Tom Ingram was kidding. He never wanted to see his good friend do anything but coach.
But for years, the CEO of Gateway Bank in Ocala, Fla., would tease his old pal Ron Zook about coming to work for him once his coaching days were over. The two had been buddies since Zook was coaching at the University of Florida, having connected through Judd Davis, a former Gators all-American kicker who worked for Ingram after graduation.
“Judd said, ‘You’d really like this guy Zook. He likes to water ski, he’s not a big golfer and he likes to drink a beer or two.’ I thought, ‘Sounds like my kind of guy,’” Ingram said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We always talked about how, ‘Ron, there’s a lot of parallels in banking and coaching. You’re known as a great recruiter; a lot of the same qualities apply for recruiting businesses to the bank.’ I always thought he’d do a great job in the banking world. So we always joked about it and laughed about it.
“And then one day, he took me up on it.”
So if you’re wondering why Zook – on the verge of his 60th birthday, having been the head coach of two major college football programs (Florida, Illinois), having spent 24 years as an assistant coach before getting the Gators’ head-coaching job in 2002, having built a beautiful home with wife Denise on the shores of Lake Weir in Ocala just down the way from Ingram – is now working as the Green Bay Packers’ assistant special teams coach, well, Zook’s decision to go work for his friend goes a long way toward explaining it.
One, the guy loves to work. And two, the only thing he loves more than working is coaching. He had an explanation for his decision to take such a seemingly menial job at the ready – “Coaching’s coaching,” he said – and the way he said it came off entirely sincere.
“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.
“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.”
To do it, though, Zook first had to quit his day job.
Although he did draw a salary from the community bank, he’d received a $2.6 million buyout from Illinois when the school fired him in 2011, so he didn’t need the money. Also, he was also working weekends as a college football studio analyst for the CBS Sports Network in New York. While Zook said Ingram “kind of talked me into” the job at the bank, Ingram countered by saying he didn’t have to sell Zook on the idea at all.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Ron Zook is a banker?’ We got all kinds of press from it. I mean, it went viral,” Ingram said. (Lost Lettermen, SB Nation, Deadspin and The Big Lead all wrote about it after a Chicago Sun-Times story.) “He took it serious. He was out making calls on businesses. He really jumped into it and in seven months, he did quite a lot.”
And what did he do exactly, as the bank’s community relations/business development officer?
“It’s about people, it’s about relationships,” Zook explained. “So my job was to kind of go out and – not that I’m a banker – but go out and develop relationships.”
When the Packers called – Zook and Packers coach Mike McCarthy worked together in New Orleans, where Zook was the defensive coordinator and McCarthy the offensive coordinator under Jim Haslett in 2000 and 2001 – Zook didn’t hesitate to accept the job. (Zook actually bunked in with McCarthy in New Orleans in 2000 until his family moved to town, and the two have stayed in touch since.)
A few minutes after hanging up with McCarthy, Zook met with Ingram. It was a bit like Kramer getting fired by Leland. (“But I don’t even really work here!”)
“When you’re a coach, man, that’s your love. He loves the game. He would do it for free. I knew if the right thing came up, he would probably take it,” Ingram said. “It was about 10 o’clock on Friday [when the Packers called]. He was in my office at 10:30 basically saying he was taking the job. I don’t think he’d even seen the contract. I could tell he was excited. It was basically, ‘I’m leaving Sunday.’ This was Friday. At 3 o’clock, he asked if he could leave early. I said, ‘Hell no, Ron, you have to at least work until 5.’
“You guys are getting a jewel of a guy who’s going to bring so much to the table. He’s going to enjoy it, and I think the Packers organization and the fans are going to benefit from guy like him.”
Nevertheless, it is unusual that a coach of Zook’s experience took a job as an assistant special teams coach, a gig that’s normally reserved for young coaches working their way up. And when he met with reporters earlier this month, Zook, who broke into NFL coaching as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ special teams coach from 1996 through 1998, admitted he didn’t even know exactly what his job description would entail.
“Ron Zook’s a heck of a football [coach]. Obviously very, very experienced,” McCarthy said. “I interviewed some great guys, great coaches, excellent coaches for the position, but Ron has a personality, a level of big-picture experience. I think he brings a different dimension to our special teams room.
“[When] Ron and I were on the staff back in 2000 and 2001 in New Orleans – he was the defensive coordinator, I was the offensive coordinator – 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 head-coaching experiences weren’t always positive, however. In three years at Florida, he went a disappointing 23-14, and while he led the Illini to the 2008 Rose Bowl, the 2007 was the lone year his team finished above .500 in Big Ten conference play. He ended up going 34-51 in Champaign-Urbana before being fired.
“I think that’s the profession. I think you have to understand that,” Zook said “At Illinois, we went to the Rose Bowl, and we didn’t have a player on our team that had ever been to a bowl game. And the Rose Bowl is pretty hard to break ‘em in.
“Would I have done some things differently? Probably. But I think anybody can say that.”
Now, he’s simply thankful for another opportunity. And while he misses his friend, he doesn’t miss the banking business.
“I think it’s all about relationships. You go back and look at coaches at any level – high school, college and the NFL, I’ve had the opportunity to coach at all three levels – it comes down to getting a player to play the best he can be,” Zook said.
“I can remember my first time when I interviewed with the Pittsburgh Steelers, I asked Coach Cowher, ‘How do you coach these guys?’ He said, ‘Well, you coach ‘em just like you coach your guys.’ I found that to be 100 percent true.
“The game has continued to evolve – it’s bigger, stronger, faster. It’s a different game, it’s a faster game. But still you’ve got to block, tackle; you’ve got to have a returner. There’s not that big a change.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.