SOUTH BEND — The nationwide search for Notre Dame’s next offensive line coach eventually led head football coach Brian Kelly to his own zip code and his own past.
And now a perceptual skirmish with large — or at least loud — chunks of his own fan base.
The consensus social media reaction to the ninth-year Irish head coach promoting senior offensive analyst Jeff Quinn Tuesday was the football equivalent of the scorn Kelly might have gotten had he taken his own cousin to the prom.
But is it an overreaction?
Quinn, reunited with Kelly at ND in 2015 behind the scenes, moves front and center now as the new Irish offensive line coach. Kelly, knowing there would be pushback for hiring someone with whom he has great familiarity, still feels it’s worth it.
Unlike most places where that position coach and his behemoths toil in relative anonymity, at Notre Dame he and they are considered quasi-royalty. As long as they produce.
The trophy that is given annually to the best offensive line in college football bears the name of a former offensive line coach, Joe Moore. The man who just guided the Irish O-Line to the 2017 Joe Moore Award before exiting earlier this month for a second run with the Chicago Bears, Harry Hiestand, is the man Quinn must replace.
Or in more exacting terms, build upon the culture and high standards that Hiestand created during a stellar six-year run — of which Quinn is well aware and witnessed much of it unfold first-hand.
“There’s a tremendous legacy of coaching the offensive line at Notre Dame, from Brian Boulac to Merv Johnson to Joe Moore to Harry Hiestand,” the 55-year-old Woodridge, Ill., product said Tuesday via prepared statement.
“As each of those men will tell you, the focus of this job has been and always will be about the best interests of the players in the offensive line room, both on and off the field. I’m simply honored to now serve in this role.”
Extreme scrutiny comes along with that honor. So do plenty of questions even an outsider — of which there were many considered and three deemed finalists — would face in following Hiestand.
How will Quinn sync up with second-year offensive coordinator Chip Long? How different is his personality and teaching techniques from Hiestand’s? Can he evaluate talent and lure it to South Bend like the coach who will likely claim his third and fourth first-round NFL Draft choices over a six-year window in April?
Quinn’s first test in the recruiting arena, and a crash course at that, comes over the next two weeks as the Irish try to close on Mission Viejo, Calif., four-star offensive tackle Jarrett Patterson and/or Tampa, Fla., five-star lineman Nicholas Petit-Frere between now and the late national signing day on Feb. 7.
More daunting is the layer of challenges that comes with being part of Kelly’s past, no matter how decorated or successful.
A central thread in the narrative explaining Notre Dame’s evolution from a 4-8 team in 2016 to a 10-3 squad this past season was the shedding of some longtime coaching confidantes for new blood in a seismic staff makeover.
Thus, the Quinn hiring cuts against that grain.
“Jeff has helped produce NCAA, conference and school record-breaking offenses along with multiple conference, bowl and national championships over his 34 years as a college football coach,” Kelly said in a statement.
“He has an accomplished track record of not only identifying but also developing outstanding offensive linemen. Jeff also understands the high standard of offensive line play at Notre Dame, having been part of the offensive staff the last few years. He will continue to develop the culture necessary to produce college football’s top offensive line.”
Quinn is not without gleaming stretches in his own track record.
His protégées include Pro Bowlers, Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce and San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley.
Central Michigan has had seven offensive linemen drafted since 1974, including Staley, and Quinn in his three-year run coached four of them. Similarly, Cincinnati has had four O-Linemen drafted since 1983 and two of them were tutored by Quinn — including Kelce, a former walk-on linebacker Quinn converted to a standout center and guard.
“If you’re looking for a guy who’s intense, you will not find a person more intense that Jeff Quinn,” said former LaPorte High offensive lineman Trevor Sales, who played for Quinn at the University at Buffalo when Quinn was the Bulls’ head coach. “He brings it every day.
“Even as a head coach, Quinner was an O-Line guy. He was in our meeting room a lot, just making sure we were on the same page and whatnot.”
Sales transferred to Buffalo from FCS school Delaware State, sat out a year as a walk-on transfer, then became a multi-year starter at center and a captain.
“I think one of the biggest things that bettered me as a player is that Jeff Quinn really understands offensive line play from a defensive perspective,” Sales said. “What I mean by that is he was able to teach the O-Linemen how to see defensive plays coming before they even happened — by how they were aligned, which hand they had in the dirt, small things like that.
“I think he’s an expert in that field and that will show in his new role.”
Quinn and Kelly go all the way back to Division II Grand Valley State in 1989, the year Kelly was promoted from grad assistant to defensive coordinator. Two years later, when Kelly became the Lakers’ head coach, Quinn became a key figure in Kelly’s evolution as an offensive coach.
Quinn, in fact, was Kelly’s co-pilot offensively for Grand Valley’s Division II national titles in 2002 and 2003.
The two worked together there until Kelly left for Central Michigan in 2004. Quinn was the associate head coach and offensive coordinator under Kelly for the Chippewas, then offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for Cincinnati under Kelly from 2007-09.
In their six years at the FBS level together at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, with Quinn coaching offensive line and coordinating the offense, five times those teams finished in the top 40 nationally in total offense with 52nd in 2008 being the worst in that run and 11th in 2009 being the best.
The two took separate paths after the 12-1 season in 2009, with Kelly becoming head coach of the Irish and Quinn taking the head coaching job with the University at Buffalo. He was 21-37 in five seasons with the Bulls.
In 2015 the former Elmhurst College wrestler and offensive lineman landed at ND as an offensive analyst, then wore the tag of assistant strength and conditioning coach in 2016. This past season, he was in a senior offensive analyst role.
The Irish lose All-Americans Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson from the Joe Moore Award-winning unit, but return starters, center Sam Mustipher and guard Alex Bars, as well as the right tackle tag team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey.
Mustipher and Bars, grad seniors-to-be and third-year starters in 2018, were included in the search/hiring process.
Quinn’s hiring completes Kelly’s staff. North Carolina assistant Terry Joseph will be named ND’s safeties coach once ND’s vetting process is complete.
There will be no easing-in period. Quinn's first assignment, with a reconfigured line, comes Sept. 1 against Michigan and one of the nation's top defensive coordinators, in Don Brown. The Wolverines were third nationally in total defense in 2017.
Kelly credited the senior offensive analyst Quinn with helping produce Kelly Era bests in the 2017 national statistical rankings in rushing offense (seventh) and scoring offense (24th) with his analytics and scouting.
“There are a lot of wins there when those two guys work together,” offered Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Todd Monken.
Monken worked with both Kelly and Quinn at Grand Valley State before spending two seasons as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame (1991-92) in which he overlapped Joe Moore’s run as offensive line coach.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find people who have been around Jeff Quinn who don’t just love the dude,” Monken said. “Players and coaches love the way he’s wired and the passion he has for the guys he’s coaching.
“He’s loyal. He’s smart. He pushes guys. It’s everything you want in a coach. He’s the whole package. I don’t know Harry Hiestand very well, but I know he’s a hell of a coach. People are about to find out that Jeff Quinn is too.”