Zook feels revitalized on special teams

Weston Hodkiewicz
View Comments was live and operational before Ron Zook’s plane even touched down in Gainesville, Fla.

In 2002, Zook achieved a lifelong dream when he was hired to succeed Steve Spurrier as the head coach of the Florida Gators. Accepting the job meant following in the footsteps of the school’s all-time winningest coach. While Spurrier left for Washington, his shadow still loomed large.

That didn’t bother Zook. Neither did the mixed reaction. In fact, he got a kick out of it.

“At Florida, I was the first coach that had the, you know, the,” Zook recalled Wednesday with a smile. “Now listen to me, they started that before I landed. I had taken off from New Orleans, I was the defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints. Before I landed, that thing was up and running.”

Zook jokes that he started a trend. Shortly after his arrival, his former boss, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, told him, “Zook you screwed this profession up … Man, they got FireBillCowher.”

“Coach, that’s my legacy to coaching,” Zook replied. has since been taken down and he hopes there will be no need for a relaunch. The 61-year-old coach knows the pressure he’s under to quickly rebuild the Green Bay Packers’ special-teams unit, but he’s also enjoying what he’s doing again.

For a long time, all Zook wanted to do was run his own show. He hopped from three NFL teams from 1996-2001 before the Gators came calling. As he quickly learned, sometimes getting what you want isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Florida went a respectable 23-14 in his three seasons and 16-8 in the SEC, but he was fired at the end of the 2004 season. His successor, Urban Meyer, won a national title two years later with a majority of starters that Zook recruited.

Afterward, Zook immediately took over the University of Illinois football program. Looking back, that probably was a mistake considering the advice of one of his coaching mentors, Marty Schottenheimer, once gave him about how head coaches should take a sabbatical every five years to avoid burnout.

Zook spent the next seven seasons in Illinois, which remains the longest stint of his coaching career. He gritted through a pair of two-win seasons before leading the Illini to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 24 years and earning Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 2007.

The quality of the program improved during his tenure, but success was difficult to sustain. Zook was again fired in 2011 following a 6-6 season. With his football future uncertain, he knew it was time to take a break.

“You find out about yourself, too,” Zook said. “I mean there were so many things, particularly at Florida, at both places. There ain’t nothing I could have done. You know, Illinois’ a job, that it didn’t matter who’s there. Put Nick Saban there, and it didn’t matter. It’s just that those are hard jobs, that, you know, it’s a grind every day, it’s a grind every day. And the attitude is, you know, the people, I mean, it’s never gonna change.”

And for what happened in Florida?

“I mean Coach Spurrier left for a reason,” Zook said. “It wasn’t because, I mean, he knew where it was going. He misused his personnel and talent. But anyway, it’s a crazy profession.”

Last year, Packers coach Mike McCarthy pulled Zook from the broadcasting booth to assistant special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. A tumultuous season followed where the Packers gave up seven combined blocks on kicks and punts, and ranked next-to-last in kickoff-return production.

A rocky performance in the NFC championship game was the last straw for Slocum, who was fired after nine seasons in Green Bay. Instead of bringing in help from the outside, McCarthy promoted Zook to special-teams coordinator.

A week into training camp, Zook is stressing high tempo in hopes of finding the right fit. On returns, there appears to be real hope for a turnaround with third-round pick Ty Montgomery looking explosive on kickoffs and defensive back Micah Hyde getting the first shot at handling punts.

Hyde’s 15.8-yards per return on 14 punts would have led the league if it met the minimum requirement. His two touchdowns were one of the special-teams unit’s few bright spots.

“I don’t think there’s anything question,” said Zook when asked if Hyde will get the first chance at the job. “He’s returned three for touchdowns in two years and I don’t know if anybody in the league has returned three in two years.”

There’s still plenty of work to do. The punting battle between Tim Masthay and Cody Mandell is underway and many new faces to incorporate on coverage and return teams. Zook feels at peace on special teams with an energy level that’s as high as it’s ever been.

“Slice of heaven,” said Zook of coaching one unit instead of overseeing everything. “In fact, I got home the other night and I was sitting there and I mean I was tired, I’m not going to lie. And my wife says, ‘Boy, you look good.’ I said, look, that’s just, you just look happy.’

“It’s a, coaching ball – and Mike has said this all (the) time – you know I wanted to be a head coach so bad, so bad, but once you get there it’s ‘Holy crap, be careful what you wish for.’ … But it’s fun. I think the guys we’re coaching, attitude is great, the attitude of this football team is great, and Mike has given us plenty of time to get our job done, and I’m having a blast.”

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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