DALLAS -- Of the 27 coaches who have won Super Bowls, 18 never played a down in the NFL or the AFL. Nineteen if you include Sean Payton, who was a replacement player for three games during the NFL players' strike in 1987.

Twelve coaches have won multiple Super Bowls. Eight of those coaches weren't physically gifted enough to play in the NFL, yet mentally they helped write and direct nearly half a century's worth of football history, assuring that names such as Lombardi, Walsh, Gibbs and Belichick are never forgotten.

Sunday, regardless of the outcome, a coach who never played the game at its highest level will win the Super Bowl for the 31st time in the 45 years it has been held. Green Bay's Mike McCarthy would become the 20th to do so. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin would become the ninth to do it twice.

Career paths for coaches with no NFL playing experience have varied since 1939, when Lombardi took his first job as an assistant coach at St. Cecilia, a Catholic high school in Englewood, N.J. But the one thing these paths share are big dreamers with an unwavering drive to get to the top of a sport they weren't talented enough to play.

In the summer of 1989, 50 years after Lombardi started at St. Cecilia, McCarthy returned home to Pittsburgh to start his journey as an graduate assistant at the University of Pittsburgh. He came from Kansas, where he was a small-college tight end for Baker University, an NAIA school.

McCarthy wanted to learn the West Coast offense from Pitt's offensive coordinator, Paul Hackett, who learned it from the master himself, Bill Walsh, in San Francisco during the early 1980s. The fact it was an unpaid position didn't bother McCarthy. He grew up in the sturdy Pittsburgh neighborhood of Greenfield, where his father worked as a firefighter, police officer and bar owner.

Hard work was never a problem. So to support himself, McCarthy went to work on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift in the toll booth on the Allegheny Valley exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, about half an hour outside the city.

"It didn't pay much," McCarthy said. "It was something that I felt I needed to do between graduating. You get your master's degree and you go collect tolls. That doesn't quite add up, but that was my plan and path."

Not alone

Today, McCarthy is 60 minutes from proving that yet another path with humble beginnings and no NFL glory can still end with a Lombardi Trophy being raised.

Mike Holmgren, the last Packers coach to win one 14 years ago, got his start as a football coach and history teacher at Lincoln High School in San Francisco. He had no other choice. He played quarterback at Southern Cal and wanted to play in the NFL. He was even drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the eighth round in 1970. But his career was over before it began when the Cardinals and Jets quickly cut him.

Walsh's first job was at Fremont High School in California. They gave him the football job, but only if he took the job as swim coach, too.

George Seifert succeeded Walsh and combined with him to give the 49ers five Super Bowl titles by coaches with no NFL playing experience. Seifert spent six months in the Army after his playing days at the University of Utah. Then he went back and coached the Utes' freshman team.

Brian Billick, the former Vikings offensive coordinator, won a Super Bowl as head coach of the Ravens. He was an 11th-round draft pick of the 49ers in 1977. Two years later, after being cut by the 49ers and Cowboys before he played a down that counted, Billick was Walsh's assistant director of public relations in San Francisco.

No longer 'Mike Who?'

Tomlin played receiver at William and Mary, where he hoped a school-record 20 touchdown catches might sneak him into the NFL. No chance. His college teammate, Darren Sharper, was good enough. Tomlin wasn't. So in 1995, he took his first job as receivers coach at Virginia Military Institute.

Besides a strong work ethic, Tomlin also has the invaluable "it" factor when it comes to coaching. Once he was brought under the Tony Dungy coaching tree in Tampa, Tomlin had his career skyrocket faster than anyone, except him, could have imagined.

He spent just one year, a 6-10 season, as Brad Childress' defensive coordinator in 2006. Then, at age 34, the Steelers made him their third head coach in 38 years.

"He's a man who commands attention when he walks into a room, and that's what we needed," Steelers President Art Rooney II said this week.

Two years ago, Tomlin became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. Today, he's 38 and on the doorstep of becoming the youngest to win two.

No longer is he "Mike Who?" in Pittsburgh. And now, when people mention his age, they do so because they wonder if it's possible for him to accomplish the unthinkable and make legendary Steelers coach Chuck Noll's four Super Bowl titles the second-highest total in Pittsburgh.

"You can't put into words what [Tomlin] brings to a football team: intelligence, character, leadership, all the things you want in your head coach, and an uncanny rapport with his players, because he's basically their age," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "All you can ask for as an assistant coach is a guy that's got a path, and he ain't getting off the path, and you know what it is so you can all drive toward the end goal."

Tomlin also has the common sense to know his surroundings. And in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have been in the Rooney family since their inception in 1933, those surroundings include five Lombardi Trophies won before Tomlin arrived.

"It's not broken, so I wasn't going to fix it," Tomlin said. "It's sound. It's time-tested. And it's proven."

Divided loyalties?

Part of Pittsburgh is faced with a dilemma on Sunday. The beloved Steelers are playing a son that's even more beloved in Greenfield.

Now making the big NFL bucks, McCarthy donates $95,000 a year to help his hometown. He gives $5,000 to the Greenfield Organization, which runs several community programs as a nonprofit group. He also gives $90,000 a year to his old grade school, St. Rosalia, to help struggling families pay for tuition.

"Growing up in Pittsburgh is a big part of who I am," McCarthy said. "But I am a Green Bay Packer, and we've come here [to Arlington, Texas] to claim the Lombardi Trophy."

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com