Ron Zook savors new role overseeing Packers special teams

August 6, 2015

GREEN BAY Ron Zook speaks with what seems like a perpetually hoarse voice. It could be from all the yelling and cajoling that comes with having coached football for more than three decades.

So Zook's resume might look odd, at least at first, for being away from the sideline for two years after getting fired as the head coach at the University of Illinois following the 2011 season. He returned to coaching in 2014, when the Green Bay Packers hired him as a special teams assistant coach.

Now Green Bay's special teams coordinator, Zook is back in his element and he's savoring every minute.

"Slice of heaven," Zook said Wednesday.

His job with the Packers is to improve special teams play, especially after two mistakes haunted the team during last season's NFC Championship game. The Seattle Seahawks converted a fake field goal for a touchdown, and later recovered an onside kick. A 16-0 lead at halftime turned into a 28-22 loss in overtime.

Zook was promoted to replace the fired Shawn Slocum. Some veteran players who were mainstays on special teams have left Green Bay, too. There are new arrivals, particularly rookie receiver-returner Ty Montgomery, who could be thrust into key roles.

"A lot of young guys. A lot of young guys," Zook said. "The one thing about special teams, they didn't come here, we didn't draft them or bring them in as free agents necessarily to be on special teams."

Early in camp, the focus is on terminology and teaching techniques on skills like protecting a kicker. Coach Mike McCarthy said the team has added some new special teams drills.

There is an emphasis on pace and tempo, which is a focus on offense, too. It might look even chaotic, sometimes, as players shuffle from drill to drill, and the coaching staff continues to assess players.

Punter Tim Masthay, a six-year veteran, said Zook seems to be always on the move.

"A very efficient guy. A lot of great energy," Masthay said. "He's always talking about moving fast, doing things fast, and the practices are run that way."

But not everything has changed.

"The way we process and the way we push forward and try to remain creative staying true to the fundamentals, that's all the same," McCarthy said last week. "Ron and (assistant special teams coach Jason Simmons) have done an excellent job to this point."

Zook appreciates the opportunity. A coaching career that began in college in 1979 as a defensive backs assistant at Murray State includes stops in the NFL as an assistant or coordinator in Pittsburgh, Kansas City and New Orleans. With the Saints, he was defensive coordinator from 2000-01 while McCarthy was the team's offensive coordinator.

But Zook may be perhaps known for head-coaching stints at Florida (2002-4) and Illinois (2005-11), having been fired from both.

"At Florida, I was the first coach that had the, you know, the," Zook recalled. "Now listen to me, they started that before I landed before I landed."

The two-year break from coaching began in 2012. Zook on Wednesday remembered advice from former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer that every coach should take a year's sabbatical every five years.

"The first year, I needed out," Zook said.

By Year 2, he started missing the camaraderie and the players. The time away did allow him to reflect, to "find out about yourself," he said.

Looking back, 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," Zook added. "And the attitude is, you know the people ... (it's) never" going to change.

Now in Green Bay, Zook seems reinvigorated.



Associated Press