His Irish Is Up : Quinn Is Often Arrogant and Mean, and About as Tough as They Come
The night before had been unseasonably cold for late April, with a low near 20, but now the campus was basking in sunshine. Shirtless joggers bounded past pale co-eds stretched out on blankets, and leafless trees seemed to sprout green buds in a matter of hours, as in time-lapse photography.
In a dark and cramped basement room in venerable Sorin Hall, a restless freshman football player slipped on a pair of shorts and boat shoes. He was late for a meeting he didn’t want to attend and as he left he shrugged off a friend who needed a term paper typed, then refused another pal who wanted to borrow some size-12 sneakers.
“Can’t do it, man, you’ll stretch ‘em,” Dan Quinn said, running up the steps and out into the spring sun.
Quinn hurried to keep his appointment, at which he was to be disciplined for a curfew violation. He had been caught in a woman’s dorm room a few minutes after the rules allowed.
It wasn’t his first brush with the rules of academia. He had been spotted with an open beer on campus last fall, and he also had been put on academic probation when his grades dipped precipitously.
Still, Quinn had a carefree air about him. His shirt was unbuttoned to the waist and he put on a pair of Jim McMahon-style sunglasses.
“Maybe you ought to light a cigarette, too,” a bystander said as Quinn strolled into a modern building where his punishment would be meted out.
Fewer than 15 minutes later, he emerged, grinning, with no visible scars and only a trace of remorse. A $20 fine had been assessed, along with a word of caution about obeying the rules.
Dan Quinn had gotten off lightly, again, in what has been a lifelong skirmish with coaches, principals, teachers, recruiters, anybody who wanted to challenge him.
“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder,” said Quinn, 18. “I’ve never really started a fight, but I guess I’ve always been looking for one. I’ve mellowed out so much since I’ve been here at Notre Dame it’s not even funny. In high school, people in the hall would get out of my way when they saw me coming.
“I just don’t like to have authority imposed on me or have anyone tell me what to do. It makes me want to lash back. I’m finally realizing you can’t punch your way through life. I’ve always had to be the toughest. . . . I’ve always had the need to master people.”
Quinn, who lived in Monrovia through fifth grade before attending high school in Encinitas, has left his mark from Southern California to the Midwest.
Recently, he established himself as perhaps the toughest guy at Notre Dame, winning a campus charity boxing tournament. He expects to win it each of the next three years, by which time he hopes to be ready for pro football or a fast-track job at a major company.
“Dan Quinn could become president of IBM--or he could wind up sweeping out the place,” said Lou Holtz, Notre Dame’s new football coach.
Holtz is a rarity, an elder who commands respect from Quinn. Not so his high school coach, or the man who received him in the fall of 1985, Gerry Faust. Quinn said he couldn’t stand his hard-driving high school coach, and he dismissed Faust as an absent-minded joke.
As for the Fighting Irish tradition, Quinn’s irreverent response would not endear him to the Gipper or Rockne, Theismann or Parseghian, or any of the subway alumni scattered between the Bronx and Barstow.
“The tradition here is of losing,” Quinn said. “I mean, the recent tradition. That’s the way the players see it.
“There are a bunch of plaques of old players in the tunnel at the stadium. Those plaques get you fired up, but they also remind you of how far Notre Dame has slipped.”
Quinn envisions a national championship within a few years, but the main project he has in mind is himself.
“The only thing that can keep me back is me,” he said. “I’m in the catbird seat here, but I know I could become a bum if I don’t take things more seriously. I don’t think I have a self-destructive personality, but it’s good that I can’t get away with any BS here.”
Raised by a feisty, soccer-playing mother who became a research attorney in San Diego, Quinn has searched vainly, brutishly, for an acceptable authority figure. The pain of watching both his parents and grandparents grow apart apparently left psychic bruises he is only now coming to terms with, say those closest to him.
Quinn’s combativeness at times overwhelms what he views as a deeply rooted sense of ethics and fair play. But it was these very forces that elevated Quinn from just another troubled, immature football player to a position of controversy last summer.
