “for Joe to recommend me to Joe.”
Just like that, Quinn would go on to coach the defensive line for the Tribe, starting his coaching career. Two other future NFL head coaches — Mike Tomlin of the Steelers and Sean McDermott, the new Bills head coach — were players on that 1994 team.
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After a year, Quinn would leave for VMI, then to Hofstra, before entering the pro ranks with San Francisco in 2001.
With the Niners, Quinn worked with the great Bill Walsh, head coach Steve Mariucci and former general manager John McVay (whose grandson Sean, the former ‘Skins offensive coordinator, is now the head coach of the L.A. Rams.)
“It couldn’t have been a better place for me to begin my NFL career,” he said.
After leaving the West Coast in 2005 for Miami, Quinn was named to the Salisbury University Athletics Hall of Fame; he gave a memorable speech to the football team’s annual season-ending banquet in December of that year.
After a two-year stint with the Dolphins, Quinn spent time with both the Jets and Seahawks as a defensive line coach, biding his time. Eventually, though, he took an intentional step “backward” so to speak, to try to leap two steps forward, taking the defensive coordinator position at the University of Florida.
“After almost 10 years as a defensive line coach in the NFL, I figured it was worth a shot to push to the next stop,” he said.
The strategy worked. Two years later, the DC job opened up in Seattle in 2013. In his first year in charge of the Seahawks defense, Quinn coached his squad to records in three main categories: fewest points allowed (231), fewest yards allowed (4,378), and in most takeaways (39), becoming the first team since the 1985 Chicago Bears to accomplish the feat.
At the end of that season, in his home state of New Jersey, Quinn and the Seahawks defeated Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos for Seattle’s first ever NFL Championship.
While a championship is obviously “a coaching career highlight” for anyone, yielding just eight points to cap that record-setting year in a 43-8 blowout was extra special.
“Being a part of a unit that was for that year that you did it, you were better than anybody,” said Quinn.
A year to the day after beating Denver on Feb. 2, 2015, Quinn would announce that he had reached agreement on a five-year contract with Atlanta to be their next head coach.
Quinn went 8-8 in his first season, missing out on the playoffs. But this season, Quinn’s Falcons won the NFC South Division with an 11-5 record, earned a bye in the playoffs, then a thrilling win against his former team, Seattle, in the Divisional Round. He followed that by toppling the Packers in the NFC Championship, in what would be the final game at the Georgia Dome.
From a small town in New Jersey, to a small school on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, to the biggest stage in the sports world, Quinn’s path has been longer and windier than many. But he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“Whatever you want to do is going to take a lot of grit to accomplish it, and there may be a lot of setbacks along the way, and it may take a long time to get there. But once you get there, at the other end of it, you’re really going to like the journey you were a part of.”