GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It was a blip in the headlines late last month, buried behind Johnny Manziel's balky hamstring and the Seahawks' drubbing of Arizona.
Mike McCarthy passes Lombardi.
Even McCarthy's wife, Jessica, didn't know he was close until their second-youngest child, a chatty girl appropriately named Gabbie, came home from kindergarten class and informed her that, hey, Daddy was about to pass Vince Lombardi on the Packers' career wins list. Seems Gabbie's teacher is a huge Packers fan, and they chart football statistics every week, which would be unusual for a kindergarten class in any place except for Green Bay.
So the news was reason to celebrate, and young Gabbie did. Her father wasn't as festive. He figured the milestone would probably come toward the end of the season, and he dreaded the moment someone would notice and make a big deal about it.
"I'll be honest with you," McCarthy says. "I was hoping to do it as quickly as possible."
The NFL is not a place for the humble, but here Mike McCarthy sits, in a back room at Lambeau Field, perfectly content with being the least-talked-about coach in this weekend's conference championship games. McCarthy isn't particularly colorful and doesn't exude hip vibes of positivity, like Pete Carroll. He isn't gruff or considered a mad genius, a la Bill Belichick. He doesn't have the inspirational story of Chuck Pagano, who successfully battled leukemia two years ago.
McCarthy is just a guy, in his ninth season at Green Bay, who has compiled 101 wins, won a Super Bowl and is coaching in Sunday's NFC Championship Game at Seattle.
He is so low key that he manned the Allouez Little League concession stand one day this past summer, serving up hot dogs and Twizzlers. McCarthy just wanted to do what other parents were required to do. He doesn't say a lot in the media, because he believes the focus should be on players, not coaches. Words that depict McCarthy, such as "solid," "tough" and "dependable," are generally used in pickup truck commercials.
When he does something relatively daring, such as Sunday, when he threw the red challenge flag with 4:06 left in the Packers-Cowboys game after Dez Bryant's apparent catch near the goal line, McCarthy is not even considered gutsy, even when he's on the verge of burning his last timeout. It is instead mentioned that the coach was 0-5 in challenges before that fateful turn.
"I really get a kick out of that stuff, because I think it's so rampant in our society," he says. "It's like people can't compliment you without insulting you."
McCarthy stops himself, probably because he doesn't want to make it sound like he's complaining. He's big and broad-shouldered but somehow doesn't stand out. He's the kind of guy you'd see getting a beer at the VFW, brilliantly ordinary. Perfect for Green Bay.
'Genuine passion' for football
Jessica McCarthy is big on quotations and puts them on signs around the house. In one of the bathrooms, there's a quote hanging from Vince Lombardi. It's the famous one -- of course, they're all famous with Lombardi.
It's not whether you get knocked down. It's whether you get up.
Lombardi died more than four decades ago, but his shadow looms over everyone working in any capacity for the Packers. Lombardi won five titles in Green Bay and is widely considered the greatest coach in NFL history.
So anyone who comes into the job is automatically humbled. But McCarthy was already there. He played football at tiny Baker University in Kansas, worked the graveyard shift at a highway toll booth while he was learning the ropes as a young coach at the University of Pittsburgh, and grew up in the blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood of Greenfield.
Back in 2006, the gravity of interviewing to become the head coach of the Packers was not lost on McCarthy, the son of a cop. Maybe it got into his head when he was packing for the trip to Green Bay and forgot the pants that went with his suit.
"You go, 'Oh my God, I can't believe I did this,'" McCarthy said, recalling the moment. "A good Catholic school kid not being able to put a suit together ..."
McCarthy's résumé was rock solid. He'd worked with Joe Montana in Kansas City and was Brett Favre's position coach in Green Bay in 1999. But the NFL is a league of short memories, and McCarthy was coming off a 4-12 record in his first year as San Francisco's offensive coordinator.
Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson had interviewed some big names for the job, including Sean Payton, Ron Rivera and Wade Phillips. But something about McCarthy stood out. He impressed the Packers with his toughness, a "Pittsburgh macho," as Thompson called it. They liked that his ego was small, his football knowledge was vast and he came from a place that in many ways was similar to Green Bay.
McCarthy studied the West Coast offense under Paul Hackett and worked alongside Jon Gruden at Pitt. Gruden, a receivers coach there in 1991, said he would come to work at 4 in the morning, and McCarthy would already be there.
"Mike and I hit it off from the very beginning," said Gruden, the Super Bowl champion coach and "Monday Night Football" analyst. "We had more fun. ... I still have video of Mike McCarthy holding the dummies wearing a Pitt helmet, emulating a [defensive back] so our receivers could go block him. Just the thirst he had to get better, the genuine passion he has for football and making his players better is what makes him special."
McCarthy's rapport with the Green Bay front office seemed fluid and natural on his interview. They had hamburgers together at Legends, a local sports bar. McCarthy, who luckily had brought another pair of pants that went with his jacket, still didn't know what was going to happen, because Thompson wore his usual poker face.
But just before his interview, Bob Harlan, a former Packers CEO, greeted him at the door. He said, "Welcome home, Michael."
Rodgers: 'We're always communicating'
It's probably not a coincidence that the NFL's most reclusive GM hired a coach who's private and drafted a quarterback who likes to keep things close to the vest. Aaron Rodgers said he's going to write a book someday about all the stories he has from his years with McCarthy, so he doesn't want to share any of them.
