Jim Tomsula endured trial by Fire

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Sure, NFL Europe was a developmental league, a place for the coulda, woulda, shouldas to show their wares and hope to shine enough to get noticed and earn a shot at the big time.

That was the job description. That was the goal.

But the experience was more than that for those associated with the Rhein Fire in 2006. The guy coaching the Fire, Jim Tomsula, made sure of it.

Homesick players? Tomsula went into the kitchen and became Guy Fieri.

"Food in Germany was much more bland," Drew Henson, one of Tomsula's quarterbacks with the Fire, recalled with a laugh. "So he added stuff to remind guys of home."

Players stressing about this league being their last shot? Tomsula summoned his inner Tony Robbins.

"He kept things in perspective," said Timmy Chang, the record-setting college gunslinger from Hawaii who split time under center with Henson. "Football is one thing, but he's a family man, too. He kept his priorities in order, and when it came to game time, we left everything on the field. He instilled that in us."

Players numbed by the foreign grind? Tomsula morphed into Julie McCoy, your cruise director.

"He tried to keep things fun while making it a cultural experience, a life experience," Henson added. "When we went to Berlin, we visited Checkpoint Charlie and he made sure we went to the Brandenburg Gate because it was all a cultural experience. His personality and enthusiasm got those guys through it and made it a good experience."

Reality check

Talk to anyone who has spent any quality time around the San Francisco 49ers' new head coach and you'll hear the same refrain -- that Tomsula is "real."

But talk to any 49ers fan in the aftermath of Tomsula's rambling, unfocused introductory news conference in mid-January and you'll hear that Tomsula was "real" all right. Real bad.

But sitting in the coaches' dressing room at Levi's Stadium an hour or so afterward, with just a handful of reporters and no bright lights or cameras, Tomsula was at ease. Check that, he was comfortable as he kicked back and took swigs from his water bottle. Yes, the sweat still beaded on his forehead, but his tie was loosened as his rumpled shirt began to pull up from his trousers. This was home.

He may have been a relative unknown when he was named as Jim Harbaugh's replacement, but Tomsula is respected and even celebrated inside the walls of 4949 Centennial Blvd., the 49ers' headquarters.

Tomsula's coaching career is a profile in perseverance. He not only slept in his Cadillac with his dog and cat as he chased his dream as an unpaid assistant coach, but he also cleaned floors, sold meat and worked at a Piggly Wiggly before establishing himself in his chosen profession.

So how tough is it to reconcile all he's been through with the fact that he is now rocking monogrammed cuff links as the face of one of the more glamorous franchises in the NFL?

"It sounds like it was absolutely horrendous," Tomsula said of his long journey. "It wasn't. It really wasn't. It wasn't horrendous. I mean, there [are] people that have horrendous circumstances and I feel kind of bad, people making comparisons."

The guy lived in his car, with his pets, for six months.

"I mean, I wasn't living in my car in Maine in the winter. I was in North Carolina. ... Listen, I've had an incredible life. I just have."

Odd jobs and a big break

He calls himself "Jim Nobody From Nowhere," but Tomsula, 46, grew up in Pittsburgh. He went to Middle Tennessee State to play on the defensive line before transferring to Division II Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. He suffered knee and hip injuries in 1989, which hastened his jump into coaching.

After a stop at Woodland Hills (Pa.) High, he left the game and worked as a sales rep for a medical equipment company before landing a coaching gig at Charleston Southern, where he worked from 1992 to '95. But even there, and with his family growing, he had to take side jobs to supplement a $9,100 salary.

When he wasn't delivering newspapers for the Charleston Post and Courier, he was working as a night janitor for an insurance agency or cutting firewood.

Then he had another two-year break in his coaching career. He went back to Pittsburgh and cleaned floors at a department store and then became a sales rep for Cisco Foods.

But his wife, Julie, sensed her husband was not content, so she urged him to chase his coaching dream again.

So he did, returning to Catawba in 1997 as the unpaid volunteer assistant defensive line coach. He lived out of his red Caddy with his dog, Harley, and cat, Cali, while Julie and their daughters, Britney and Brooke, stayed with family in Florida.

Oh, and to survive financially, since he was not getting paid to coach, Tomsula sold doormats.

He did not, though, lie down for anyone. His hard work paid off with an out-of-the-blue call from Lionel Taylor, the head coach of NFL Europe's London Monarchs, in 1998. Taylor asked Tomsula if he'd join him in England as his defensive line coach.

Tomsula moved to the Scottish Claymores a year later and worked as their defensive line coach until becoming the defensive coordinator for the Berlin Thunder in 2004.

With NFL Europe maintaining a spring schedule, Tomsula would return each fall to coach at Catawba before he became the youngest head coach in NFL Europe history, taking over the Rhein Fire at the age of 38 in 2006.

About more than football

The different skill sets and personalities of his two quarterbacks -- Henson and Chang -- challenged Tomsula.

"Complete opposites," Tomsula laughed. "Drew was the straitlaced, serious one with the perfect technique. Timmy, he'd get out there and sling it."

Tomsula demonstrated, in the 49ers' locker room, Chang's unorthodox delivery.

"Timmy threw an interception in Frankfurt and he's just running back, smiling and saying, 'Get that ball back, boys.'"

Tomsula is howling now.

"Have fun," he said, "but that was ridiculous."

