Quinn leaves legacy of success behind at Middlebury


August 20, 2006
Nathaniel Badder

Published in Inside Lacrosse

Coaches often joke that lacrosse is a lot like a chess game.  But few mean it quite so literally as Middlebury’s Erin Quinn.

You see, Quinn never played lacrosse.  He did play defensive back for Middlebury’s football team and after graduating in the spring of 1986, he stuck around the college as a graduate assistant the following fall. 

Going mostly on instinct, then-Middlebury coach Jim Grube recognized some potential in Quinn – and needed a warm body to assist with the varsity and to coach the JV lacrosse teams.  So, he asked Quinn to join his staff that spring.

And so began Quinn’s formal education in lacrosse, hunched over a small wooden coffee table in Grube’s office. The pair scratched a field onto the tabletop, and with steaming mugs of Green Mountain coffee in hand, spent hours upon hours moving chess pieces about, simulating offenses and defenses, rides and clears.

After coaching stints at Tufts and Lake Forest, Quinn returned to his alma mater in 1990 to assist with the football and lacrosse teams once again.  And, when Grube retired at the end of that year, Quinn – short on experience but long on enthusiasm – was the clear choice to replace him.
A number of top coaches have come to lacrosse late in life, and some have even done so following superb careers in other sports. Bill Tierney was a soccer coach at Johns Hopkins prior to taking over Princeton’s lacrosse team, and Dave Urick coached football at Hobart long before he started racking up DIII lacrosse championships. But few, if any, have achieved success like Quinn’s without ever lining up for a face-off (Tufts’ Mike Daly is believed to be the only other DI or DIII head coach never to have played lacrosse).

In 15 years as the head coach of the Panthers, Quinn, who has stepped down as the men’s lacrosse coach (and stepped up as the college’s Athletic Director on July 1), amassed an overall record of 202-38 (.842).  He coached in six national championship games, and collected three NCAA Division III titles.  Not bad for a guy who looks more comfortable with a laser pointer in his hand than a lacrosse stick.

And, while he still can’t stick behind-the-back shots into the top corners, Quinn’s long hours of study have certainly paid off.  Combined with his tireless work habits (regularly logging 87-hour work weeks during football season, not including road trips and recruiting phone calls) and meticulous organization, he has developed an understanding of the game and its nuances that belie his playing experience. 

Says Matt Dunn, a 2002 Middlebury graduate and former Division III Player of the Year, “The practice and game preparation was so thorough and full of effort that, at times, the scouting reports were more to digest than your schoolwork.”  He continues, “He's most definitely a brilliant lacrosse mind. Tactically, he made moves in preparation and adjustments in the middle of huge games that showed his intelligence.”

But, his strategic acumen alone doesn’t adequately encapsulate Coach Quinn’s truest talents. A brief glimpse into his team huddle is far more illuminating. 

The film Keeper of the Kohn (a documentary on Middlebury’s long-time manager, Peter Kohn) captures a moment when Quinn pulls the team together and boldly re-articulates its purpose.  “We’re not playing for pride here,” he says, his voice calm and certain.

“We’re playing to win the game!”  Never mind the fact that they were trailing Salisbury 10-4 at halftime of the 2003 National Championship game. Quinn was intent on refocusing the team on the mission at hand.
Recalls Craig Westling, a 1988 Middlebury graduate, “It certainly put things into perspective for the players.  No feeling sorry for themselves.  No quitting.  Just the coach extolling them to go out and work harder than the other team.”

When Middlebury stormed back to pull even with the Gulls at the end of regulation, Quinn again gathered his troops.  And again, his message was succinct and absolutely convincing. “This is exactly where you want to be,” he exhorted, “with the game tied, going into overtime in the championship game.”  There wasn’t a hint of surprise in his voice. He had truly expected to be there.
That Salisbury struck first in sudden death and took home the championship trophy hardly seems to matter.  What will resonate forever in those young Panthers is their coach’s steadfast belief in them.  When their battle scars finally heal and their glory day stories have been repeated a time too many, they will long remember that remarkable feats can be achieved when you trust in yourself and work diligently to reach your goals.

This preternatural conviction is what has ingratiated Quinn to so many of his players. They trust fully his ability to put them in positions to be successful, and he knows well that they will rise to every occasion presented.  As a result, his teams, it can be said, always played to win, and never not to lose.  And his lasting impact - on the Middlebury lacrosse program, and on each of the players that he coached – may be just that; a legacy of expected success built on preparation, perspiration, and cooperation.

Approachable, chatty (as evidenced by his legendarily long-winded voicemail messages), and unassuming, Quinn has a profound ability to relate to people.  He is equally energetic and engrossed when speaking to a freckle-faced third-grader at a lacrosse camp as he is in a board room, addressing one of Middlebury’s biggest donors.
A committed husband and loving father, Quinn’s priorities are firmly set.  Lacrosse, he understands, is only one piece of a student’s education.  And never should it interfere with family obligations or academic pursuits.
Thoughtful, candid, and honest, he consistently preaches and models behaviors that are appropriate both on the lacrosse field and in life beyond the sidelines.
He is grounded, giving, and generous with his time, even during the playoffs when free moments are fewer and farther between.

Quinn radiates a quiet intensity that helps to convince teams of high-achieving student-athletes to subvert individual goals in favor of collective success.  By focusing close attention on individuals’ strengths, and not dwelling on their weaknesses, he brings out unforeseen talents in previously bench-bound young men.  By keeping the team’s mood loose, but workman-like, he preemptively wards off feelings of drudgery and lethargy that can seep into and sabotage a long season.

Consumed by the journey and not the destination, Quinn’s vision is far grander than winning games and hanging championship banners.  He says, “The emotion of that year [1992, his first as head coach] really hit home – lessons that are bigger than winning and losing.  And, if you are doing things from a big picture standpoint the right way, the winning takes care of itself.”

This sentiment is echoed by Peter Ericson, a 1999 Middlebury graduate.

“This achievement of fulfilled potential, regardless of the outcome, appreciation of the effort and synergy that exist to make such a moment possible, and the humility and candor necessary to recognize these circumstances for the blessings that they are is a lesson that Erin Quinn helped me to internalize on many different occasions, and for that I am thankful.”

So too are the many others for whom Erin Quinn remains a willing mentor.

Do you know of any other coaches that have had success in lacrosse despite never playing the sport? Email feature@insidelacrosse.com.