Well, he'll tell one. It's 2005, just before Rodgers' precipitous fall in the NFL draft. He's visiting San Francisco, the team that holds the No. 1 pick and has a new offensive coordinator -- who just happens to be McCarthy. Rodgers asks McCarthy if he thinks the 49ers will select him, and McCarthy, according to Rodgers, says yes. But they instead pick Alex Smith, and Rodgers waits and waits until he goes to Green Bay at No. 24. A year passes, and his new head coach is none other than McCarthy.
Before Rodgers can even think about serving up any grief, McCarthy cuts him off.
"We passed on you in San Francisco," McCarthy told him. "The Packers drafted you. I'm here now. Let's move on."
After sitting behind Favre as a rookie, Rodgers was the backup for two more seasons after McCarthy's arrival. Rodgers finally became the starter in 2008. Of the NFL's current coach-quarterback duos, only Belichick and Tom Brady in New England and Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning with the Giants have worked together longer than McCarthy and Rodgers.
They "get each other," Rodgers said, and it's a collaborative relationship between a playcaller and a strong-willed quarterback.
When they have an occasional spat on the sideline, Rodgers said it makes their relationship stronger.
"The best thing about [our] relationship is there's a constant dialogue," Rogers said. "We're always communicating, and if we're not on the same street, we always make sure we get there very quickly."
McCarthy is generally known as a players' coach who's flexible and receptive to their needs. If a veteran comes to him during training camp and says the team is tired and beat up, he'll alter his practice to keep them fresh and healthy. Offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga said McCarthy gets feedback from the offensive linemen about plays and gauges what they think might work.
Bulaga said McCarthy's even-keeled demeanor is a calming influence on the sideline. But Sunday, McCarthy cut loose a little after the win over the Cowboys. Players noted that he was very excited. Asked what McCarthy did that was so animated, Bulaga paused.
McCarthy congratulated the players. He also smiled.
Making a difference in the community
The night they beat Dallas, McCarthy went home and slept downstairs. His kids had been battling a stomach virus, spreading it from one child to the next until all four of the ones who live at home were sick. Jessica took care of them while McCarthy popped vitamins and avoided germs.
McCarthy met his future wife soon after he took the Green Bay job, when neither of them was looking for somebody. John Schneider, a young Packers exec who's now the Seahawks' general manager, set them up. Only he didn't say it was a setup; they would've never shown up if that were the case. Jessica was divorced and wanted to focus on her kids and her job as an elementary school teacher, and McCarthy was consumed with the Packers.
Schneider and his wife, Traci, had them meet at a group dinner, but it wasn't love at first sight.
"I thought he was very quiet when I first met him," Jessica said. "We were with a group of people, and we all went to high school together, so we had a lot to talk about. I felt bad for him. I kept trying to engage him in the conversation so he didn't feel left out or uncomfortable."
They eventually hit it off, got married in 2008, and have a blended family with five kids. They consider themselves lucky that all of their children are healthy. Five years ago, the McCarthys visited the American Family Children's Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, and decided to make a commitment. They would start a golf tournament to raise money -- eventually $1.2 million and counting. They would make regular visits to Madison, and McCarthy would make a point to meet every kid at the hospital during each trip. He generally cries during the course of these trips.
"He goes through the hospital, and it's not with the cameras," said Jim Gilmore, director of development at the hospital. "This is something he does in his own time. In the rooms, he appears as though he's unaffected by this. But I have seen him have to compose himself coming out of these rooms."
In 2011, just after the Packers won the Super Bowl, McCarthy brought the Lombardi trophy to the hospital for the kids and their families to touch. Kevin and Vicki Hanegraaf were there that day with their son Kade, who has autism.
Kade was 14 and recovering from voice-box surgery. He had a patch on his throat and hadn't eaten in a long time. He was struggling to say something, which McCarthy thought was his name, so he tried to help.
Kade was actually trying to say McDonald's.
It made the family laugh and brightened up a difficult week.
"He made it special," Kevin Hanegraaf said. "It touched our family's heart."
McCarthy no doubt wouldn't care about the mix-up. The story is not about him. He loves the simplicity of Green Bay, that the two things the town holds dearest are also what he cares about most: family and football. The people who make up the area are so much like him. When he got the job, he made a point to put incentives in players' contracts that would reward them for staying in town for offseason workouts, even though they'd rather be in California or anywhere warmer.
It almost seems inevitable now, that he had to end up here. That he had to have that extra pair of pants for the interview, and he had to dazzle them with his beautiful ordinariness. His football teams are anything but ordinary. They've made the postseason seven of his nine seasons.
His supporters, such as Gruden, wonder if McCarthy doesn't get more credit because he's had Rodgers and Favre.
"He's a difference maker when it comes to offensive execution," Gruden said. "He thrives, I think, in lonely dark film rooms because he exhausts himself studying the game.
"Why he doesn't have a street named after him in Green Bay is a mystery to me."
As it turns out, a Wisconsin street was named after McCarthy this past summer, in the village of Ashwaubenon. McCarthy was visibly moved in the ceremony. The street isn't far from Lambeau Field.
Everything is near the football field.
"I love it here," McCarthy said. "We plan on living here the rest of our lives."