March 24, 2018
By John Heisler
He’s the new kid (or coach) on the block.
And yet he’s not.
He’s a first-year full-time assistant football coach at the University of Notre Dame.
And yet he’s hardly a stranger in South Bend, having spent the last three seasons on Brian Kelly’s Irish staff-two as an analyst and one with the strength and conditioning operation.
He’s attempting to fill the shoes of a hugely respected offensive line coach–Harry Hiestand who joined the Chicago Bears staff in January after six seasons at Notre Dame.
And yet, with 26 seasons of experience coaching the offensive line on his resume plus five more as a Division I head coach, his background is tailor-made for this role.
He’s Jeff Quinn, Notre Dame’s offensive line coach beginning with the 2018 season.
Walk into Quinn’s office on the second floor of the Guglielmino Athletic Complex and it’s hard to miss the framed photo of the gargantuan trophy representing the Joe Moore Award (named after Notre Dame’s offensive line coach from 1988-96) and the members of the 2017 Irish offensive line who won it to designate them as the top unit in the country last fall.
For now, it’s the only photo on the walls.
It’s right there on the left every day as Quinn walks in-and it’s just to the left of a big-screen video monitor his linemen view nearly every day to assess their work.
It’s not there by accident. Quinn specifically wanted that photo in that spot.
Quinn embraces everything about the challenge that image represents.
Quinn understands the expectations that come with his new territory-and he loves them.
“That picture recognizes a lot of our work by a lot of people,” says Quinn.
“That’s the standard. I want that evidence. You can talk about it, but that picture is concrete evidence. That’s what we strive for every day.
“We have three things we want to accomplish.
“Number one, earn a degree from the University of Notre Dame-it’s the greatest gift you can give yourself.
“Two, help Notre Dame win by blocking our opponent with a dominating performance.
“Number three, be the best person you can be and the best offensive line unit in the country.”
Then, in parentheses, Quinn adds JMA for Joe Moore Award.
Interestingly enough, Quinn nearly came to Notre Dame with Kelly in 2010. The two had worked together since 1989 when they began as assistant coaches at Grand Valley State. When Kelly became head coach at Grand Valley in 1991, Quinn coached the offensive line and continued in that role as the two moved to Central Michigan and then Cincinnati-with Quinn also handing the offensive coordinator assignment.
Among Quinn’s most accomplished pupils on the offensive line were former Central Michigan offensive tackle Joe Staley (starting left tackle the last 11 seasons for the San Francisco 49ers and a six-time Pro Bowl pick) and former Cincinnati center Jason Kelce (two-time All-Pro selection as a starter for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles).
When Kelly took the Notre Dame job after Cincinnati’s 12-0 regular season in 2009, Quinn was named interim head coach and led the fourth-ranked Bearcats in their Sugar Bowl assignment against fifth-rated and 12-1 Florida.
Quinn had expected to eventually join the Irish staff along with fellow Cincinnati assistants Bob Diaco, Mike Elston, Charley Molnar and Paul Longo-until he was named head coach at the University of Buffalo the week before Christmas.
“One of the moments I’ll never forget was when I went back for a practice at Cincinnati and told the guys that I’d been blessed with the opportunity to be the next head football coach at the University at Buffalo,” he says. “The guys erupted on the field and gave me a great ovation. It was neat.”
Quinn spent five seasons at Buffalo-going 8-5 in 2013 with eventual high NFL draft pick Khalil Mack helping the Bulls earn a bowl bid–before finally coming to Notre Dame.
“I’m from Chicago, we grew up Irish fans, and the relationship with Coach Kelly went back a long way-we had won a lot of football games together over the years. And it was a chance to be at one of the premier programs in the country,” says Quinn.
So there was an absolute comfort level with Kelly and his assistants, given the prior relationships, even if Quinn initially was not in an on-field coaching role. He and his wife Shannon were both closer to their respective parents (Quinn is originally from Woodridge, Illinois). And Shannon, a longtime special-education teacher in the state of Michigan, was able to continue to add to her in-state service record by teaching in the Niles (Michigan) school district. She’s now closing in on 30 years in the Michigan system.
Quinn in early January was on his way home from the American Football Coaches Association convention when his phone blew up with the news that Hiestand was headed to the Bears.
Quinn wasted no time. He immediately called Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long to let them know he was interested in the offensive line job.
“I was one of a handful of people considered,” he says. “No one handed me the job.”
