- Rob Demovsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Assistant special teams coaches in the NFL are usually neophyte coaches or former players trying to break into the business.
Rarely are they 59-year-olds who have held head coaching jobs at two prominent top-level colleges and also NFL coordinator jobs.
It wasn't lost on Ron Zook that his new position as the Green Bay Packers assistant special teams coach was a bit unusual, when he met with reporters on Monday for the first time since he was hired last week.
“Coaching's coaching; I wanted the opportunity to get back in the profession, I really did,” said Zook, the former Florida and Illinois head coach who had been out of football since he was fired in 2011 after seven seasons with the Illini.
“The first year out, 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.”
Even Zook isn't quite sure exactly what his role will be, but coach Mike McCarthy knows he wants more attention paid to special teams, which struggled at times last season. McCarthy didn't feel that the problems warranted a complete change, which is why he retained special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, but he appears set on dedicating more resources to it. He also has assigned Jason Simmons, a coaching administrator the last three seasons, to assist with special teams.
“I wanted to put more of an emphasis on that area,” McCarthy said. “One of our challenges ever year with youth, some of the injuries we've had with younger players playing early, there's a lot of one-on-one time that goes into special teams coaching. Everybody in the league goes through it. We just want to maximize that structure as far as to make sure our players are getting the one-on-one time, and I thought Ron brought a whole different dimension to the room.”
Zook was a natural fit for McCarthy. The two worked together with the New Orleans Saints for two seasons (2000 and 2001) when McCarthy was the offensive coordinator and Zook the defensive coordinator before Zook returned to the college ranks to coach the Gators.
In fact, Zook and McCarthy lived together during their early days with the Saints before Zook's family moved to New Orleans. Even after Zook's wife and kids joined him, they lived down the street from McCarthy.
Packers assistant head coach/linebackers coach Winston Moss also was with them in New Orleans, and Zook coached Packers safeties coach Darren Perry during their days with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where Zook was the special teams coach from 1996-98.
“So you've got guys that you know and everybody's looking for the same thing, and that's to win,” Zook said. “That was what was important to me, being in a situation where you had a chance to win and being around good people.”
McCarthy mentioned Zook's energy and enthusiasm, something that was apparent throughout his 20-minute session with reporters on Monday. Zook spoke openly about both his successes, most notably the 2007 Rose Bowl team at Illinois; and his failures, being fired by both Florida and Illinois.
Zook also explained how he has spent the past two years out of football, working part-time as an analyst for CBS and also at a bank in Florida.
But perhaps it was what he did in his free time that was instrumental in his return to the NFL. He would make regular trips across the state to Tampa, Fla., where he would spend time watching film with ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden.
“I've spent I can't tell you how many hours, spent an awful lot of time with Jon Gruden,” Zook said. “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. So I was able to stay involved with the game in terms of the X's and O's part of it. But you miss the relationship side of it."
8hEric D. Williams