This wasn’t the usual circumstance of a young coach needing a job and finding one with his former mentor. There’s much more to this story.
Mike McCarthy and Alex Van Pelt are linked by a time in their lives that is so meaningful to everything that followed it, that both men’s faces light up at the mere mention of those days. Van Pelt was a young quarterback at Pitt. McCarthy was a young coach trying to get his foot in the door.
“He tells a funny story about saying he knew how to work the computer to get the job, and then asking one of our guys how do you turn this thing on? He’s a self-taught, hard-working guy,” Van Pelt recalled of McCarthy, for whom Van Pelt now works as the Packers’ new running backs coach.
McCarthy got his foot in the door as a volunteer assistant coach. Van Pelt was a redshirt freshman quarterback.
“He was the first quarterback I was able to watch develop from A to Z. When you’re able to see a guy come in at ground zero and develop, it’s no different than putting in a new offense,” McCarthy said.
Therein is the specialness in their relationship. McCarthy was never officially Van Pelt’s quarterbacks coach, but the two worked closely together and they contributed to each other’s growth. Van Pelt went on to break Dan Marino’s records at Pitt. He became McCarthy’s first success story.
It was all kick-started by one memorable Saturday night, in an ESPN prime-time game in which Van Pelt emerged as a college star, a game that so moved McCarthy that going on 23 years later the mere mention of the game causes a rush of emotion.
Heading into the fourth quarter, West Virginia led Pitt, 31-9. Van Pelt had thrown four interceptions. Then, he flipped a switch that turned on a furious rally that was capped by a game-tying field goal on the final, desperate play of the game.
“Paul (Hackett) put it on his shoulders and he marched us right down the field,” McCarthy said.
Van Pelt etched his name in the Pitt record book and authored a memorable Sun Bowl win over Texas A&M. McCarthy rose up the coaching ranks and moved on to Kansas City and into his career as a pro coach.
“He’s someone you always rooted for. He was with us in Kansas City in ’94. I followed his career the whole time,” McCarthy said.
Following a 10-year career as an NFL backup quarterback, Van Pelt began a career as a quarterbacks coach that took him through Buffalo, where he spent nearly all of his career as a player, and to Tampa Bay, where he lost his job when Raheem Morris was fired.
“I started the process when I was in Hawaii (Pro Bowl). I was staying in touch with Alex. It was only natural to bring him in,” McCarthy said.
Former tight ends coach Ben McAdoo had been groomed for the quarterbacks job, so Van Pelt had to be fitted to the staff. As running backs coach, he’ll bring a new perspective to the position. The intent is that runners will acquire a deeper understanding of the passing game.
“I think it’s very important for the coordinator to hire the assistant,” McCarthy said, referring to new Offensive Coordinator Tom Clements. “He thought it was a great idea. Just watching them sit in a room, I knew he was the right guy for the job.”
Van Pelt worked with Packers running back James Starks at the University at Buffalo, where Van Pelt was a “volunteer winter quarterbacks coach” in 2005. Sound familiar?
Much about Van Pelt and McCarthy would appear to be similar. They’re self-made men who’ve succeeded against the odds. With all due respect to Marino’s records Van Pelt broke, he did not do it with anything resembling Marino’s arm strength.
“Work ethic stands out the most,” Van Pelt says of McCarthy from those days at Pitt. “He was just a tireless worker, would do anything that was asked, at any time, at all hours of the night. He was a guy that was always running from meeting to meeting, and drawing and staying up late, burning the midnight oil and grinding. Everybody knows about the infamous puts his helmet on and has receivers block him. They’d come at him full speed and he’d lay into them. He did what he had to do to get the job done, and he always got the job done.”
“He had such a tremendous mind, such a sponge. It was only natural for him to go into coaching. He has that steel-trap mind. Guys that have that tremendous recall, it’s an attribute I look for in people,” McCarthy said.
Maybe it was just a matter of time before the two would be reunited.