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Bob Ryan

Weight of history on coaches

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / February 6, 2011

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DALLAS — One knows. The other wonders.

Mike Tomlin has been the winning coach in a Super Bowl. Mike McCarthy is here for the first time. The former could explain to the latter what the feeling would be like were the Packers to prevail this evening.

Or maybe not.

“It’s awesome,’’ says Tomlin. “It really is humbling. It’s inspiring. It motivates you. But it really is hard to explain.’’

The two coaches are both enriched and a bit burdened by the organization they work for. The Steelers are six-time NFL champions, those championships having come in two bunches, almost three decades apart. Pittsburgh won under Chuck Noll in 1974, 1975, 1978, and 1979. While quite competitive in the ’80s, ’90s, and the beginning of this century, the Steelers didn’t add to the championship résumé until winning it under Bill Cowher in 2005. They did it again under the youthful Tomlin — he was just 36 — three years later.

But even with that lengthy gap between championships, the Steelers managed to preserve the image of being a championship-type organization. There haven’t been many years in the last four decades when the Steelers weren’t pretty good, or where a victory over them wasn’t viewed around the league as an accomplishment.

Says Tomlin, “We’re fortunate we have what you can’t buy: a legacy.’’

But with that legacy comes a certain degree of expectation. It’s not just that the Steelers come into this game after posting a 12-4 regular-season record and then negotiating the treachery known as the AFC playoffs. It’s that their fan base is so amazingly passionate. Coming this far and losing would bring real gloom to the city of Pittsburgh, which truly loves its professional football team.

But what about McCarthy? He’s not exactly here coaching the Arizona Cardinals, if you know what I mean. The mental sun isn’t going to come up tomorrow in Wisconsin if his team loses tonight, if you know what I mean.

You think it doesn’t affect Mike McCarthy to be addressing the international media while standing a few feet from the Lombardi Trophy? You know, Vince Lombardi, one of the most hallowed names in the history of American sport?

With all due respect to a great Pittsburgh mentor, the play currently staging a highly successful run on Broadway isn’t “Noll.’’ No, it happens to be “Lombardi.’’ Only the coach of the Green Bay Packers ever carries that little cross around, 24/7/365.

Right now, that coach is named Mike McCarthy, and he knows what’s at stake for him tonight.

“I think every coach who’s ever had the opportunity to step onto a playing field, or even a practice field, is aware of Coach Lombardi’s presence,’’ acknowledges McCarthy, who — and how could we make this stuff up? — is a native of Pittsburgh and grew up with black and gold blood coursing through his veins.

“You talk about discipline, you talk about work ethic, and you’re talking about Coach Lombardi. We talk about those things all the time, and we celebrate Coach Lombardi all the time in Green Bay. We would take tremendous pride in taking that trophy back where it belongs.’’

Back where it belongs.

That’s exactly the kind of rhetoric you’d expect to hear from a Green Bay Packers coach, but it comes from a man many regard as, well, a dull guy when he steps in front of a podium. It tells you a lot about the perceived responsibility that comes with being head coach of the Green Bay Packers, who, lest we forget, have won exactly one Super Bowl in the last 43 years (and I doubt people in New England need any reminders about which one that was).

One of the fantasies some people are having about this matchup is the possibility, however remote, that the teams could reprise their 2009 affair when a game-ending 19-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace gave Pittsburgh a wild and woolly 37-36 victory. McCarthy undoubtedly speaks for both coaches when he hints that there might be a better chance of Keith Olbermann being the keynote speaker at a Tea Party function than of these teams playing a game anything like that this evening.

“That was an exciting football game,’’ McCarthy pointed out. “But every year there is a different team. Watching each team’s body of work this year, anything like that would have to be a surprise. I would look for defense to impact the game more. But each team does have the capacity for big plays.’’

Each team had to work very hard to get here. Pittsburgh was not the AFC pre-playoff favorite. The Patriots were, but not by much, over the Jets, Steelers, and Ravens. Green Bay came out of a somewhat muddled NFC, but the Packers certainly did so in style. After losing to the Patriots Dec. 19 (without concussed quarterback Aaron Rodgers), the Packers have played five consecutive elimination games, culminating in a 21-14 conquest of archrival Chicago in the NFC Championship game.

“The last five weeks, we’ve had to play in five playoff-type games,’’ McCarthy says. “I feel that really prepares us for this opportunity.’’

The only real question for these two quality coaches representing these two historic organizations is this: Which fan base would be more devastated by a loss? One of these guys is about to find out.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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