FRISCO, Texas -- Mike McCarthy will wake up early Sunday and have his Starbucks, a venti blonde roast. At around 9 a.m. CT, he will make his way to Lambeau Field with the Dallas Cowboys' athletic trainers and equipment staff.
Some six hours before kickoff against the Green Bay Packers (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox), he could go down the street named after him -- Mike McCarthy Way -- but it wouldn’t be the most direct route.
For nearly 13 years, Green Bay was home. Now, for the first time since his dismissal, he returns as the Cowboys' head coach.
“One of the coolest things that I used to do was in the mornings, and I would go sit in the stands up there until it got too cold,” McCarthy said during an interview this week with ESPN. “It’s just a very peaceful place to be. Yeah, I’m sure there will be some reflection.”
Only Curly Lambeau won more games for the Packers than McCarthy’s 135 regular-season and postseason victories from 2006 to 2018. On the scoreboard, he can see the World Champion designation for the 2010 team when he was coach. He can see the names of players he coached -- Brett Favre and Charles Woodson -- on the stadium façade. He can see the names of the other legends he grew to know.
But it’s more than just Packers memories that might hit him. He could think about the kids at the American Family Children's Hospital that he and his wife, Jessica, helped via their foundation. Or the Christmas carolers at the Union Hotel after a family dinner. Or of waiting in line to pick up his daughters at Notre Dame Academy after school. Or the high school basketball games he would watch.
McCarthy is a Pittsburgh guy -- born and raised -- but Green Bay has a piece of his heart.
“I remember telling my friends, ‘Man, Green Bay is a lot like Pittsburgh.’ And the first time all the guys came up there [they were like], ‘Christ, this is flat as hell up here. What are you talking about?’” McCarthy remembered. “I said I’m talking about the people. I can remember the first time I was walking into a bar in 1999 and they were still playing the same music that they played in my dad’s bar in the 70's. So I kinda got a kick out of it, you know? But yeah, Wisconsin people, a lot like Texans, just, I mean their love for family, friends, the outdoors, all that. I mean, it’s a special place. And it always will be.”
McCarthy knew his return would be the major storyline to Sunday’s game even if he would hate that. He kept himself busy during the Cowboys’ bye week to not think about the Packers. He did his best to downplay the significance of the game and what a win would mean to him.
But one moment got him: Talking about his family. Jessica is from Green Bay. His stepsons, Jack and George, grew up there. His daughters, Gabbie and Izzie, were born there. For a brief moment, his eyes glistened and lip quivered. He tapped the side of the podium before regaining his composure.
“When I don’t want to deal with things emotionally, I just stay busy,” he said. “I just don’t want to distract from the game. And I get my history there. I’m proud of my history there. It’s my family’s hometown. I tell our football team this all the time, I think it’s important for people to always recognize and have pride on who they come from and where they come from.”
The ending was difficult. He was let go with four games to play and a 4-7-1 record in 2018 after missing the playoffs in 2017. But he didn’t leave the area. They stayed in their De Pere home with the kids, following their same routine.
“Usually whenever you leave a team, you want to get out of town as soon as possible,” said Cowboys linebackers coach Scott McCurley, who was on McCarthy’s Green Bay staff and remained in town as well.
While the Packers went 13-3 in the first year under current coach Matt LaFleur, McCarthy assembled a group of coaches, including McCurley, for weekly sessions in his “barn,” where he has his office adjacent to the house to stay on top of the league trends and study players. Mostly three times a week, sometimes five, they talked football.
“It was really just the chance to sit back and look at the game in a broader scope, kind of the trends of the league, what was going on and kind of talk to different people outside of the game, too, with the analytic stuff and bringing their opinions into it and different companies,” McCurley said. “Definitely had a good experience that year and being able to study ball and stay a part of ball even though we were without a team.”
Away from football for the first time in his adult life, McCarthy found joy in doing things he couldn’t do before, like picking up his kids at school. But he brought a coach’s preparation to it since the school was going through a complete remodeling.
“There wasn’t as much parking for the pickup,” he said. “So I think school got out at like 3 o’clock, and if you weren’t there by 2:20, you weren’t getting one of those first eight spots. So obviously once I figured that out, I can promise you, I had one of the top five spots every day because I was there by about 2:15.”
The family time meant a lot to him. Now with the Cowboys, he tries to drive his daughters to Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano at least once a week. He goes to volleyball practices whenever he can.
“I’ve been coaching for almost 30 years in this league. My kids were used to maybe seeing me after the game and then they may not see me until Thursday night. So that’s the life they grew up in,” he said. “The year off has taught me that I spent too much time away from my family. I’m trying to do things that I never did.”
His immediate family will arrive in Green Bay a few days early this week. More will fly in from Pittsburgh and elsewhere closer to the game. On Saturday, Packers' priest Father Jim Baraniak will hold a mass. When he gets to Lambeau Field Sunday, he expects to see Green Bay police officer Brad Biller at his familiar spot by the tunnel to the field.
When he walks the field for the first time, he will check to see if Packers fields manager Allen Johnson added more rye grass to the field.
“I hope he didn’t make it too slippery,” McCarthy said. “That’s a unique surface. If you know anything about that place, it’s a great field, great turf, but you got to have the right shoes on. That’s something I talked about in the team meeting. Just the little things.”
The little things. That’s what matters most to McCarthy nowadays when thinking about Green Bay.
The wins were nice. The Super Bowl was great. The ending was difficult, but he has moved on from any ill feelings he may have had. As he watched the Packers on film, he couldn’t help but notice the players who remain from when he was coach, like Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones and David Bakhtiari.
“Hey, I ain’t going to lie to you, I take some pride in seeing those guys because I was with those guys when they came out of college,” he said.
And this is where the coach comes out again, even though his Cowboys face a Packers team that has lost five in a row.
“This is going to be a tough game,” he said. “No one’s talked about that yet. Call it 'wounded animal,' whatever you want.”
With the bye week, he said he watched about 12 Packers games. He wanted to give defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore any bits of information he could.
“I’ve been just really keeping my head in football because, you know, I just want to do a better job than I normally do this week,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s important for us as a team to win this game. We know where we’re at.”