The ring of five dozen high school football players chanting in unison echoes across Camp Dodge as Sean Quinlan stops to admire the sound.
This is his squad now. These are the young men he’s assigned to lead, and seeing and hearing North’s football team working together instantly brings a smile to the face of the 51-year-old retired Marine Corps major.
“I know what it takes to build a team,” Quinlan said. “These kids have never had anyone believe in them.”
Quinlan believes in his leadership skills, believes in his players and believes North can eventually field a winning football program, even though there’s no shortage of people — or stats — telling him otherwise.
The Polar Bears have won 20 games since 1978. They’ve lost 305. During that stretch, they endured the nation’s second-longest losing streak — 45 games in the 1980s. They haven’t made the playoffs since 1974, haven’t had a winning season in 37 years and haven’t come remotely close recently.
North has lost its last 15 games by an average margin of 42 points.
“If we can cut that in half, we’re making some serious progress,” Quinlan said. “But you’ve got to win the hearts and minds of the young men first.”
Chalk that up as a victory already for the rookie head coach who spent 27 years in the Marine Corps before retiring in 2012. Though there were some skeptics when North hired the head of its Junior ROTC to lead its football program, Quinlan won the Polar Bears over long before they started practice, according to three players.
“There’s something about him that makes you want to play for him,” junior linebacker Caleb Lara said.
“He knows how to talk to us,” senior safety Ethan Anderson said. “He knows how to motivate people. He doesn’t leave anybody out. There’s no favoritism.”
“Since he came in, we’re more together,” senior slot receiver and safety Raekwon Lowery said. “There’s less thinking about ourselves and more thinking about others.”
Quinlan inherited a program where the challenges extend beyond the football field and sometimes include just finding enough cleats to go around. Nearly 85 percent of the students at North qualify for free or reduced-price lunches — the highest total of any traditional high school in the state — and more than 40 percent of those enrolled did not complete the school year.
The football roster resembles a United Nations convention, with players from Burma, Congo, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mexico, the Philippines, Tanzania and Thailand.
To foster player-coach relationships, Quinlan assembled a staff that has seven of its nine members working full time at North.
He asked each of his assistants to learn at least five things about every player’s life outside football.
“We haven’t had somebody who exudes that leadership mentality where people want to follow and are inspired,” North principal Mike Vukovich said. “Our kids need that. I can tell you it’s off to a great start right now.”
Quinlan, who replaced Keith Hanks and is North’s seventh coach since 1978, has six primary goals for this season. Only one — cutting the point margin in half — pertains to football.
On top of the list: Seeing his 12 seniors graduate with a plan.
The rest of his top objectives are geared toward improving classroom performance, attendance, social skills and adding numbers at all levels of the program.
The Polar Bears saw a spike in the turnout for their preseason training sessions. In recent years, they might’ve reached double digits for a typical summer workout. Quinlan said they averaged close to 45 this year.
The North coaches originally hoped 40 players would make the trip to Camp Dodge for a weeklong stay. They took 60.
And when they weren’t brushing up their football skills, team members were bonding through confidence course exercises, team building drills and taking classes on subjects such as time management.
When classes begin next week, the North players will hand out personalized business cards to each of their teachers. One side features a schedule. Another carries this message: “It is my wish that I make this the best class possible.”
“My wins and losses are daily things — getting my kids to class, getting my kids to do their homework, getting the kids to be prepared for college,” Quinlan said. “Five years from now is really (when) my success is (measured). Do they become better men? Better husbands? Better fathers?”
Aug. 29 vs. D.M. Lincoln, 7:30
Sept. 5 at D.M. East, 7:30
Sept. 12 at D.M. Hoover, 7:30
Sept. 19 vs. Ankeny, 7:30
Sept. 26 at Johnston, 7:30
Oct. 3 at C.B. Lewis Central, 7:30
Oct. 10 vs. D.M. Roosevelt, 7:30
Oct. 17 at Sioux City East, 7
Oct. 24 vs. Dowling Catholic, 7:30