After two years out of the game, Zook has been hired to be the Green Bay Packers' new assistant special teams coach.
"I was actually working at a bank (last year)," Zook said on Monday. "One of my good friends that actually lives on the lake where I was living is a CEO of 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."
It's no wonder why Mike McCarthy hired Zook from a presumably large list of coaches who would walk to frozen-to-the-bone Green Bay in a Speedo for this gig. The well-tanned Zook, 59, needed this job like this city needed another night of minus-15. He's coached at Florida. He led Illinois to a Rose Bowl. Not only was he convincing people that 1.9 percent was a fabulous rate of return on a CD, but he was doing some work for CBS.
Here's an interesting contrast: Year after year, Bill Cowher's name gets mentioned for every NFL head coaching vacancy. Year after year, Cowher says he's happy trying to get in a word as one of CBS's talking heads. Ditto for Jon Gruden, who prefers his 50-yard line seat on Monday nights for ESPN to pacing the sidelines on a Sunday.
Zook, on the other hand, gave up a relatively stress-free life in Florida to dive head-first into the stressful and glamour-free life of being an NFL assistant coach.
"I wanted the opportunity to get back in the profession, I really did," Zook said. "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."
For a younger coach, this might be seen as a stepping-stone job. For Zook, it's the opposite. He's held one of the plum jobs in the sport by coaching at powerhouse Florida. He's taken Illinois to practically unprecedented heights, with 2007 being the school's second Rose Bowl I the past 49 seasons.
At most schools, there's not a higher-profile figure than the football coach.
In the NFL, there's hardly a lower-profile coach than assistant special teams.
Zook, however, laughed when asked if he had to set his ego aside.
"Not at all. To me, I was able to get back in coaching for the reasons I got into coaching: because I love the game," he said. "You love the relationships you have with the players, the relationships you have with the coaches. To get back in an organization like the Green Bay Packers is really special."
From the outside, Zook appears to be a good fit. He's been the special teams coach at Florida (1994 and 1995) and the Steelers (1996 through 1998), and he took a hands-on approach when coaching at Florida and Illinois. He kept his pulse on the game by hopping in the car and driving to Tampa, Fla., for frequent film sessions with Gruden. And Zook has a relationship with McCarthy dating to their days with the Saints in 2000 and 2001, when Zook was the defensive coordinator and McCarthy the offensive coordinator. For a few months, the coaches actually lived together, and Zook wound up buying a house "down the street" from McCarthy.
"Mike knows how I am," the energetic Zook said. "He knows my personality, he knows the relationship I had with the players, which I think is very, very important. I think coaching at times is trying to get players to play the best that they can play. It's not necessarily what the coach knows, and that's the way Mike was. Mike develops players and I think what I know of the Green Bay Packers organization, it's an organization that develops players, and I think that's very important. It's kind of the same philosophy."
Zook downplayed the college-to-pro transition, having done it when going from Florida to the Steelers about two decades earlier. And he downplayed the changes in the game. The changes and the schemes can be taught. What can't be taught is Zook's passion. He didn't need this job. He wanted this job. And that can't be overstated.
"You know, football is a hard game," he said. "You have to make people and push people to do things that they don't want to do sometimes. I think, coaching is easy, to be enthusiastic, to have fun doing it. I think guys feed off that, I really do. I'm just excited and looking forward to get going."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.