HOUSTON — Before he was the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons preparing for the Super Bowl on Sunday against the New England Patriots, and before he was a highly regarded assistant working through the college and professional ranks, Dan Quinn was a defensive tackle at Salisbury University who dreamed of leading a team.
He had a talk with his Seagulls coach, Joe Rotellini, during his senior year about those aspirations. Rotellini then reached out to his mentors in the field to help his four-year starter secure a job.
The coach anticipated that the intensity and personality Quinn displayed in college would shine when Quinn broke into the business.
Rotellini just didn’t expect it would lead Quinn to the championship stage as a second-year NFL coach with the opportunity to deliver the Falcons their first-ever trophy.
“He was just really consistent in how he handled himself,” Rotellini told Capital News Service. “You could always tell that he wanted to be great, no matter what he was doing. That’s just how he is as a person today. No different, really. Just a little bit older.”
The qualities first caught Rotellini’s attention when he arrived at then-Salisbury State in 1990 — Quinn’s first year, too.
That season, Quinn played linebacker, but his size and talent fit better on the defensive line in Rotellini’s scheme. Quinn worked to learn the new position as a sophomore without a complaint.
All the while, Quinn earned respect from his peers, and the team voted him captain as a junior and senior.
Rotellini remembers Quinn’s voice was a constant in the locker room and on the field. His energy, which he also channeled into his role on the Salisbury track and field team, also rarely dipped in workouts.
“Always positive and he always put the team first because he worked hard, he was loyal,” Rotellini said. “All those things are important if you’re on a team or you’re leading a team.”
Quinn, who is from New Jersey, played at Salisbury from 1990 to 1993.
Once his coaching career started at William and Mary — Rotellini helped spark it with a call to the team’s defensive coordinator — Quinn’s players gravitated toward his confident and passionate demeanor.
He remained that way more than 20 years later, despite his first Falcons season ending in a slide. They started 5-0 in 2015 but lost eight of their last 11 games.
Rotellini met with Quinn after a contest in late December that year and felt Quinn was handling the adversity well. The rookie leader felt otherwise.
“The frustration level was definitely high,” Quinn remembered Wednesday during a Super Bowl media session.
This year, however, Quinn’s Falcons have had to deal with few setbacks.
Quarterback Matt Ryan, who credits Quinn as “such an influential person for me,” has had an MVP-caliber season, while the young defense, which features seven contributors Quinn has drafted in the last two years, has had a dominant playoff run.
The chemistry focuses on Quinn’s “brotherhood” emphasis, which he’s helped to foster through competitive games and videos with messages ranging from motivational speeches to “Fail Friday” jokes.
“It’s a great atmosphere, honestly,” second-year linebacker Jalen Collins said. “To the people that work upstairs to the people that work in the kitchen, just showing love and respect to everybody and knowing that we all play a part and nobody’s higher than anybody else.”
A reporter asked Quinn Wednesday afternoon if the tactics felt childish — like something he might have participated in as a player at Salisbury rather than at the helm of an NFL squad — but he had a different view.
“That connection to say ‘I am playing for something bigger than myself,’ that’s when some cool stuff can happen,” Quinn responded. “Our team wasn’t that way last year. We were a little more of a neighborhood, and now as our team grew tighter and tighter and stronger and stronger, it allowed the on-field success to take place.”
This story is part of special coverage of the Super Bowl, a collaboration between Capital News Service and the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.