As yet, the team store at Levi’s Stadium hasn’t re-arranged racks to mass-market black nylon sweatsuits. But if Jim Tomsula keeps winning football games, well, you know how success translates in sports and merch. Whereas failure makes him an overmatched rube, winning validates his chosen garb with a certain cool quotient, as we saw regarding the previous 49ers coach and his khakis.
“It’s slimming,” Tomsula said of his stretchy outerwear.
For at least a week, if not longer, no one is wondering what a Jim Tomsula is and how he became sideline boss of an iconic franchise. While coaches who’ve won Super Bowls (Tom Coughlin, Pete Carroll) are among those taking heat for late-game screwups this week, Tomsula produced a crisp, efficient, thoughtful display of power football in his 49ers’ debut. Here we’ve been dwelling on how he once lived in his car, worked as a janitor and delivered newspapers to keep his coaching dream alive in his mid-20s. What should have been accentuated was his healthy bond with the players, how they held a firm, unified stance in a chaotic offseason. No one was giving Tomsula and his team a chance beyond Tomsula and his team, and while an opening victory can become a 1-3 plunge before one can say Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer and Aaron Rodgers, the Everyman in the black sweats already has provided evidence that he knows how to rally men in the face of criticism, doubt and ridicule.
“Jimmy T got that first win, baby!” NaVorro Bowman shouted in the locker room as the team gathered around their coach Monday night, a 20-3 win over Minnesota in the books.
Tomsula allowed himself a brief smile and some backslaps, then resumed the mantra that underscores why his players like him so much: He lets it be known that they win the games and deserve the credit, and that he wants no praise. It doesn’t appear to be an act, either, in a profession full of megalomaniacs.
“Jimmy T didn’t get a damned thing! You got it!” Tomsula shouted at them. “Look, we’ve been talking about it, OK? You’ve got something special here.”
Tomsula has been with this franchise for some time, eight years. And as an assistant coach, he lived through the dismal crash of the Mike Nolan era, the embarrassment of the Mike Singletary era and the extreme highs and ultimate collapse of the Jim Harbaugh era. That he endured three tenures long enough to win his own reins speaks of management’s affinity for him — particularly, CEO Jed York. When Harbaugh was fired after a season of backchannel whispers and leaks, some observers wondered if Tomsula was a snitch. I highly doubt it. He is too respectful of everyone around him in life, including reporters he refers to as “sir.” When he was told Tuesday that Vikings coach Mike Zimmer admired the 49ers’ physicality and wants his team to emulate that style, Tomsula was overcome by the bouquet.
“From Coach Zimmer, I mean, that’s a wonderful compliment. I sincerely — I speak for the guys — that’s a compliment to them,” he said. “In terms of an identity, I just want us to be who we are, and our locker room is a tough-minded, physically tough group of guys. Let’s play the game. I mean, football, it’s a test of wills. I believe those are the kind of guys that we have.”
York and general manager Trent Baalke are gambling that Tomsula is the anti-Harbaugh, a coach who will rally players as family instead of challenging them as an adversarial voice. No one can argue with Harbaugh’s results, but if the bosses felt a change was necessary, appointing a polar-opposite personality wasn’t the worst call. Jimmy T is a character who will catch on with the fans if the 49ers win. We’ve already seen his shouting, pacing and hugging on the sideline. Have you tracked some of his comments? The guy is a comedian without trying.
On dealing with the media, he said: “I never lie on purpose.”
On one of York’s tech gimmicks, virtual reality, he said: “Yeah, we’ve got a room. I don’t have the exact time schedule, but we do have the virtual reality. I have put it on, our coaches have put it on, our players have put it on. Have you ever looked at practice and you see that little pole out there? That’s what that is.”
On the team’s alternative black uniforms, he said: “The guys kind of make fun of me. I mean, obviously, it’s neat, it’s cool. The guys like it. I’m trying to keep my connection to the younger generation. But for me, I mean, it’s 53 and 1/3 [yards] wide, 100 [yards] long with two 10-yard end zones and an opponent. That’s kind of where I stay.”
On early success, he said: “We just got to the starting line. That’s all. You’ve got preliminaries. All you do is get a shot at the Olympics. You get to walk through opening ceremonies. That’s all you’re guaranteed. So, I mean, that’s basically the way I see it. You’ve got to win a lot of races before you get to race the Tour de France. A lot of things can happen over those days.”
Harbaugh never spoke that way. His approach was grounded in arrogance — “Who’s got it better than us? Noooooooooo-body.” Tomsula comes at it as an underdog because that’s who he is, a storyline that will mushroom this week as he returns to his working-class Pittsburgh roots to face the Steelers. When he whiffed badly in his opening press conference and subsequent Comcast Sports Net interview, on what should have been the happiest day of his professional life, Tomsula was told by York to be himself in future media dealings.
He has been just that, likeable and rootable.
And now, he is 1-0, hailed by players who love to talk about him.
“It’s amazing. He has great confidence in his players just going out and playing,” said Colin Kaepernick, who presented Tomsula with the game ball. “I think that’s what gives this team energy, gives this team life. He’s done a lot for this team and organization in a very short amount of time. And he was one of the people that’s been good to me since I ever got here. So to see him be the head coach and get his first win — it was amazing.”
Said safety Antoine Bethea: “Obviously, you can see whatever he says to us in the locker room, his emotion, his personality — that’s our team. We carry that over to the field. You can see the offensive line, the way they were blocking. And Carlos Hyde, the way he was running the ball. We’re just doing it for him. He’s our leader.”
And center Marcus Martin: “Man, I’m excited. Tomsula always says we got something special here, protect it. And I really believe that. I’m glad, I’m happy, and this is the first of many for Tomsula.”
The identity, so far, is similar to what it was under Harbaugh. The 49ers are aggressive, physical and “steel-spined” (his word) on both sides. But there are differences. Geep Chryst’s offense involves more zone-blocking and a quicker tempo that has been emphasized ad infinitum, recalling the false starts and Harbaugh tantrums last year. Eric Mangini’s defense is heavy with blitz packages and inspired by Bowman’s emotional comeback from a ravaged knee.
Again, the 49ers have played one game. And heading to Pittsburgh in a short week, against an opponent that will be playing at home after a nine-day break, is daunting. But don’t tell that to Jimmy T. “There’s one goal. The goal is not to win the stat sheet. The goal is to win the game,” he said. “And, that’s what I really feel about these guys. Let’s go win the game.”
The attitude, admittedly, is contagious. Wonder how much the black nylon Jimmy T sweats will go for?
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.