His size--he is 6-foot-4, 232 pounds--and dominance as a linebacker at San Dieguito High School lured recruiters from such powers as USC, Michigan and Notre Dame.
“Recruiting was hell,” said his mother, Joan Quinn. “It was disgusting and obscene. But I’m glad Dan saw it all. It showed him that football is not all pie in the sky and he shouldn’t count on it for his future.”
Joan and Dan Quinn argued over which of the name schools he should attend. A majority of relatives appeared to favor Notre Dame, but a couple of his friends were leaning toward USC, and the pitch from the Trojans was appealing.
Quinn signed a letter-of-intent with USC, but later changed his mind and received a release from Coach Ted Tollner so he could sign with Notre Dame.
Then, in conjunction with his mother, the 17-year-old high school senior determined that USC had gone beyond the rules in its effort to get him. Anonymously at first, but later with fangs bared, Dan and Joan Quinn reported a list of 30 infractions to authorities from the NCAA and Pacific 10 Conference.
The resulting furor led to sanctions against USC--a two-year probation, plus the loss of seven scholarships--the dismissal of a USC assistant coach and an ugly stream of letters and calls to the Quinn household.
A legacy of bitterness and confusion lingers.
Quinn, insisting that he isn’t vindictive, says he would not have turned in the Trojans if he had known it would cost assistant coach Russ Purnell his job.
But both the player and his mother, in separate interviews, charged USC with illegal recruiting practices that included visits to their home beyond the allowed number, free meals and clothing, and a limousine ride with a former Playboy bunny and a generous supply of beer.
“They’re a bunch of cheaters at USC . . . " Quinn said. “They never gave me thousands in cash, but they visited me two or three times a week and gave me meals, sweat shirts and shoes. I started thinking: ‘If they’re cheating now, what about down the road? Would they abandon me after my football eligibility was over?”
When told of Quinn’s comments, Tollner said: “I don’t have a comment to that.”
The Quinns said that it was the overly persistent recruiting of Purnell that provoked them to contact officials at the Pac-10 and NCAA with details of what they viewed as illegalities.
“Danny just wasn’t given any space or peace, and that was the worst thing about it,” Joan Quinn said. “And we saw right through it when they sent the limo with the bunny. That was a cheap stunt.”
The Quinns have mixed feelings toward Purnell, whom they believe was made a scapegoat.
“He was a nice guy and he was just doing his job,” Dan said. “But I guess he has to bear responsibility for his actions.”
Joan Quinn said: “SC got rid of him as a bad apple but I don’t blame him entirely. And I certainly don’t think SC got as much comeuppance as they should have. Even with the probation they received, they’re not suffering as much as they should.”
She said she had received numerous obscene phone calls after USC was put on probation.
Quinn informed Faust of his role in reporting USC infractions, and said the Irish coach took no role in the matter.
When he arrived at South Bend in August, he felt like an outcast. He was put at the bottom of the depth chart and, unlike other players, was given a jersey with no name on it, which added to his sense of isolation.
“I felt tainted because I was signed late,” Quinn said. “I got homesick, and I didn’t fit in very well. Everything was chaotic under Coach Faust, with all the talk about his job being on the line.
“I was ineligible for the first seven games, and I didn’t get much recognition from the coaches. There were days I didn’t try very hard. That’s a drawback I’m going to have to fight, because I want to become a dominant player.”
Few, if any, players lost confidence in their individual abilities, but many despaired of winning under Faust, according to Quinn.
“Because of the background of the players here, they have egos which are too big to break,” he said. “But there’s no question they didn’t believe in Coach Faust or his game plan.
“It’s sure not that way now under Lou Holtz. He isn’t an overbearing coach, but when he does say something forceful, by God, you better do it. I’d follow him anywhere. He’s the best. I know if I learn to do things Lou’s way, I’ll be fine.”
Holtz seems to have a genuine interest in helping Quinn overcome some of his childish ways.
