STORRS, Conn. - Had it not been for his playing days at West Henderson High School, John Dunn may have never found his calling as a coach, teacher and mentor of the game of football.
Back in his small hometown of Hendersonville, N.C., Dunn remembers one day at practice having a conversation with his coach, asking him if this was his full-time job, merely out of curiosity. When his coach said yes, a door of opportunity instantly opened for the teenager.
"From that point on, I knew I wanted to coach," said Dunn, who was named the new offensive coordinator of UConn football on Jan. 12. "I couldn't believe it was work and that you could get paid for it. I still feel the same to this day."
The original plan for Dunn was to graduate from college before returning to the high school ranks as a teacher and coach, but one thing led to another over a 10-plus year span that rerouted his intentions.
"My high school coach was our coach. I didn't even know what a coordinator was until college," said Dunn, who played as a walk-on at North Carolina from 2001-03.
Since making this revelation as a young man, Dunn's coaching stops have included North Carolina, LSU, Maryland and the Chicago Bears - making what was once a dream, for the former quarterback and tight end, a reality.
Dunn's most recent job was two seasons with the Bears under head coach John Fox, where he served as the offensive quality control coach in 2016 and an offensive assistant in 2017.
Once the job came up at UConn, though, his chance to reconnect with head coach Randy Edsall was an easy decision.
"He gave me a call when this opportunity (at UConn) came up. To have a chance to be back with him and work with this program...was too good to pass up," said Dunn. "(Coach Edsall) is a phenomenal guy to work for. It's very easy to work for someone when your values and philosophies align."
In 2011, Edsall took the head coaching job at Maryland and hired Dunn as the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. The duo worked together for all five seasons with the Terrapins, before heading to the NFL for separate opportunities.
Dunn has been reunited with Edsall for the upcoming 2018 season and looks forward to implementing his offensive-minded tactics into the program.
"It's amazing because every stop along the way, you keep picking up things and reshaping thoughts to make them your own," said Dunn. "There are a lot of ways to do the same thing, so how we teach it, develop it and practice it is important."
Dunn emphasized a player-driven offense, as opposed to a play-driven approach. Using the spring practice season to assess the team and each players' skills will be crucial, heading into the summer months.
"That's part of the process going through the spring and figuring out what is our best personnel grouping, and figuring out how much running we can do and how much passing we can do," said Dunn.
If there is one thing Dunn has learned since beginning his coaching career, it's to not make quick judgments in player evaluations over short periods of time. This spring, he will focus on skillsets, using effort and toughness as the baseline.
"Effort and toughness have to be the foundation. That's something you have or you don't," said Dunn.
"In terms of position, it becomes more specific. Obviously across the board, no matter what position you are talking about, athleticism is a big one...At the quarterback position, we look for leadership, accuracy, having good feet in the pocket and getting away from pressure."
When UConn football reaches opening kickoff against defending American Athletic Conference champion UCF on Aug. 30, Dunn's offensive vision will come to fruition, with two thoughts in mind: speed and variety.
"We will be no-huddle. We'll be very multiple, be it formations, personnel groupings or looks. I kind of call it the illusion of sophistication, when different things look the same and same things look different," said Dunn. "We will change the tempo of the game."
Luckily for Dunn, his most recent stop was in Chicago and not Baton Rouge. On his second day after arriving to UConn, a snowstorm was no surprise to him, serving as an omen for colder fall temperatures during the season.
"I was used to it coming from Chicago," said Dunn. "It's a beautiful campus and an incredible facility we play in. I hadn't been on campus before. The school in and of itself, the layout and the facilities are second to none."
As he prepares for another season under Edsall, just in a different location, many of his thoughts on the game of football have changed over time. He's no longer a kid from Hendersonville worried purely about football; the game has transcended in its meaning.
"When I was younger, it was more about the football than anything else," said Dunn. "The more I got into this, the more I realized it's all about the relationships with people and helping them develop. That's the biggest thing...not just making them better players, but better men when they leave UConn."
He credited Edsall for his "holistic" approach to the game, in caring about the players as people and taking interest in their academic and athletic advancement. Hence, the two coaches' values and philosophies are still in line with each other.
Coming off a 3-9 season, rebuilding continues for the Huskies with some new faces on the coaching staff. Dunn looks to a bright future for the football program, as the spring season rolls on.
"I think there is no one better here than Coach Edsall and there is no secret - success comes from hard work...You need to develop as coaches and teachers, helping players develop in their fundamentals and techniques," said Dunn. "If your process is right, you'll have success."
Dunn comes from a sports-driven family, as his wife, Lindsay, played volleyball at UNC Wilmington. When he isn't working, he spends every free moment with his five-year-old son, Carter, and two-year-old daughter, Emerson.
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