Why Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn was 'the easy selection' for Brian Kelly

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly replaced Harry Hiestand with a pair of stinking socks.

At least, in the wake of the former Notre Dame offensive line coach’s departure for the Chicago Bears, that was the popular perception. Instead of continuing a recent trend of hiring outside of the comfort of his coaching tree, Kelly — Notre Dame’s divisive ninth-year head coach — turned to a familiar face. He promoted senior offensive analyst Jeff Quinn, who also coached Kelly’s offensive lines (among other duties) at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati from 1991 to 2009.

It wasn’t sexy. It wasn’t flashy.

For many fans, this was a holiday stocking stuffed with socks instead of candy.

“I don’t think that I cared,” Kelly said of the public reaction to Quinn’s hiring on Wednesday, after the Irish signed six recruits to wrap up a 27-player class. “I use the analogy from Christmas. You want that new gift. You want to open up something you didn’t know you were going to get. And the things that you do need, like socks, you don’t get too excited about socks.

“I’m not trying to equate Jeff Quinn to socks, but that’s how he was perceived,” Kelly continued, in an exclusive interview with the Tribune and WSBT Weekday Sportsbeat. “They wanted something different, because they didn’t know what they wanted. I knew what I needed for this football program.”

In Kelly’s mind, the Irish didn’t need another big-screen TV. They didn’t need a Maserati. They didn’t need a Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle.

In more literal terms, they didn’t need Wisconsin’s Bob Bostad, Boston College’s Justin Frye or the Indianapolis Colts’ Joe Gilbert — each of whom interviewed for the vacant position.

They needed Jeff Quinn.

“I think what I was looking for was somebody that would continue to develop our players, both on and off the field, that would be able to teach and continue to build on the success that we've had on the offensive line, and that fit Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “It's one thing to have skills, but you have to have skills and you've got to fit the culture here at Notre Dame.

“And when we went through all those candidates, Jeff Quinn was the easy selection for us — and that means all of us.”

“All of us”? Even associate head coach and defensive line coach Mike Elston, who sat in on the interviews? Even returning graduate student offensive linemen Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars, who had a say in the selection process?

“All of us,” Kelly said. So he made the hire.

And he answered a prayer.

“In the back of my mind, I wanted to get back to coaching. I wanted to get my cleats on the grass and get with my guys again,” said Quinn, 55, who served as Buffalo’s head coach from 2010 to 2014 before rejoining Kelly at Notre Dame. “That’s what brought me to Buffalo — being an offensive line coach for 26 seasons. My opportunity to go there was because of my offensive line background.

“That’s what I wanted to do, and then the dear lord blessed me. For three years I prayed for it, for it to happen for me and my family, and it came true. Now we’ve got to take full advantage of this opportunity.”

Quinn and Co. began to do that on Wednesday, when the Irish signed two offensive linemen — Luke Jones and Jarrett Patterson — to join early signees Cole Mabry and John Dirksen in the 2018 class. A 6-foot-6, 285-pound three-star prospect from Little Rock, Ark., Jones committed to the Irish in late December and withstood Hiestand’s surprising departure.

Patterson, on the other hand, was offered a scholarship the day before Hiestand left town, with UCLA and Michigan already in hot pursuit.

In essence, Quinn inherited an uphill battle. He had to sell the university, but he also had to sell himself.

“I went into this just as I always do: just be who you are,” Quinn said. “I wanted to make sure that they understood who Jeff Quinn was as a person, as a husband, as a man, certainly as a football coach — how their life is going to be impacted by my leadership and direction each and every single day, making sure the parents felt comfortable.

“Just as I’ve raised two sons myself, you hear a lot that the great coaches in this profession approach it the same way, coaching those young men as I would coach my own two sons.”

By that measure, Quinn gained 11 sons last month, and two more on Wednesday. Patterson — a 6-5, 275-pound lineman and a 247Sports four-star recruit — was the latest to join the family.

He chose Quinn, same as Kelly.

They aren’t the only ones.

“I know when (former Cincinnati offensive lineman, Philadelphia Eagles center and two-time Pro Bowler Jason Kelce) last year signed his big contract, he called his mom and dad and called Jeff Quinn,” Kelly said. “That says a lot about the relationship that he built with him.”

The fact remains, Quinn will never be Harry Hiestand.

But Patterson, Kelly, Kelce and Co. see much more than a pair of socks.

“Our goal is to graduate our student-athletes and compete for a national championship, but the magic to that is, how do you do that?” Quinn said on Wednesday, his white hair slicked back, with a gold Notre Dame lapel pinned to the front of his black jacket.

“I kept saying (to recruits), ‘It’s about people — the right kind of people. That’s why I’m in your home.’ ”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Recently promoted offensive line coach Jeff Quinn talks with Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly during a spring practice in 2015. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)