“I don’t know if it’s got to be ‘Lou’s way,’ but I do know somebody has got to be the boss,” Holtz said. “The only person in this country who doesn’t have a boss is Mrs. Reagan.”
Recognizing that Quinn’s personality was influenced by the absence of a strong male, Holtz seems to be making allowances for the player’s lapses.
“What Dan needs is to learn how to accept more responsibility,” Holtz said. “They have the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, and that’s beautiful. But along with liberty and freedom, we ought to have a sense of responsibility. Maybe they should put a Statue of Responsibility in the harbor in Los Angeles.”
Holtz was concerned about Quinn’s first semester average, 1.7 out of a possible 4, but was encouraged by the player’s higher marks in the spring term.
“He’s got to be the best he can, and I think he can be a B student,” Holtz said. “Listen, I’m a big Dan Quinn fan. I believe in him strongly. I see tremendous potential. I know how much he has been through already, and I have a lot of hope for him.”
Quinn’s athletic ability has never been an issue. A linebacker, he is fast, tough and has such good hands that coaches gave him a brief look at tight end this spring.
After making four tackles and two sacks in the intrasquad game that concluded Notre Dame’s spring drills, Quinn was listed on the second team. He is not expected to be a starter as a sophomore in 1986, but probably will move into a starting role with more experience.
“I know I can hang with anybody here physically,” Quinn said. “I know I’m a gifted athlete. I can slide from sideline to sideline and make the plays they want a Notre Dame linebacker to make. I want to dominate against teams like Michigan and USC, the way I did in high school.”
He appears to have almost as much confidence in the powers of his mind.
“My SAT (scholastic aptitude test) scores were high enough that I probably could have gotten into Notre Dame even if I wasn’t a football player,” he said. His spring courses include cultural anthropology, freshman seminar, modern science and principles of economics.
What he must learn, he says, is to discipline his mind and back away from the trap of constantly having to assert his virility.
“Danny is a very bright kid, but he needs the direction he is going to get in South Bend,” said John McDermott, a Newport Beach attorney for whose firm Quinn will work as a clerk this summer.
Before Holtz, one of the primary male figures in Quinn’s life was the assistant principal at San Dieguito High, Roy Reisner. Had it not been for Reisner, Quinn said, he probably would have been kicked out of school.
“Danny would listen to me,” Reisner said. “I didn’t try to run over him or bully him. He certainly disliked authority in general, figuring he already knew everything, but when I told him the way it was going to be, he usually came through for me.
“There are probably people betting he won’t make it because of his attitude, but when he decides to grow up, I think he will succeed.”
Among those initially put off by Quinn’s attitude is Sean McCormick, a South Bend liquor wholesaler who doubles as supervisor of Notre Dame’s intramural boxing program. The campus tournament, known as the Bengal Bouts, is under his direction.
“I was taken aback by Dan’s cockiness and that chip on his shoulder,” McCormick said. “He is arrogant and surly, but it’s not just a show, I found out.
“He’s every bit as tough as he appears. He has a genuine meanness, almost a rottenness, and if you want to fight him, you’d better be planning to kill him, or he’ll beat you up.”
Quinn, fighting as a super-heavyweight, had a first-round bye, then won two bouts convincingly for the championship in his weight class. In the final, he was opposed by Pernell Taylor, a heavily muscled athlete who figures to be Notre Dame’s starting fullback this fall.
Taylor, the defending super-heavyweight champion, rained punches on Quinn in the first round.
“Dan hardly batted an eyelash,” McCormick said. “While this stud was just pounding him, Quinn was loose and nonchalant. He knew instinctively how to roll with the punches. Pernell scored heavily, but never hurt him.
“Dan sauntered back to his corner, cool as ice, after the first round. Pernell went crazy in the first minute of the second round, but then he got tired, and Dan soon ended the fight with a flurry of nice, crisp punches.
“I’m always impressed by people who really are what they seem to be, and Dan lived up to his image of surliness, distance and iciness.”
Quinn has no interest in becoming a professional boxer.
