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Life after football suits Zoomer's good humor.

Byline: Ron Bellamy The Register-Guard

The severe headaches that plagued Neal Zoumboukos over the past five years - headaches so severe they made him sick to his stomach - have somehow gone away. Not a one, since February. And in the Casanova Center, folks outside the football offices have told him, more than once, that he seems to smile more now.

On some days, when his wife, Yvonne, cares for their granddaughter, Zoumboukos goes home for lunch. And now, good grief, he regularly gets home in time for dinners, and a walk through the neighborhood beforehand.

He didn't miss football during spring football, though he felt for his old friends on the Oregon coaching staff, working late nights to learn new offensive terminology. He didn't miss football during spring recruiting.

Zoumboukos admits that it's "gotten to me a little bit" in recent weeks, as the Ducks hit the fundraising circuit and football coach Mike Bellotti has talked to boosters about the coming season; Zoumboukos has realized, with some finality, that he won't be a part of it anymore.

He has already scheduled a week of vacation before the season-opener against Houston on Sept. 1 to get himself out of town, because he knows the adrenalin will be building then, and he doesn't want to drive his old colleagues crazy.

Though, of course, he'll be back for the game itself in Autzen Stadium.

And so you wonder how Neal Zoumboukos is doing, after stepping away from coaching college football for 39 years - including the last 27 years as an assistant football coach at the University of Oregon, making him the longest-tenured Pac-10 assistant before his departure from the Oregon staff last February - and the answer seems to be very well.

He has enjoyed his work as a special assistant to Oregon director of athletics Pat Kilkenny, and plans to continue that work on a part-time basis when he officially retires Saturday.

At 61, Zoumboukos isn't looking for other jobs in football - "it would have to be absolutely the perfect situation that fit me and my family" - though he has promised to help his son, Peter, the offensive line coach at South Eugene High School, in some kind of off-field capacity.

Zoumboukos' emotions remain as they did that day in February, when it was announced that he was leaving his position as assistant head coach and tight ends coach to enable the Ducks to hire a special teams coordinator, a position to which Zoumboukos did not aspire. He said then that he'd miss the daily interaction with his colleagues on the Oregon coaching staff, and he has missed that, remembering how much "fun" it was to come to work, however long the days were.

He said then that he'd miss "the young men" he coached, and he does, savoring the opportunities now to see them in hallways, or when he pokes his head into the weight room.

And thinking back to his emotion that day, he figures there was some "self-pity" there, too, and not because he felt forced out, because he insists that he didn't.

"We needed a special teams coordinator," Zoumboukos said, of the position that was filled by Tom Osborne, who returned to the UO staff after working in that position at Arizona State. "That was something we all agreed on. The way to have a special teams coordinator was to replace the tight ends coach, or have the tight ends coach be the special teams coordinator.

"Well, I wasn't going to do that. I don't have the temperament to coach kickers. ... I had to be honest with myself. There was a need. There was a need for the good of the program. The way to that end was through the position that I held."

No, Zoumboukos said, his "self-pity" stemmed from not being able to go out in a blaze of glory, after a season in which the Ducks were dominant. Last season was the opposite of that, a 7-6 disappointment ending with four straight losses, including a 38-8 loss to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl that could well be the last game in which Zoumboukos ever coaches.

"We would all like to step away from something at which we've worked for a long period of time on a high note, and certainly the end of last season was not a high note," he said. "It was flat out embarrassing, and you want to do something about it. ... I was stepping out at a time when, in my mind, things were ugly."

But that aside, Zoumboukos said, his move from football to administration has been beneficial both ways. "It keeps me involved in the department, and I love this place," he said. "I feel so blessed that I've been here for 27 years. I truly mean that, very sincerely."

In his new role, Zoumboukos' charge has been to facilitate communications, within the Casanova Center, which has housed the athletic department since 1991, but particularly with administrators and faculty members on the campus across the Willamette River.

"When discussion about building the Casanova Center came about," he recalled, "one of the things we all talked about was that there was going to be a physical division between the athletic department and the academic side of campus" and that the athletic department staff "would have to make extra efforts to communicate and be physically present on campus, so that people don't perceive us as outside the university and its mission.

"When we first got over here, there were a lot of efforts made to continue to do that. Well, over the years, that has waned, and there is the perception that somehow we are outside, and I want to get back to when we were over there in Mac Court, and around the people (on campus) and they know what's going on, and if there's a concern, they know who to call with those concerns, and I'm that person now.

"I think it's an important task, and I'm enjoying it, and I'm learning every day."

Zoumboukos attends meetings of the UO Faculty Senate and has met with administrators, students and faculty members; he wants to hear their concerns and answer their questions, and he has discovered the perception that the athletic department operates independently from the UO administration.

Which, he said is "not true at all. The administration of the university knows exactly what's going on over here."

Kilkenny said Zoumboukos has had a broader impact as a confidante and always-candid adviser.

Along with associate AD Renee Baumgartner, Zoumboukos is "probably the person I've leaned on most," Kilkenny said, adding:

"He has a great perspective of history, he knows where all the bodies are buried, he has a lot of relationships, he has superior communication skills and he's a great advocate for student-athletes. ... I've been very, very fortunate to have him. I'm not sure I could succeed without him, quite frankly."

As an administrator, Zoumboukos' first office was a converted storage room. He has somewhat better quarters now, and clearance to work up to 1,039 hours in the coming fiscal year while drawing on his retirement benefits.

"I laughed when they told me that, because as a coach, you did that in 2 1/2 or three months," Zoumboukos said.

He told the story with a smile. In the Cas Center, outside the football office and especially during football season, it's a look folks will just have to get used to seeing.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 28, 2007
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