When John Quinlan was a student at Marquette High School in the 1980s, wrestling was something he did over the winter to pass the time between football and baseball.
The Brown Deer native was a standout in both of the latter sports, so much so that even though he was a state finalist in wrestling, he still considered it his third sport.
Over the last nearly three decades, however, Quinlan, the Whitnall High School wrestling coach, has made a name for himself in said third sport. And on Friday, he will be inducted into the Wisconsin Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame at the association’s annual banquet and clinic in Green Bay.
The 48-year-old Quinlan will be joined by Merrill’s Scott Arneson, Shawano’s Jim Allbaugh, Muskego’s Ted Price and Kaukauna’s Steve McDaniel in the 2012 Hall of Fame inductee class, raising the total number of members to 147 since its inception in 1977.
“When I look at that list (of members), it’s like that old Sesame Street song, one of these things does not belong here,” Quinlan said. “I’m not sure I do. There’s Olympians, and coaches like (Wisconsin Rapids’) Lewie Benitz. I’m overwhelmed that people think I’m somehow in that discussion. It’s quite a fraternity.”
An unusual start
The recognition comes 28 years after Quinlan took over the Whitnall program. After serving as an assistant at Marquette High School for one year, he was hired as a varsity assistant at Whitnall in 1984. But after just four practices that season, the head coach resigned and Quinlan was in charge.
It was a unique situation as Quinlan was a 20-year-old Marquette University student.
“It was a learning and growing-up experience,” Quinlan said. “To all of a sudden be running a program, and I was just two years out of high school. You had to act in a totally different way. You really had to balance being someone their age and hanging out and talking with them on one level to trying to be the much older adult and teach them life lessons.
“At that age, you’re learning the life lessons so it’s hard to teach them what they are.”
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Quinlan’s tenure started roughly. The program had just nine athletes when he took over, and 45 minutes into his very first practice as head coach, a senior captain blew out his knee. Days later, Whitnall went up against a Greendale squad that featured future Olympian Jim Gruenwald.
“There were coaches in the area that beat up on us a little bit, but they took the time to teach me some stuff as well,” Quinlan said. “Our (athletic director) Steve Pelkofer, he went out on a limb to hire a 20-year-old head coach. He was taking some chances too.”
Wins start piling up
Success started to come for Quinlan’s Falcons, and over the last 29 years, his teams have compiled a 464-176 dual record with 18 conference titles, 36 team tournament titles and seven WIAA regional championships. Quinlan’s Falcons have also produced 95 individual conference champions, 64 state qualifiers and 10 state place-winners.
Among Quinlan’s top memory-maker are the program’s school’s first-ever conference championship in 1986; the 1990s teams that included the Zelinski and Zizzo brothers; the 1995 team that made the school’s lone state tournament appearance and nearly made it to the state final; a four-year stretch more than 30 league dual wins in a row; and of course the remarkable seasons turned in by two-time state champion John Zelinski in 1994-95.
Quinlan said he never expected to be coaching this long. In fact, he figured once he had finished college, he would put coaching aside as well. But strong relationships with parents, fellow coaches and especially players have kept him coming back year after year.
“I really like working with that age group,” Quinlan said. “I’ve had a lot of kids that have gone on to be my assistants, but there are a lot of kids that I still have friendships with to this day.
“It’s a neat age group. They are going through a lot of different things in their lives. … I’ll keep coaching as long as I keep enjoying it.”