HOUSTON – For the Atlanta Falcons the trip to Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots is something special, but something very few in black and red have experienced as the franchise will make just its second trip to the big game. However, for the guy calling the shots this week – Salisbury University alumnus Dan Quinn – this is his third Super Bowl trip in the past four years.
In his previous two trips to the Super Bowl in 2014 and 2015, then the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, Quinn found himself as one of the hottest head coaching candidates in the National Football League. As an assistant on media day, he was relegated to a small area on the side of the arena in a virtual free-for-all among those not deemed high-profile enough to warrant their own space. On Monday night at Minute Maid Park, home of Major League Baseball's Houston Astros, Quinn had made it to the big leagues.
In his second year as head coach of the Falcons, Quinn found himself in prime location at NFL Opening Night, at a podium center stage, just to the left of his star quarterback Matt Ryan where the Falcons met with the media for the first time in Houston.
It was a long road from then Salisbury State University, where Quinn graduated in 1994 to that podium in Houston on Monday and he's been hearing from Salisbury friends and colleagues throughout the run.
"I've gotten the notes and the well wishes from Pat Lamboni, even Mike Vienna who's not (at Salisbury), and Coach (Sherman) Wood," Quinn said. "A number of the guys have left notes or messages and it's totally appreciated. So much of my foundation as a competitor was during that time. I got to watch other coaches coach who were terrific in that time and that helped me become the coach (that I am). I knew that was what I wanted to do, but seeing so many coaches in different sports and different areas was a big factor and it's great to still keep up with people that were there then and are still there now."
Quinn's moves throughout the years have meant some changes in the colors within some closets on the Eastern Shore, but this weekend, it's all about rising up.
"It means quite a bit to both Stacey and I. My wife also went there and was an athletic trainer there," Quinn said. "It meant a lot just knowing that we have some of those old friends and long-time connections. They've been supporters of us and at a number of different spots. We're pumped that this weekend, they'll have their black and red on."
Quinn has built the team in Atlanta to a Super Bowl team in just two seasons, with a wealth of knowledge coming from multiple assistant coaching stops in the NFL and in college football on his way to his current stop.
"I had this unique group of guys that I had the opportunity to be around," said Quinn, who spent time with head coaches Steve Mariucci, Eric Mangini, Nick Saban, and Pete Carroll in previous stops. "Early on, that's where a lot of my beliefs were formed. Then, like most things, you have to do it your own way. For us, when I had this opportunity to come to Atlanta just a few years ago, that's when we were able to fully implement (our style)."
His style has been based in "brotherhood," the theme that carries a small-college feel with it. Last season, Quinn said, the relationship in the locker room was more like that of neighbors. "Hey, how are you? Good to see you?" But the depth of caring wasn't there. That all changed in the 2016 season.
"A big factor of why we're here is when you're good in the locker room first, and you build that connection with one another, when you get out on the field that same connection takes place," Quinn said. "Often times it might be a look, or a hand signal that a guy can make to one another.
"I told that to our team this week, we've spent thousands of hours together, hundreds of hours out on the practice field, how can we not be getting better and better as it goes. That connection is really strong."
The Falcons roster is a melting pot of college football. Division I and II players, and Quinn the Division III coach; Top draft picks – like that of Ryan – and undrafted players clawing to make their way.
"That's the thing with our team, there's no egos, we're all underdogs," fourth-year offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder said. Schraeder played collegiately at Division II Valdosta State University and went undrafted before joining the Falcons. "We have a bunch of guys from small schools, guys that had long routes to get there and finally found a place. I think it's pretty special because it just shows you how hard guys play because you never know when your opportunity is going to disappear."
Coming from a smaller school may just give an added measure of drive to continue to work, and make the next step, as it has for fourth-year middle linebacker Paul Worrilow who is from Wilmington, Delaware and played at Division I-AA University of Delaware.
"I played football in Delaware for high school and then I walked on at Delaware, I didn't have any scholarships," Worrilow said. "There's definitely a chip (on your shoulder) and you feel like you can play with anybody. I think I've proven that over the years, but that still sticks with you though, that small-school thing. You can always relate to the other small-school guys on the team."
Quinn's abilities and what he's been able to do with the Falcons has not gone unnoticed by his coaching counterpart this Sunday, Bill Belichick, also a Division III product, having attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
"He's done a tremendous job," Belichick said. "This is a very good football team, they compete hard and they're tough. They play well under pressure."
"They've got a lot of great players, they're well coached, they don't make a lot of mistakes, they don't turn the ball over, and they don't get a lot of penalties. They make you go out there and beat them and I think that's the mark of a good coach and a good staff."
Quinn has already hoisted the Lombardi Trophy once, claiming the title with the Seahawks following the 2013 season. On Sunday, he hopes to do so again, as the head coach of a world champion.