One interesting wrinkle involved returning offensive line veterans Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars being involved in the interview process.
“I thought it was an advantage for me because I knew Sam and Alex,” says Quinn. “I’d been in the trenches watching them and encouraging them.”
Quinn’s formal interview happened on a Sunday.
“I met for breakfast with a couple of the offensive coaches and I went into it like they didn’t know me,” he says. “I met with Chip individually and went through as much film as I could from Cincinnati to show him who I am as an offensive line coach and how I teach. Then I met with the entire committee–offensive coaches, other football staff members and the two players.
“I showed on the grease board how I would present a run play and a protection. I went through every aspect of offensive line play and how I would teach it. I met with Coach Kelly individually and I met with Alex and Sam.
“I knew how important this job was-because I witnessed it firsthand. I felt like I had a distinct advantage with the things I knew about our offense and the recruiting at Notre Dame.”
Then came the waiting game.
“The next 24 hours, I didn’t know,” says Quinn. “All day Monday I just went back to work.”
Then on Tuesday morning (Jan. 23) Kelly informed Quinn that he had the job.
“Then Sam and Alex came in to see me and I wish I had captured it on video,” recalls Quinn. “It was a great moment-how excited they were. It’s awesome how things worked out.
“They got hold of the rest of the offensive linemen and we all met at 4 p.m. in the offensive line meeting room because I was going to be gone recruiting for the next 12 days,” he says.
“I presented to the group and told them how blessed and honored I was and the things I planned to do every day-teach, train, develop, motivate, recruit to Notre Dame.
“I said to Alex and Sam, ‘Do you guys have anything to offer?’ and Alex said, ‘Sam and I interviewed each of the candidates.’ And he turned around and pointed to me and said, ‘This is the best one.’
“I was fired up. It was good to hear they were on board. I’m excited because it’s a tremendous group.”
In effect it became the perfect storm-with Notre Dame in the market for an offensive line coach, while right at its very fingertips in the Gug sat one with multiple decades of top-level experience in that role.
“Coach Kelly contacted us and gave us the opportunity to be part of the process,” says Mustipher. “He knew were going to be fifth-year seniors and that we’d been around a long time and understood the standard of excellence.
“We wanted someone to be here who understood the tradition. And I think we got the right guy.”
Quinn says the Irish linemen will come to understand his five priorities-faith, family, football, fishing and fun.
Quinn also understands the initial external perception may be more about who’s not here-notably the combination of Hiestand, Nelson and McGlinchey.
He sees no reason for the Irish to take any steps backward.
“I told the offensive linemen, ‘You didn’t lose a coach, you gained a coach. What Coach Hiestand taught every one of you will never leave you unless you choose to let it go.’
“He developed this position into one of the premier groups in the country. They earned it, and it’s everybody-McGlinchey, Nelson, the running backs, the quarterbacks, the receivers, our defense, special teams, Coach Long and Coach Kelly. Everybody contributed.
“We will continue to keep that mindset and identity every single day. What Harry did was awesome. I learned a ton from him, from Coach Kelly and from the players. Now it’s my opportunity to put my teaching and my personality into it. And to get them to play at the highest level.
“We are going to find a way to run the football. That’s in Chip’s DNA, and that’s what Brian was looking for. We have a solid group back on the offensive line, and we have the backfield to go with them.”
Bars (27 career starts at guard) and Mustipher (25 at center) will anchor the line, while junior Tommy Kraemer and sophomore Robert Hainsey also are back after sharing a starting role at right tackle in 2017. They paved the way for Notre Dame to rank seventh nationally in rushing a year ago at 269.3 yards per game, the highest Irish figure in that category since 1996 (ironically, Joe Moore’s final season as Irish offensive line coach).
“They understand the mentality, the pad level, what the expectations are and how they’ve been coached,” says Quinn. “And it’s not just running the ball, it’s putting the best game plan forward. I’m excited to continue the tradition of what we did, especially last year.”
Quinn loves the idea that the Joe Moore Award trophy sits right in the first-floor hallway of the Gug–and it’s impossible to miss.
“The beauty of it is we have evidence of what it takes,” he says.
Then, as Quinn sits at his desk every day, he looks up to face that framed image of the trophy and the guys-many of them on the 2018 Irish roster–most responsible for it.
“The picture–that was the first thing I asked for when I first got the job.
“That’s the reminder.