It’s impossible to sit with Jim Tomsula, all stylin’ in his nylon track suit, and not chuckle at some of his attempted one-liners. Suddenly, you are not in a polished auditorium inside a $1.3-billion football stadium that describes itself as “the most technologically advanced sports venue in North America.” You’re in a comedy club on amateur night with Jimmy T, who is funny not because he’s funny but because he’s trying too hard to be funny.
“The only fat guy on the field today was me,” he said.
Is it true he wants his players to throw away their cell phones?
“Here, I’m going to put this here so nobody sees it,” he said, removing a phone from his pocket. “I don’t have phones.”
It’s also impossible to sit with Jim Tomsula without wondering what the hell he’s doing here — as head coach of the high-pedigree, regal-tradition, Pinot-and-Brie San Francisco 49ers — while also contemplating how long he’ll last. This is a man you can’t help but root for, the raw antithesis of all things corporate and predestined about his profession, someone who wanted so dearly to coach that he once slept in his car with his dog and cat and worked odd jobs as a janitor, carpet salesman and newspaper deliveryman to keep the dream alive. But the NFL is not a kind place for an Everyman drop-in who never has been a coordinator in the league, much less a head coach — a role he held full-time only once before, nine years ago with the Rhein Fire in now-defunct NFL Europe. That means “the most technologically advanced sports venue in North America” is the home office for perhaps the least qualified major-league coach in North America.
The ongoing debacle in Santa Clara could be too messy for any man to fix, even an all-time hybrid of Bill Belichick, Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh and Don Shula. How is Jim Tomsula going to last past Thanksgiving? He was handed the position by CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke after they won the power struggle and ran off ornery-but-accomplished Jim Harbaugh, who only advanced to three straight NFC championship games and was five yards from winning a Super Bowl. Rather than manage Harbaugh and maximize his considerable strengths, York turned the drama into an inner-office whisperfest and sided with Baalke, who wasn’t half as responsible for building a strong roster core as predecessor Scot McCloughan. If that didn’t rattle the infrastructure, next came the startling locker-room exodus of several longtime leaders and cornerstones. Left amid the rubble is Tomsula, who is perceived as a yes-sir puppet for York and Baalke and a convenient whipping boy for a disgusted fan base if the 49ers, as expected, go 6-10 (or worse) and finish last in a difficult division.
If the assignment doesn’t seem fair, do acknowledge that he signed up for it, for $14 million over four years, which isn’t janitor money. And if the bosses would have been better off promoting defensive coordinator Vic Fangio or reaching out to Stanford again, for David Shaw, do know this about the defensive-line-coach-turned-unlikely-head-coach: The players, or at least the ones still around, appear to like and respect Tomsula. It could be they’re thrilled not to deal with the demanding Harbaugh anymore. It could be they’re following the company line that Harbaugh was a lunatic monster. But for now, anyway, they see Tomsula as a genuine, likeable guy who listens to their desires and needs and tries to implement them. This includes a new camp schedule that lessens physical demands, gives them more rest and study time during the day, shifts practices to late afternoon and considers that players have lives outside of football.
“Coach Tomsula is the most genuine head coach I’ve ever had in my football career,” safety Eric Reid said. “He really cares. If he says something, you can rest assured he’s going to try to get it done. It’s the nature of the business: Coaches say things and sometimes they fall through, but you can be pretty confident that he’s going to do whatever he can do for you. I think the guys respect that. I know I love him. I’ll do anything for him. I think that will translate on the field for us.”
Direct shots have been taken at Harbaugh by players who thought he burned them out. The loudest was guard Alex Boone, who told HBO in April: “”He does a great job of giving you that spark, that initial boom. But after a while, you just want to kick his ass. He just keeps pushing you, and you’re like, `Dude, we got over the mountain. Stop. Let go.’ He kind of wore out his welcome. … And you’d be like, `This guy might be clinically insane. He’s crazy.’” This was the same Boone who defended Harbaugh last season, but similar thoughts were echoed over the weekend by respected veterans.
“I feel like there were a lot of things that were done incorrectly that needed to be addressed,” tight end Vernon Davis said. “It feels like everything is in place right now the way it’s supposed to be. When things go wrong, you’re supposed to fix it. As an organization, as a wonderful organization, the 49ers, I feel like they have done everything they could possibly do to correct some of the problems we were up against last year.”
Said left tackle Joe Staley: “Last year was kind of us just a jumbled mess in a lot of different areas.”
Never mind that the previous three years were glory-filled. Tomsula will take the praise, of course, knowing that his players must be all-in to have any shot at a commendable season.
“It makes me happy. I can’t fake it, but I think we have a lot of guys here that aren’t faking it,” he said. “So, roll up your sleeves, it’s the day-to-day. Who shows up every day? If you show up every day with a smile or if you show up every day and you’re an angry man, be an angry man every day. Just be that guy. Don’t fake it. Be who you are and let’s go.”
He could have been describing himself. You’ll find no pretenses in his back story. Tomsula grew up with Hungarian roots in the shadows of Pittsburgh’s steel mills, where his grandfather ran a restaurant and his father cooked. One look at his resume shows he didn’t just pay his career dues — he paid a 20-year mortgage. Don’t think for a second that his players don’t appreciate him for his path, such as quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who said, “Tomsula has been someone that’s been great to me since I’ve been here, never acted any different toward me now than he did when I first got here, which I something I greatly respect about him.”
York did his new coach no favors in a MMQB profile, comparing the Harbaugh-to-Tomsula switch to the Warriors’ hiring of Steve Kerr to replace Mark Jackson. Tomsula, for one, is inheriting a flawed roster, while Kerr knew he was walking into a gold mine.
Jimmy T already is raising eyebrows, such as this weekend, when the Sad, Sod Sob Story reared its ugly divots. Yep, like last year, a Saturday night practice left the Levi’s Stadium field in pieces. Afterward, Tomsula said he would move a Sunday session to the practice fields if his players were in jeopardy of being injured, as Harbaugh did last year. Yet there were the 49ers, practicing in the stadium again, as they are scheduled all week.
“Well, it all lays on me. All 100 percent lays on me there with that decision,” said Tomsula, denying Sunday that Baalke made the call.
Why take the injury risk of practicing on a dangerous field?
“The guys, we are going out there and we are going to practice on the game field,” he said. “We feel like we are in a good spot with the game field. That’s what we are going to do.”
This was Day Two. What possibly could happen the next five months?
At least there will be comic relief.