PQB Interview: Matt Quinn

After a brief hiatus during the run-up to the completion and first competitions of ACRONYM X, we are back with a new interview! This time around, Play Quiz Bowl spoke with Matt Quinn, the former coach of Robbinsdale Armstrong High School and a key figure in the history of the ACRONYM tournament. We also spoke to Matt about his short history as a quiz bowl player and the effect it has had on him, his students, and the landscape of high school quiz bowl in Minnesota.

Play Quiz Bowl – How did you get involved in quiz bowl? In your view, how has the game changed for the better since those days?

Matt Quinn – I went to South High School in Minneapolis in the late 1980s, at that time the school had an excellent quiz bowl team, placing 2nd in the Minnesota High School Quiz Bowl League in 1989. I can’t say I was really involved with the program, or even officially a member; I went to some practices in 9th and 10th grade. The 1988-89 squad had my close friend Andy Honigman, my childhood friend Ben Weiss, and I believe it was rounded out by Gary Gutman and Dan Rafferty. Those guys were really good, and they narrowly lost the championship to Mounds Park Academy. My first experiences were being really wowed by how fast everyone else was, and feeling like I didn’t know anything, and that everyone was better than me. Quiz bowl can be quite humbling in that way.

I suppose quiz bowl has changed a lot since then, but at the time I didn’t think at all about things like question quality, different formats, pyramidal toss-ups, only in retrospect as a coach did I realize what improvements and developments had been made since then.

PQB – You became coach at Armstrong High School in 2000. What inspired you to become a coach?

MQ – As I applied for teaching jobs that summer, after a few interviews I found out that I would get asked “What do you coach?” The possibility of me as an athletic coach was pretty ridiculous, so instead I had prepared the answer “Quiz Bowl” for future interviews. It just so happened that students at Armstrong had been asking for a team to be formed the year before, but the administration had told them that a coach was needed to start a team. Because of that, I have quiz bowl to thank for my teaching job.

I genuinely did want to start a team though; it wasn’t just to get a job. When I started as a leader, that feeling of being an inferior player was something I kept in mind. I tried to assure new players that the first few practices were going to be tough, that it was only natural to feel overwhelmed by the information being thrown at them, and that given work and time they could improve. Dissuading students from the idea that they were not any good from their first practice performance was so important. One story I would relay to new players was that Jack Brandes, Armstrong’s all time high-scorer, got only one power and one regular toss up at his first tournament. This let them know that improvement was going to happen if they put in the work.

I’d also like to think that overall I made room for everyone who joined, and that members of our group could contribute to the organization in lots of ways besides scoring points, that everyone had something to offer. We had members that were just as crucial to our success through administration like making t-shirts, through moral support such as organizing social events and snack lists, or seeing us off for Nationals at the airport, and through recruitment, so many of our members joined because their friends told them how much fun it was. Sometimes when I talk about quiz bowl with people from the community at large, I can get a whiff of the attitude that “it’s really nice that you have a place for the kids who get cut by the football team.” Quiz bowl students don’t join because they can’t do athletics. They do it for its own merits and because it is cool in and of itself. Besides, some of our best players have also been members of the football team.

I’m also proud of how competitive we wound up being, and over time I got a lot better at teaching how to play the game, as opposed to just handing out study guides. Once NAQT came on the Minnesota scene in 2003, it opened my eyes as to how much goes into constructing a question, and how knowing that as a player makes you a lot better. It took a good 5 years of watching quiz bowl to be able teach people to play strategically. Of course there is no substitute for studying and knowing your material, but you can get some points by knowing when to anticipate imminent giveaway clues, knowing when to slow down or speed up, taking a pause to be certain before giving an answer, and having systems for working with teammates on bonus questions.

PQB – What are your fondest memories of coaching?

MQ – I’m tempted to answer this question by rattling off a list of accomplishments and victories, but what I will actually remember are the students and the time I got to spend with them. When I look at our player database, I see 200 plus names of remarkable young people that I got to be associated with for a few years. Along with playing lots of great quiz bowl, we had a lot of fun, and there are so many times when we laughed and celebrated. That time Andy almost got kicked off of public access television for saying that drunk driving was “cool.” The time my kids stole all of St. Anthony’s staplers and I had to get mad at them. That time Noah sneezed. David’s yellow Columbo frozen yogurt t-shirt. Everyone yelling “Coooooooney!” for the handsome and shy John Cooney. I’m sure each quiz bowl team has their own set of inside jokes and rituals that makes their team special, and that might seem like a distraction or a byproduct, but I think it is really important to making meaning out of your time together more than just winning.

