Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy has deep roots in Greenfield

Despite leading the Packers, McCarthy prizes hometown

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

The smoke hung in the air, obscuring the view in the already dimly lit Greenfield club. Through the haze, members watched forecasts of approaching snow on TV. Others passed out Super Bowl T-shirts. A young member of the Air Force who recently returned home from overseas brought a folded American flag and certificate of appreciation for the club to display.

Mike McCarthy, a Greenfield native and head coach of the Green Bay Packers, who face the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV Sunday in Dallas, gives a lot back to his hometown. One thing he gives is not so big, but it means a lot to this small club -- the Slavonic Political Citizens Club. It's Mr. McCarthy's annual $10 dues.

Mr. McCarthy and his family have touched nearly everyone in the neighborhood somehow, whether they drank at his father's bar or his sister coached their children's basketball teams. Their testimonies about Mr. McCarthy and his family echoed around the town: Great family. ... Never forgot where he came from. ... Hard-working kid.

Mr. McCarthy, a Steelers fan growing up, told neighbors he wanted to become an National Football League coach. His hard work created the path from promising youth athlete to college football player to college assistant to NFL quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator and eventually head coach. Now, at 47, he's in the Super Bowl.


"Everything he picked up he seemed to excel at," said Marty Coyne, Mr. McCarthy's youth baseball and basketball coach. "It's no surprise that he can excel and be one of the better coaches in the NFL."

Thank Joe McCarthy, Mike's father, for teaching his five children lessons heavy on character and work ethic. Joe was a policeman and firefighter who worked in real estate in his spare time. He also owned a bar, Joe McCarthy's Bar and Grill, where Mike and his cousin, John, cleaned up on Sundays, had potato chips and pop for a quarter and knocked the billiard balls around. Mike's mother, Ellen, cooked at the bar and worked in the local magistrate's office. They have lived in the same house on Greenfield Avenue for 41 years.

"His mom and dad were solid people, they set the foundation for him," said Jim Gregg, Mr. McCarthy's middle school basketball coach.

On Sundays when he wasn't helping his father, Mr. McCarthy attended 9 a.m. Mass so he could get a spot on the basketball court by 10. At St. Rosalia Catholic School, Mr. McCarthy led the team to a 39-1 record and the diocesan championship in eighth grade.

"As a youngster, you could see the leadership qualities he had," said Mr. Gregg, who has coached basketball at St. Rosalia for 40 years. "[He would] be a leader on the court, taking charge in tight games, set an example."

Opposing baseball teams used to walk Mr. McCarthy with the bases loaded because he almost always hit a home run or double. On the basketball court, his no-nonsense approach and ability to listen to his coaches set him apart.

"You could tell he was going to be a coach because of the way he would practice," Mr. Coyne said. "You could tell certain kids, when they transcend your thoughts on the court."

Football was almost an afterthought. Mr. McCarthy was a captain and played defensive end and tight end at now-closed Bishop Boyle High School, but the future quarterbacks coach would badger assistant coach Tim Kelly to let him take snaps.

"I kept telling him, Mike, you're one of the biggest kids on the team," Mr. Kelly said. "If we put you back there, no one's going to block."

After Mr. McCarthy's career as a captain and tight end at Baker University in Kansas ended, he coached the linebackers at Fort Hays State University in Kansas and later volunteered as an assistant coach at Pitt in 1989, living in Greenfield once again. During the summer, he worked nights at the Allegheny Valley toll booth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

"It was a good experience," he said a few years ago. "Every once in a while, you'd run into someone you knew and had just a few minutes to try to explain why you're sitting in a toll booth taking tolls."

Frank Cignetti, who was a graduate assistant at Pitt in '89 and is now Rutgers' offensive coordinator, worked with Mr. McCarthy at Pitt.

"He was very detail-oriented, very thorough in his work," Mr. Cignetti said. "You could just see that he was very passionate and driven."

