Overcast skies blot the sun and a gentle breeze stirs subtle waves, producing conditions ideal for Lake Erie bass fishing. Only the bass don't seem to know it. They bite infrequently and without vigor, a form of double jeopardy that new University at Buffalo football coach Jeff Quinn takes as a personal challenge.
He summons the knowledge accumulated over a lifetime on the water and adjusts his presentation to limit the slack in the line, to heighten his sense of feel. And it's not long before he boats one, two, three bass, celebrating each victorious battle with unabashed zeal while expressing in pinch-me tones how blessed he is to have the UB job.
"What's not to love about Buffalo?" asks the Chicago-area native, rhetorically, because he's sold on the area and averse to cynics.
Quinn, 47, arrived here with a substantial resume that emanates success. In some ways he's similar to the man who preceded him, current Kansas coach Turner Gill. They're both winners. Family men. Men of faith who need only consult their personal histories to ascertain a proven formula for high-end achievement.
Yet the two are also distinct, wound with different thread. Gill's personality bordered on stoic, his unflappable demeanor culled from the teachings of his iconic mentor, former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne. There was a Zen-like quality to Gill's behavior, an aura of perpetual peace. Rare were the times even on the sidelines when his voice rose above conversational levels.
And Quinn? A fish that slips the hook near the boat elicits emphatic reminders that UB has transitioned from one coaching era to the next. He responds by slapping his rod tip on the water, contorting his face in disgust and spitting venom that would never reach the lips of his predecessor.
"Gawddammit." The fish's escape upsets a natural flow that goes: man hooks bass, man catches bass. And that disconnect between expectation and fulfillment eats at the very core of a coach who cherishes order, relishes organization and spews mantras and slogans that succinctly capture his philosophies on coaching and life.
What kind of development does he expect from his players? Look no further than the four UB Stadium lobby pillars decorated with the answer: intellectual, social, spiritual and physical/skill.
What's he all about as a person? Are you serious? You're still unaware? Quinn hasn't visited your local diner, hasn't popped in on your charity function? How in the world did he miss those as he bopped all around Western New York after his hiring, shaking more hands than a politician down in the polls.
The guy's so gregarious, so unassuming, so enthusiastic that there's a natural inclination to draw a skeptical first impression: Is this the man or the shtick? you wonder as he ticks off his five passions, the Five F's: Faith, Family, Football, Fishing and Fun.
"What you see is what you get," says Shannon, his wife of 23 years and an integral part of Team Quinn. "Jeff treats everyone the same. We have always treated the president of the university just like we treat the lunch lady of the university. People are special. People bring something to the table, whatever it be. And we value that about all human beings. We always have."
The Five F's. They constitute the ideal vehicle in which to tour the vision and circumstances that have brought Quinn to this point and transformed a patient, dedicated lifelong assistant into, as he'd put it, the Next Bull In.
"People ask all the time, 'How you going to shake that stigma,' " Quinn says. "I'm not. I don't want to shake any stigma. What, are you kidding me? This is one of the finest football coaches you'll ever know in this game."
He's speaking of Brian Kelly, the new coach at Notre Dame, where Quinn would be the offensive coordinator had the UB vacancy not arisen. For 20 years Quinn rode sidecar as Kelly orchestrated two national championships at Division III Grand Valley, a Mid-American Conference championship at Central Michigan, two Big East titles and a Sugar Bowl berth at Cincinnati. Quinn's been an associate head coach, an offensive coordinator, an offensive line coach. He's never been the ultimate authority, the head man, creating the stigma, as Quinn called it, that he's riding Kelly's coattails.
Hmmm. Did Mike Holmgren face similar doubts upon parting with Bill Walsh? Was Bill Belichick deemed a puppet strung to Bill Parcells? Aren't the coaching ranks filled with former apprentices indebted to their mentors?
It would be a mischaracterization to say Quinn spent all those years with Kelly biding his time as a loyal servant. More accurately, he observed with keen eyes and immersed himself in all aspects of the team.
"The dear lord has a plan for all of us," Quinn says. "And I just felt that I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. I'm going to keep getting better as a ball coach. I'm going to keep getting better as a leader. And I always went into all my meetings and all my days coaching as the head coach of the O-line.
"I tell players all the time, look, if you want to be a starter don't tell me you want to be a starter. Act, conduct, prepare, perform like a starter. That was my course of action. If I wanted to be a head coach then I wanted people to understand that I was going to act, conduct, perform, prepare as a head coach. And nobody had a better mentor through the process for 21 years than Jeff Quinn, watching the day-to-day operation of one of the great coaches in our game, Brian Kelly. I just kept taking all that in. And you know what? The dear lord blessed me."
Twenty years of intense preparation and study proved vital to Quinn closing the deal during his interview with UB Athletic Director Warde Manuel.
"I think more than any other candidate, he was himself," Manuel said. "And I appreciated that. In conversation, you could see there wasn't a lot of thought to his response. He wasn't trying to think about, 'How do I respond to this to get this job?'
"The other candidates were great, and I'm not saying that they did that. But what Jeff did, he was direct, he was passionate, he talked about multiple aspects of running the program. His response to the questions was more as if he had been a head coach before."
The Quinns' oldest son, Kyle, attends the University of Cincinnati on an academic scholarship. Their younger son, Ryan, is off to Central Michigan on a wrestling scholarship. The apples didn't fall far from the tree.
"Our boys study spelling words the exact same way that [Jeff] wins games," Shannon says. "It is no different. We have a lot of success in our family outside of football, with both our sons and our personal lives and things that we have done and things that have come to us. We are very grateful. We are spiritual."
