Jim Tomsula’s first press conference as San Francisco 49ers head coach was anything but a hit. He was a far cry – actually not a cry but a grunt – from his predecessor. Jim Harbaugh was known for pithy sound bites like “Losing is not an option.”
The ever-entertaining and supremely self-confident Harbaugh would gobble like a turkey and make references to Abe Lincoln, and he didn’t hesitate to call out 49ers fans or opposing coaches who annoyed him. He was controversial throughout his four years with the Niners, and if there’s one thing journalists love it’s controversy.
Needless to say, Bay Area sports reporters are having trouble adjusting to Tomsula as they chew over the morsels he served at his inaugural presser: “I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t NOT say that. . . . It takes a village. I believe no man does it by himself.”
Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports wrote: “Tomsula says so little that in some cases he doesn’t actually form words, simply breathing heavily into the microphone.”
Tomsula’s role model must be Bill Belichick. When he was asked early in the season if he might replace Tom Brady, the New England coach responded with only a grunt.
That particular question deserved nothing more, but even intelligent inquiries are routinely dismissed by Belichick, who believes one of the duties of a head coach is to withhold any information that might be useful to another team.
His injury reports are among his most beguiling misdirection plays.
Mike Florio of NBC Sports: “Tomsula probably won’t be doing many one on one interviews. Unless and until he gets some of whatever training or advice it was that transformed quarterback Colin Kaepernick from annoyed robot to upbeat chatterbox.”
Which brings up another disquieting matter: Tomsula sounded oblivious to the regression of Kaepernick, whose passer ratings declined each of the past two seasons. One of Harbaugh’s mistakes was calling Kaepernick “great” when clearly he was very average. Kaepernick apparently became self-satisfied, happy to be a celebrity and slacking off on his work regimen.
Tomsula, the elevated defensive-line coach, seems to be repeating the Harbaugh error, as he says of the erratic QB, “We want to help him keep getting better.”
You have to wonder how much Kaepernick will improve with his coaches telling him he’s getting better when he’s not. What sort of mixed message is this?
Successful coaches are authentic and consistent. Few can get away with inscrutable, like Belichick, who was more forthcoming in his earlier years of coaching. I enjoyed a one-on-one with him in his first season with the Cleveland Browns. As a rookie head coach in the NFL, Belichick behaved far differently from the way Tomsula has, so far.
Belichick is standoffish now because he can get away with it, headed for his sixth Super Bowl (Feb. 1, Glendale, AZ, vs. Seattle) and having won three of them.
The media – including, now, social media — are necessary to build and maintain any team’s fan base. Especially in San Francisco, traditionally a sophisticated, tuned-in city. In the 1960s it had three daily newspapers, and talk radio was already hugely popular there, years ahead of its time.
Trying to recover from his much panned press conference, Tomsula appeared on local radio last week. Asked about his communication problem, he told KNBR’s Tom Tolbert: “Hopefully I’ll get better at it.”
It’s not happening yet. Tomsula sees a third rail lurking behind every question. Asked if he intends to correct the team’s persistent problem of delay of game and hasty timeouts to avoid penalties for it, the coach said, “I’m not touching that.”
When Tolbert wanted to know what qualities he’s seeking in his assistant coaches, Tomsula acted as if he’d been asked for the combination to his bedroom safe. “I’m obviously not going to get into that,” he said.
To which the frustrated radio host exclaimed: “Oh, for crying out loud.”
OK, enough about media relations. There’s much more to coaching than that.
The thing is, Tomsula’s resume doesn’t scream, “Head Coach Material.” As he says himself, “I’m Jim Nobody from Nowhere.”
Indeed, few head coaches are more hardscrabble than the 46-year-old Tomsula. He swept parking lots and sold carpets before becoming a $9,000-a-year assistant coach at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., where he lived in his car. His cat Cali and dog Harley slept in the back seat, next to his suits hanging by the window (say this for him: he dresses better than Harbaugh). Tomsula’s wife Julie and their kids stayed with her family in Florida until he could afford an apartment near Catawba, his alma mater.
Tomsula has never been a head coach in the NFL or NCAA. He’s never been an offensive or defensive coordinator. But he did serve as interim coach of the 49ers when Mike Singletary was fired with one game left in the 2010 season. Tomsula coached the fractured team to a 38-7 win over Arizona. Even then, he stood out as a unifier — something the 49ers need now more than ever.
Harbaugh motivates, quite successfully (three NFC title games in four years), through tension, an us-against-them dynamic. Even if “them” includes the refs or the athletics director or the general manager.
Tomsula is not so much a group motivator. He works the individual. NFL films show him in the face of pass rusher Aldon Smith. The coach screams, “We play cold, buddy! Coooold-blooded. You got that?” Then he breaks into a smile.
He constantly seeks player input. “I firmly believe a coach works for the players,” he said, in a rare incisive quote.
He appears to be what 49ers owner Jed York was seeking: “a teacher – like Bill Walsh.”
Builder of quarterbacks and Super Bowl champions, Walsh would scoff at coaches who say “you can’t change their throwing motion.” He remade the mechanics of every quarterback, even Hall of Famers named Montana and Young. York thought of Walsh when he saw Tomsula grappling with his linemen to demonstrate technique.
Promising to share power with the players as well as with GM Trent Baalke (which Harbaugh hated to do), Tomsula could make everyone happy except the media.
Still, you have to wonder if he can build fan support, reconstruct Kaepernick and win with several stars nearing retirement (Justin Smith, Anquan Boldin, Frank Gore) and young, talented cornerbacks (Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox) entering free agency.
He may have to be another Bill Walsh, indeed.