“I’m not stupid,” he said. “But I know there’s no chance of brain damage at this level. The gloves sting, but you wear a headgear.”
He is the best heavyweight fighter McCormick has seen in the last 15 years at Notre Dame. He could win an NCAA title if he trained, McCormick said.
“Dan is a boy in a lot of ways, but Notre Dame needs kids like him,” McCormick said. “We’ve led the nation in nice guys on the football field in the last four or five years.”
Quinn has very little formal boxing training, but he has been a brawler for much of his life. It may not be his most appealing characteristic, but it certainly is one of his hallmarks.
“Oh, yes, he was always fighting, particularly against Hispanic kids,” Reisner said. “He was prejudiced against them, and he’d challenge any Mexican kid who looked at him funny. The Hispanics knew it, and even if three or four of them challenged him, he’d go after them. He was just a jerk, if the truth be known.”
As a sophomore, Quinn suffered a broken jaw when struck from behind by a lead pipe in an alley fight. He had a group of five or six friends who liked to drink beer and get in trouble, Reisner said, and Quinn had to be the worst of the lot.
“I saw Danny grow so much,” Reisner said. “He is a special kid with so much talent. He’s ornery and he needs some breaks in life. When he realizes it’s not the world acting against him, and he gets that chip off his shoulder, he will be whatever he desires.
“Dan needs that father figure to respond to, to pat him on the back. Moms can do it, but not in the same way. I have a 17-year-old son, so I know how important it is for a father to be with his son and see him do things.”
Those close to Quinn speak with what amounts to scathing affection. His mother is no different.
“Dan is just like me--very aggressive,” Joan Quinn said. “I love to play soccer, and I play cleanly and fairly, but when somebody tries to hurt you. . . . Once a woman kicked me in the stomach, and I retaliated by kicking her in the rear, and she never did it again. You can’t let people get away with too much.”
Quinn has a soft side that only his mother sees. He is an animal lover who dotes on the family’s birds, Sweet and Pete, and used to sleep with the dog, Maggie. Last summer, when the family kitten, Harrigan, was run over, Quinn had tears in his eyes.
“Dan might get off track a little but my only real concern is that he maintain a sense of perspective,” Joan Quinn said. “I have no doubt that he’ll graduate, and I know he won’t get involved in drugs or anything. I know he will always keep in mind where he came from.
“Danny has been prepared not to invest entirely in his physical self, because that can disappear so quickly. He recently typed a paper for his girlfriend, and changed some of the words in it. She got an A, too. Talk about a reversal in the stereotype of jock and student!”
Sitting in his cramped, dimly lit dorm room, Quinn reflected on the Notre Dame experience and what it will mean to him.
“It’s too controlled, it’s an unrealistic view of the world,” he said. “I mean, who’s going to live the monastic life after they leave here? The priests are too oppressive, and I think that just makes us want to do things, like have beer parties, because they don’t like it.
“But I know this place is so good for me. I’ve always had a big mouth, and I thought I was just so perfect when I was in high school. I was a hellion and took pride in it. I had fears, like failing in a big game or in a brawl, and I know I probably could’ve smoothed the way through life if I wasn’t like that.”
Quinn is looking forward to getting a pickup truck as a reward if he makes a 2.5 average this semester. At San Dieguito, he was given a pair of skis for earning a B average, so he knows his family will come through if he delivers.
“I always wanted a car in high school, but I didn’t want one given to me,” he said. “All the rich kids had cars, but I thought I deserved one more. I mean, I did so much more. The rich kids, they didn’t respect what they were given, and they tended to tear up their cars.”
Quinn vows to take good care of his truck, if he gets it. Oh, he’ll probably emulate other rambunctious students and bash one of the wooden gates restricting entrance to the campus. But it would be a measure of his progress as an individual if he learns to limit his bashing to inanimate objects.
“I’m not going out of my way to prove I’m tough anymore,” he said. “Hey, I’m only 18. I know I’ve got some growing up to do.”