Shannon employs the word "we" often when discussing Jeff, and one might infer that her role in this marital partnership extends beyond the norm for a coach's wife.
"I also have taught for 28 years, and good coaching is just good teaching," she says. "Maybe a player's not grasping a play, or it's difficult, and we talk about the research of the mind and the brain and that sometimes you can't implement a play on the last day prior to a game because it actually takes statistically and theoretically time for the whole process to go through your mind. So a lot of times, although he's working with 18-23 year olds, and I may be working with 0-6 year olds, a lot of the process is exactly the same."
Jeff and Shannon have been together since they were 15, high school sweethearts as freshmen. Their relationship has endured over two decades of long hours, through the recent spate of moves from one school to the next.
"Shannon's been my rock," Quinn says. "They say better half, she's much better than my better half. There's challenges in all marriages and we've faced them ourselves as husband and wife and mother and father, but the bottom line is we trust each other and we care deeply about each other and that's why my last breath of air goes to her."
Gill cultivated and sold a sense of family during his four years at UB, the bond among players and coaches tightening like a clenched fist. Quinn is doing the same, although the approach is as different as their personalities.
"They definitely care about their players, that's one thing about them both," said senior defensive back Domonic Cook. "They will stand up for us. Coach Gill is more laid back. Coach Quinn is more on you, but they both will put us first."
Quinn's first stop in the working world was as head wrestling coach and assistant football coach at Division III Ohio Northern. An ideal job, that was. Quinn had been a two-sport standout at Division III Elmhurst (Ill.) College, where he was an All-America offensive lineman and a three-time NCAA qualifier as a heavyweight wrestler. Twice he was named the school's Student-Athlete of the Year. The innocence and purity of Division III athletics appealed to him. Had he remained a coach at Ohio Northern forever he might well have been content.
His trek toward UB commenced in 1989, when Tom Beck, Quinn's football coach at Elmhurst, took over at Grand Valley (Mich.) following a stint as a Marv Levy assistant with the USFL's Chicago Blitz. Quinn joined Beck and quickly developed a relationship with Grand Valley's defensive coordinator -- Kelly.
"He had a great passion for football and life and he's a man of faith and family and the next thing you know Tom Beck left to go to Notre Dame as the running backs coach for Lou Holtz," Quinn says.
Kelly became the new head coach at Grand Valley.
"I have a very strong sense for people and I want to be around winners," Quinn said. "And I knew Brian was a winner."
For the next 21 years Quinn became a teacher under Kelly and a student of his ways. They won at Grand Valley, then turned struggling programs into forces at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. It was as if they had canned whatever it takes to succeed in college football.
"People ask me all the time, 'How do you win?' " Quinn says. "I know how to win. I've proven how to win. I know exactly what it takes to win. And I'm not talking about catching the ball and blocking. I'm talking about consistency in the four pillars of development and who you are and what you're about. Those are the things that we've done very well with Brian and myself. And that's how you win."
Quinn was 6 when his parents, John and Arlene, bought a cabin in Wisconsin's famed Rock River Basin, a collection of 45 lakes and 3,900 miles of streams created as if to produce childhood memories. And so grew Quinn's passion for fishing, a skill that serves him to this day.
"Let's put it this way, I've done some of my best recruiting with high school coaches on a boat," Quinn says while the charter captain, Mark "Sparky" McGranahan, nods in understanding. "In West Michigan, very rarely do I go into a high school recruiting a kid without that coach being an outdoorsman, maybe a hunter, a fisherman."
The no-huddle spread offense that UB will utilize, the frenetic attack that put quarterback Tony Pike and Cincinnati on the national map, is an elemental extension of Quinn's personality. He's all in when it comes to life, whether he's coaching football or spinning a yarn.
Long story made short, Quinn was a senior in high school when his future father-in-law, George Rantis, learned of Jeff's adulation for Ray Nitschke, the former Green Bay Packers linebacking great. It so happens Rantis and Nitschke played against each other in high school, were teammates at Illinois.
Rantis arranges through Nitschke a trip for Quinn and a couple of teammates to Green Bay for the Bears-Packers game. They're having breakfast in the hotel dining room when Nitschke walks in and joins them.
"I even know what he ordered," Quinn says. "He ordered eggs, sausage, pancakes, hash browns, french toast. He put all this stuff on one plate, mixed it all together, and he poured syrup all over it. And he's eating. And he's going back and forth with George, remember that game
"He's reciting exactly the thing they always did at Illinois, whatever their pregame ritual was, and George and him are reciting it verbatim. And then all of a sudden (Nitschke) kicks his chair out to simulate him getting out of the locker room all excited, and this poor waitress, with a tray of plates and cups, he nails this poor gal.
"And Ray's like, 'I'm so sorry. Are you OK, honey? Are you OK?' And she's looking at him, 'It's OK, Mr. Nitschke. I'll take care of it.'
"And he goes, 'Good,' and went right back to the story."
A variation of the spread attack Kelly and Quinn constantly refined makes its UB debut Thursday against visiting Rhode Island. The quarterback is inexperienced. The receiving corps is young. But Quinn is ready to play his hand.
It's football season, and he has faith in his family of players. At the very least it ought to be fun to watch.
The fishing will have to wait.
> Jeff Quinn at a glance
1984-85 -- Graduate assistant, DePauw
1986-88 -- Offensive Line, Ohio Northern head wrestling coach
1989-2003 -- Associate head coach/offensive line/offensive coordinator, Grand Valley State
2004-05 -- Associate head coach/offensive line, Central Michigan
2006 -- Associate head coach/offensive line/offensive coordinator, Central Michigan
2007-09 -- Offensive coordinator/offensive line, Cincinnati
2010 -- Head coach, University at Buffalo