Packers coach a Pittsburgh guy proud of his blue collar

IRVING -- True genius, as it turns out, isn't just a title.

Or even a degree from Princeton.

Sometimes, a guy finds it growing up in a blue-collar part of Pittsburgh, going to school at St. Rosalia. And his dad owns a dump truck. And a neighborhood bar.

And the guy plays his college football not in the Ivy League, but at little Baker University in Kansas. And to earn his way through school, he works the midnight shift one summer in the toll booth at Exit 5 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Mike McCarthy doesn't seem like one for titles, anyway. He gets all the perspective he needs each day at work, when he walks through his office doorway -- the same doorway that Vince Lombardi walked through when he was the Green Bay Packers' head coach.

After the 2005 NFL season, rampant job stimulus ensued. Ten new head coaches had to be hired.

Coming off a 4-12 season, the Packers narrowed their choice to two candidates -- McCarthy and Sean Payton.

As the man who hired him, general manager Ted Thompson, said this Super Bowl week, "There are a lot of coaches. There are a lot of X's and O's guys, but we were looking for the man more than the coach. And I think that was a good way to go about it.

"Mike has been everything you could ask for. He's a good man."

In only his second year as a head coach, McCarthy had the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. In his fifth season, he has them poised to play for the NFL's ultimate prize.

The Lombardi Trophy. Ah, perspective.

The legendary Lombardi's presence is never more than a short drive away in the village of Green Bay. A 14-foot bronze statue of him, sitting atop a four-foot base, stands guard at the entrance to historic Lambeau Field.

"I walk through that doorway that was his office every day," McCarthy said this week. "It's an honor and a privilege to hold the position he once had."

Thompson may say that he wasn't interested in only the X's and O's, but it couldn't have hurt McCarthy's job chances that he climbed the West Coast side of the coaching tree.

At the University of Pittsburgh, he was an assistant on Mike Gottfried's staff and learned the passing game under offensive coordinator Paul Hackett. Jon Gruden and Marvin Lewis were on the same staff.

Ask McCarthy to recall his coaching influences, and typically he will launch into a litany of former mentors and acquaintances, starting with his high school basketball coach. At age 29, he found himself on the staff of the Kansas City Chiefs, sitting in quarterback meetings with Joe Montana.

"I was very fortunate and very blessed to be around a lot of excellent football people at a young age," McCarthy said, appropriately humbled by the memory.

Jim Haslett gave him his first coordinator's job in 2000 in New Orleans, and McCarthy began to attract attention.

"I never really sweated being a head coach, though," he said. "I just always felt the opportunity was going to come. I was more concerned about making sure that I was ready when that opportunity came."

In 2000, the Cleveland Browns came calling.

"I kind of chuckle about it," McCarthy said. "When I went into the interview, I thought for sure that I was ready to go. But fast-forward to Green Bay, and I went through the first year 1-4, then 4-8, and I know there was no way I was ready in 2000 to do this."

During this Super Bowl XLV week, riddled with weather disruptions, McCarthy's mature, measured approach has made an impression. Clearly, the Packers players trust and respect him, even though McCarthy has never been to a Super Bowl before, either as a coach or spectator.

He has been asked often this week about his hometown roots, growing up in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Greenfield -- and cheering for the Steelers. He hasn't forgotten. McCarthy still donates each year to help pay the tuitions of needy students to St. Rosalia.

When someone prefaced a question this week about McCarthy's life being about to change, he seemed to frown.

"My wife and I go to great lengths to keep a very fundamental household, and it will stay that way the rest of our lives," he said. "This is a period of time professionally that we're enjoying, but we're parents first.

"I don't want to diminish why I'm here professionally. This is a period of time that I'm very blessed and grateful for. But at the end of the day, we're still blue-collar people."

That perspective, the Packers have learned, has been everything they hoped for five years ago.

And it's time, Mike McCarthy has said this week, to bring the Lombardi Trophy home.

Gil Lebreton, 817-390-7697