Just this morning, I learned that former Waunakee High School head football coach Gaylord Quinn, aka Coach Quinn, has died. At this point, I don’t have the exact cause of death but word is, he’s been in poor health the past few years.
I was under Coach Quinn’s tutelage for my four years of high school but his teachings have been with me all the years since. I still hear his voice in my head to kick me in the butt if I start to lean towards the lazy in life.
He had been coaching high school football for so long, 37 years, that my father and four of my uncles had played under him. Hundreds and hundreds of players over the years were taught by him starting with his time as a coach at Azusa high in California through his many years at Waunakee High before he retired from coaching in 1993.
He counted 15 conference championships and three undefeated seasons during his tenure. But, he measured success with each individual. He demanded your best effort and if you gave that, well, that’s the point for doing anything at all and really what success is. Don’t get me wrong, he really liked to win but it wasn’t all about that to him.
Below is an excerpt from my book, No Bed or Roses, I dedicated to Coach Quinn.
Most importantly, Coach Quinn truly cared about his players as people more than players. We innately knew this, which is why so many of us abided by his strict doctrine.
Quinn taught his players to carry themselves with class and had us address all adults as “Sir” and “Ma’am.” I recall one game in high school where I had a bloody snot in my nose that I dispelled quickly over my right shoulder. The gob just missed hitting a referee. I responded, “I’m sorry, SIR.” I hoped the classy remark might redeem me from my grotesque gesture. It did.
In fact, our team’s decorum often impressed the referees enough to write letters to our school lauding the character of its football players. Quinn used to say he was more proud of that than our wins, and I sort of believed him.
Coach Quinn didn’t allow players to have long hair. He thought short hair made one look more respectable and argued pragmatically that the closer the helmet is to your head, the better it works. If a player didn’t have his hair cut by the time fall practice started, Quinn became his barber. He definitely was a better coach than a barber, but then Vidal Sassoon didn’t use a tape cutter to style hair.
Coach Quinn was old-fashioned, but his players respected and worked hard for him. He was a man’s man, a man of his word, and a man who believed that a handshake meant more than any legal document ever could. He was John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Knute Rockne all wrapped up in a mesh baseball cap and cardigan sweater with a football helmet insignia on it. He didn’t say much, so when he spoke you listened. He expected toughness, both mental and physical, from his players. He preached the importance of character. Coach Quinn emphasized discipline, pride, and hard work. His authority trumped all. I never questioned it, not even the time he berated me at practice in front of the whole team: “Kennedy! That’s not good enough! Run it again, boys.”
I was playing fullback, and my assignment on the play was to block the middle linebacker. I blocked him but didn’t move him very far, and the tailback, following my lead, tripped over my legs. Coach Quinn blew the whistle and made us run the play again. He demanded that I move the linebacker out of the way, so there’d be no chance of the tailback tripping over me. The linebacker was tough and didn’t want to let me do that to him. We ran the play again, and again I failed to move him far enough for Quinn. The linebacker grew tired so Quinn substituted another linebacker to replace him. I was pissed off. Quinn then lined up four other linebackers to take me on one by one, and I had to block and move each of them.
By the time I got to the last guy, I was like a rabid pit bull. I was embarrassed and angry and frustrated and exhausted, but I summoned myself and drove the final guy almost off the practice field, continuing even after the whistle blew as my own form of protest. Biting down hard on my mouth guard, I turned and glared at Quinn through my face mask. Quinn just nodded with a slight smile, pointed his finger and said, “That’s how you should do it every time, now grab some water.” He set the standards high, and I couldn’t handle disappointing him.
But the most important lesson Coach Quinn taught me was off the field. A conversation I had with him during my Freshman year in his cramped office tucked in the back of the industrial arts workshop.
Quinn called me in to discuss my poor report card. He squinted at me with a look of disbelief and a stare behind his glasses that seemed to magnify his disappointment. “You’re a smart kid. What’s this all about?” His meaty paw of left hand held up my report card. I felt smaller than an ant. I stammered a bit then searching my mind, I found an easy excuse. I mentioned my parents were going through a divorce and things were tough and I couldn’t focus…which was mostly B.S. but figured I could play that card to buy me some sympathy.
Quinn knew my parents–he’d coached my mom in track and my dad in football while they were in high school–and their divorce. He set my report card on the table and with a look that somehow combined concern and anger said, “I know both your parents. I know they both love you very much.” I nodded in agreement.
He went on. “Some people in life…will use anything they can as an excuse to not succeed. Some in your shoes would use the divorce as a ‘crutch.” That’s not you, is it?”
“No, sir,” I responded, both of us knowing full well that’s exactly what I was trying to do. That nipped it in the bud for me. I knew right then, I didn’t want that to be me. I would never use my parents divorce, or any other bad thing that has happened to me since, as an excuse to not be as successful as I could be.
“I’m going to do better,” I said. Quinn agreed, “I know you will. I’m here if you need anything.”
I did do better, got my grades up, got into the University of Wisconsin and got to play football there and use all of Quinn’s teachings to get me through that time of my life and all the times since.
I have borrowed Quinn’s words often as a coach myself and will certainly use them with my son, Cash as he grows up.
And now, Coach Quinn will no longer be with any of us. Fortunately, for us who knew him, if we ever need anything, the lessons he embedded in us will always be there.
Rest in Peace, Coach.