"It was competitive but fun," said Chang, who is now the offensive coordinator at Jackson State. "Coach Tomsula's a let-it-loose kind of guy. We just went for it. We could have won the championship that year, but we had some injury issues, especially at the tight end position. We did have [current Buffalo Bills running back] Fred Jackson."

But it was about more than football for Tomsula & Co. Those were formative years for his girls, who are now in their early 20s.

"My daughters learned times tables in elevators in Scotland and Berlin from football players that jumped on the elevator and somebody would yell, 'Six times six,' or somebody else would yell something, 'Sprechen sie Deutsch.'" Tomsula said. "That was football players. We lived with football players for eight, nine years. We lived year after year in a hotel with football players and it was tremendous, it was awesome, it was so special."

The Fire went 6-4 under Tomsula in 2006.

"He's as passionate about guys as he is about X's and O's," Henson said. "It's a tough skill to lead men in an emotional sport."

'A natural leader'

At Michigan, where he shared time with Tom Brady, Henson got to know Bo Schembechler and played for Lloyd Carr. Henson had a cup of coffee with the New York Yankees, playing for Joe Torre, and also played for a spell with the Dallas Cowboys and Bill Parcells.

So where does Tomsula rate with those leaders of men?

"He's right up there," Henson said, without hesitation. "The ability to deal with people and to have them want to follow you, he's right up there ... this is a man that is passionate and a natural leader. He will grow into the role."

Henson said he emulates Tomsula's attention to detail and technique in his current job as a pro scout for the Yankees.

NFL Europe, which began in 1991 as the World League of American Football and ended as NFL Europa, was far from a mom-and-pop operation. But with the number of hats Tomsula had to wear, it was close. Plus, the way Tomsula describes it, being so involved in so many different facets of the game actually prepared him for the task at hand.

That's why he takes offense when critics diminish his first head-coaching gig. He does not care for an "asterisk" to be placed next to that experience, somehow minimizing his work.

"I've coached linebackers," he said. "I ran the special teams for eight or nine years in NFL Europe and in college. I've coached the offensive line. In the international player development, yes, I've actually coached quarterbacks and running backs. I taught people how to hold the ball and run the ball and with which hand to have the ball in and receivers on how to stand and stem and break. I've had to teach all those. That was part of what we did in the NFL Europe.

"I didn't teach John Elway how to throw a football or Joe Montana or Steve Young, but just the mechanics of it and understanding it, I've had my hands on all that. So, [I am] well-rounded, can always go back to the personal relationships, taking information and teaching it to someone, and part of the magic of teaching to me is the pupil."

NFL Europe folded after the 2007 season. But by then, Tomsula was back stateside, in the NFL with the 49ers.

The NFL calls

Another cold call came in 2007, this time from then-49ers head coach Mike Nolan asking Tomsula if he'd care to come coach his defensive line.

Nolan, now the San Diego Chargers' linebackers coach, said he initially interviewed Tomsula in 2005 but went with Gary Emanuel instead. He eventually regretted passing on Tomsula.

"After that first year, I realized I made a mistake," said Nolan, who was first made aware of Tomsula by Lynn Stiles, a football operations guru with the Kansas City Chiefs who had been a 49ers assistant from 1987 to '91. "I tried to correct that error.

"He's extremely high energy. He's a very real person. I needed that."

The proof has been not only in how Tomsula lasted as defensive line coach through the head-coaching tenures of Nolan, Mike Singletary and Harbaugh, but in how his players have performed. Since 2007, only the Baltimore Ravens have allowed fewer yards per rush, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Before being paired with Tomsula, defensive lineman Justin Smith, the No. 4 pick of the 2001 draft, had never been a Pro Bowler. From 2009 to '13, Smith made five straight Pro Bowls under Tomsula, whose elevation to head coach might convince Smith, who is known as The Cowboy, to return for one last ride.

"He's a fiery guy," Smith said. "He's not just a rah-rah guy. There's a lot more to him than that. He knows his stuff so you don't have to yell and just jump around all the time. You can actually talk."

Nolan said he was not surprised Tomsula landed the 49ers' gig and thinks he'll succeed, despite the failed introductory presser.

"He has a great command presence in front of the team," Nolan said. "Players play hard for him. He's a no bulls--- guy. His motives are not selfish."

The way Nolan sees it, general manager Trent Baalke will provide the talented players, the coordinators "will take care of the football" and Tomsula will motivate and rally the troops.

"He's ready for it," Nolan said. "He'll act like a parent for the players. Players want to trust and respect a coach. They don't like to look up there and see a slick guy.

"He has a presence and a realness to him. Jim's not polished, but that's not a criticism. Rather, it's a credit. Public perception is one thing. What players need is another."

Tomsula revels in being real, sans pretenses. And that's why, with Julie, Britney, Brooke and young son Bear in the audience at his introductory news conference, he made sure to mention Joan in payroll, Vilma at the front desk, the "boys downstairs making that great Mexican feast at Christmas," as part of his team-first mentality.

But unless Tomsula at least matches Harbaugh's on-field success and meets CEO Jed York's standards of winning Super Bowls (the 49ers last won a Lombardi trophy 20 years ago) and winning with class (the 49ers led the NFL in arrests the previous two years), eye rolls will ensue with calls to send Tomsula back to Europe, without his passport.

"My journey has taken my family on three continents and nothing has been the norm," he said. "So, I'm used to not normal and I'm very comfortable in not normal."

The gathering laughed.

"I didn't say I was not normal," he said.

Then again, what is normal?