Former Illinois head coach Ron Zook was the 2007 Big Ten Coach of the Year and led the Illini to the Rose Bowl that season, but he was fired in 2011.
Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports
GREEN BAY, Wis. — When Ron Zook was fired by the University of Illinois in November 2011, he knew it was time to get away from football for a while. So that’s what he did.
At first, the break was just what Zook needed. He had been coaching in either college or the NFL every season since 1978, a run of 34 consecutive years.
"I remember Marty Schottenheimer saying one time, ‘About every five years, everybody needs to take a break,’" Zook said Monday. "But nobody’s going to do that because it’s so hard to get back in it."
After a 27-month absence from coaching, Zook is back. But, perhaps proving his own point about the difficulty of re-entering the coaching ranks, Zook took a job as the Green Bay Packers’ assistant special teams coach. Yes, the same coach whose resume includes defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints and head coach of two major college programs (University of Florida before going to Illinois), all in the 21st century, is now in a position usually occupied by those who are just getting their foot in the door of the coaching world.
"Coaching’s coaching," Zook said. "I wanted the opportunity to get back in the profession; I really did. The first year out (of football) I probably needed it, just to kind of collect your thoughts and so forth. This past year, I really began to miss it. I told some people, one of the most exciting things for me is getting back into coaching for the reasons I got into coaching: because I love the game, I love the camaraderie, I love being around the players and the coaches and trying to help get everybody on the same page, trying to do the same thing."
Zook didn’t have to swallow his pride to take the job. For him, it wasn’t like that at all. He didn’t think it was beneath him and he certainly didn’t balk at the idea when it was presented to him by Packers coach Mike McCarthy.
Despite there being at least 15 more prestigious coaching jobs on Green Bay’s staff, Zook wasn’t even handed the role of assistant special teams coach.
"There was other guys that they talked with and I had to come in (to interview)," Zook said. "Mike’s going to be very, very thorough in what he’s doing and I understood that. I wanted to make sure there was going to be a connection. (Special teams coach) Shawn (Slocum) felt good about everything. Mike is very, very thorough, and that’s important."
McCarthy and Zook already knew each other very well. In fact, Zook lived with McCarthy for a while in 2000 when the two were coordinators with the Saints. When Zook eventually moved out of McCarthy’s house, he didn’t go far.
"I bought a house down the street from him," Zook said. "We competed against each other in New Orleans. He was the offensive coordinator and I was the defensive coordinator."
It was those offense-versus-defense battles with the Saints that McCarthy remembered fondly when considering the idea of adding Zook to his current Packers staff.
"Ron Zook’s got a ton of energy," McCarthy said. "I really enjoyed practicing and competing against Ron. It was always a lot of fun, it was always very competitive. That’s something that I always admired of him. Also, frankly, the fact that he’s gone on and he’s been a head coach and he’s built two programs, that’s something that I think will definitely be a benefit to our program and a benefit to myself."
Zook’s hiatus from coaching wasn’t without football entirely. He was part of a college football show every week and also "spent an awful lot of time" with Jon Gruden in Florida, where both of them live.
"I’d drive to Tampa and we’d study football, we’d get ready for the draft, study programs that way, what’s going on in both college and the NFL," Zook said. "So I was able to stay involved with the game in terms of the X’s and O’s part of it."
That’s a fairly normal side job for a coach who’s currently without a coaching position. Far more unusual, however, was the other gig Zook picked up in recent years.
"I was actually working at a bank," Zook said. "One of my good friends that actually lives on the lake where I was living is a CEO of the bank, the Gateway Bank, a community bank, and he talked me into kind of being part of it. What’s the difference between Gateway Bank and another bank? Well, it’s about people, it’s about relationships. So my job was to kind of go out and, not that I’m a banker, but go out and develop relationships when people come into the bank."
Even Zook had to let out a slight laugh after finishing that sentence. Though fans at Florida and Illinois didn’t usually seem to think that his teams were living up to their full potential, Zook was the 2007 Big Ten Coach of the Year and had the Illini in the Rose Bowl. Most people who work at banks didn’t coach in the Rose Bowl five years earlier.
The past couple years for Zook have been a road not often traveled for a coach with his list of accomplishments. Now, with his 60th birthday approaching at the end of April, Zook will have to work his way up the coaching ladder all over again. But that’s perfectly fine with him.
"To have this opportunity happen like this, it’s really kind of a neat thing," Zook said. "I’ve been fortunate enough to coach at all three levels and I’ve been fortunate enough also to be around a lot of good programs and good people, and I think that’s the key, and having this opportunity is a blessing."