Mr. Cignetti lived down the street from Mr. McCarthy in Greenfield, across from Magee Field. The two carpooled to work and stopped at Aiello's Pizza in Squirrel Hill for a slice on their way home at night.

When Pitt coach Paul Hackett joined the Kansas City Chiefs as their offensive coordinator in 1993, Mr. McCarthy followed him as an offensive quality control assistant, eventually working with quarterbacks Rich Gannon and Elvis Grbac when he became quarterbacks coach. He spent one year in Green Bay working with Brett Favre as the Packers' quarterbacks coach in 1999 before becoming the New Orleans Saints' offensive coordinator the following year. He hired Mr. Cignetti, still a close friend, in New Orleans as his quarterbacks coach.

"When he stood in front of the group, as he would address the offense, he could command the classroom," Mr. Cignetti said. "He had the respect of his peers and players and he could bring a play to life as he installed it."

Mr. McCarthy accomplished his childhood goal Jan. 12, 2006, when the Packers named him head coach. In five years, he has a 48-32 regular-season record and is 4-2 in the playoffs. His old coaches described him as quiet but dedicated -- "Nobody works harder than him on detail," Mr. Coyne said -- but when Mr. Coyne visited Mr. McCarthy in Green Bay for a game, he saw his coaching style first-hand.

"We did that Lambeau Leap [an interactive fan event] and we heard him on the intercom," Mr. Coyne said. "I told my wife, 'I never heard him talk like that in my life.' "

No sooner was he hired in Green Bay than he told Mr. Gregg, "Coach, whatever you need, I want to be able to help out."

Mr. McCarthy, who was preparing for the Super Bowl and could not be reached for comment, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2008 that he was taken aback to know that he is a role model to many in Greenfield.

"I am very humbled to know that, yes, maybe there is a little kid who says, 'He grew up here and he is an NFL coach, maybe I can do it someday,' " he said. "There is a responsibility, and to hear that Pittsburgh people might look up to me is the ultimate compliment, as far as I am concerned, the ultimate compliment. Greenfield is a place that knew me when I was developing. It is a place that made me who I am. Where I am today, I owe that to Greenfield."

For the past three years, Mr. McCarthy and the Packers have donated $100,000 a year to Greenfield: $90,000 to St. Rosalia in tuition credits, $5,000 to the Greenfield Baseball Association and $5,000 to the Greenfield Organization. He also donates $100,000 to Green Bay charities and Baker University.

The tuition credits benefit all 179 students at St. Rosalia, providing each with about $500 toward their $3,150 tuition. Despite rising equipment and uniform costs, the GBA hasn't raised fees in five years, and the Greenfield Organization has continued its community work -- including developing housing units for the elderly, publishing a local newspaper and providing programs for disadvantaged families -- despite declining contributions.

"Given the fact that how difficult times have been in the last few years, it's really come in handy as far as us being able to keep our heads above water," said Bill Smith, director of the baseball group.

Those contributions were written into Mr. McCarthy's new contract, a five-year deal signed in 2008 that pays him around $4 million per season, but the smoky club was not. It's down the street from his father's old bar, under the Parkway East overpass on Four Mile Run Road. The unmarked door to the Slavonic Political Citizens Club, which only opens to members who have an electronic card, sits in the back of a three-story brick building. Mr. McCarthy's family visits the club, which has been around since 1936. The club's bar has IC Light and Iron City on tap, and Mr. McCarthy's picture hangs on the bulletin board. No food, no females. Dues are $10 per year, and Mr. McCarthy, who stops down when he is in town and once brought Mr. Gannon with him, keeps his membership current.

"Ten dollars don't mean nothing [to him], but he renews his membership," said Gene Gula, the club's president and Mr. McCarthy's former babysitter. "He's a down-to-earth neighborhood boy that did good and deserves everything he got, win or lose."

Bill Brink: . First Published January 31, 2011 5:00 AM


Latest NFL News
Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?