I will also remember how many awesome people I met in the quiz bowl community. At the time I retired I had been coaching 16 years, and I believe was the longest consecutively serving coach in Minnesota. (Chris Lenius and Jamie Jurkovich started before me but both took time out in the middle). The coaches are all amazing people who give up lots of time for building and running their programs, I wish they could get formally recognized in some way. Additionally, getting to see the arrival of NAQT on the Minnesota scene first hand was really exciting. Robert Hentzel and Emily Pike have done so much to raise the standards for quiz bowl here, and they do a first rate job of running and overseeing the programs and tournaments. In short, the friendships that I have formed will be something that I always treasure.

PQB – You and your team made local news when the quiz bowl budget was unexpectedly slashed. How did the community response help keep the team afloat?

MQ – The Robbinsdale Area Schools had a referendum fail at the ballot box in November of 2007. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the quiz bowl program was in the first round of cuts, our activities director told me we had been axed the day after the election. It was fortunate that we had built up a solid base of alumni, community and parents after seven years in the game to get us through that rough spell. We got by on donations for a while, and without those we would have collapsed. Most notably from the business community, Val Doherty of the Doherty Employment group matched donations after reading about our plight. Norm Draper of the Star Tribune featured our program in an article about the cuts, and that attention helped bring support from the larger community.

PQB – You’re a key figure in the history of ACRONYM, a pop culture tournament now played nationally and produced by Play Quiz Bowl. How did the idea of house-writing pop culture questions come about?

MQ – I certainly can’t take credit for the idea, ACRONYM was preceded by EPIC in Minnesota, a tournament that ran in 2007 and 2008, started by the Eden Prairie program under coach Kirk Walton. I could be wrong about this, but I believe the first EPIC was written mostly by Kirk and his friends. The Armstrong team came in 2nd place at that one. In 2008, a lot of college players helped to write that tourney, I know Andrew Hart, Rob Carson and Gautam Kandlikar were all contributors. When Eden Prairie did not run it again in 2009, I filled the void that was left with the ACRONYM tournament in 2010. The first two ACRONYMs were actually run on NAQT questions and were standard invitational meets. For me, ACRONYM was always first and foremost a fundraiser, and seeing the demand for a pop culture tournament we filled it. The weird thing I can take credit for is having an acronym that spelled out ACRONYM (Armstrong’s Conceivably Regular Or Nearly Yearly Meet).

I’m proud of the four tournaments (III-VI) that I edited and put together. Armstrong players past and present always contributed questions, and without their input the set would have skewed a lot into older pop culture that I knew from the 80s and 90s. We asked about some creative if not easily gettable topics and I had fun slipping in clues about some of my personal favorite songs, books and baseball stories every year along the way. It could be a bit sloppy in execution and difficulty levels widely varied, but I got tons of great feedback from the players. I had a kid from my alma mater, South High School, come up to me at the end of one ACRONYM tournament and tell me “This is like my birthday and Christmas and the Super Bowl all in one day. Thank you for doing this” so that was pretty gratifying.

PQB – The Armstrong team has a new coach this year. What advice did you give him when he stepped into the new role, and what advice would you give to other new coaches?

MQ – When I had to retire from quiz bowl this year because my wife Sherri was diagnosed with breast cancer, I got to hand off the best group of sophomores (now juniors) that I have ever coached. We brought three 10th graders to Nationals last year, and had another eight on the team besides that. I had a chance at the beginning of the year to meet with some of the students and let them know that I was counting on them to lead the team, and to bring their knowledge to new members. So my advice to Phil Wiese (the new coach) was to count on his reliable core of returning members. I mean, 16 year olds have led empires and made revolutionary scientific discoveries, certainly they can step up to help run a quiz bowl team. Phil has done a great job making the program his own too though. Armstrong quiz bowl is in good hands. I sure miss it, and there is seldom a day that goes by that I don’t think about something I learned from being a quiz bowl coach or a fun memory from being involved with it.