The man who once called himself “Jim Nobody from Nowhere” suddenly is a somebody in NFL circles.
The 49ers on Wednesday made the unprecedented move of hiring a defensive-line coach, Jim Tomsula, as their new coach. Tomsula, who has coached the 49ers’ defensive line since 2007, beat out hot, young candidates like Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase, well-known candidates like Mike Shanahan and worthy candidates like 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Tomsula, 46, perhaps should be called the charisma candidate. The Pittsburgh native has a super-size personality and charm that won over players and the 49ers’ top officials, who have been quietly touting him as a possibility for years.
“To me, it doesn’t matter what kind of personality you have as long as it’s real,” linebacker Dan Skuta said. “His personality is 100 percent real. He’s an easy guy to talk to, an easy guy to relate to. He’s not being fake when he’s like that. That’s really how it is.”
Wednesday began with a call from general manager Trent Baalke to Gase, with whom he had an hours-long meeting a day earlier in Denver. The interest in Gase, however, now appears to have been a smoke screen, and by 2 p.m, the 49ers had moved on to Tomsula.
“We have had the privilege of working alongside Jim for the past eight seasons,” Baalke said in a statement. “He is a proven leader, teacher and mentor, and we look forward to seeing him apply his craft and vision to our team.”
Part of Tomsula’s appeal is his rags-to-riches story.
He spent a portion of the 1990s living out of his car as he worked as an unpaid assistant coach for his alma mater, Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. He worked as a janitor and delivered newspapers to help ends meet when he and his growing family – he has two daughters and a son – were living in South Carolina.
He got his start as a professional coach not in the NFL but in NFL Europe, working as an assistant on teams in London, Edinburgh and Berlin before becoming head coach – at age 38 – of the Rhein Fire.
In the final game of the 2010 season, Tomsula served as the 49ers’ interim coach after the team fired Mike Singletary. The 49ers beat Arizona 38-7, and Tomsula was doused with Gatorade by defensive linemen Justin Smith and Ray McDonald.
Five days later, the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh.
In many ways, Tomsula is the antithesis of Harbaugh, whose abrasive style wore on the 49ers’ top officials and served as a backdrop for the tension-filled 2014 season. Whereas Harbaugh could be cold and distant, Tomsula exudes warmth.
“He’ll be the same way, but I just think he has a pretty good feel for the locker room,” wide receiver Anquan Boldin told SI.com when asked about difference between Tomsula and Harbaugh. “Not saying coach Harbaugh didn’t. I don’t think coach Tomsula will be as tough as coach Harbaugh was.”
In announcing the move, CEO Jed York used a lot of the same language – “teacher” and “winning with class” – he and Baalke used heavily the day after the team parted ways with Harbaugh on Dec. 28. At the time, York said the team had far too many off-the-field incidents in recent years.
“After conducting a thorough coaching search, and meeting with a number of outstanding candidates, Jim Tomsula clearly is the right man to lead this team,” York said in a statement . “Jim is a great teacher and a tremendous mentor who conducts himself with great class and integrity.”
Even the search process was decidedly different than it was four years ago with Harbaugh. Whereas that process took only five days as several teams raced to land Harbaugh, this one took 17 days as the 49ers interviewed at least eight candidates and did extensive research on each.
For example, the 49ers interviewed quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Tim Tebow, both of whom had been mentored by Gase during their careers, as part of their background check on the Broncos’ offensive coordinator.
Still, they always had Tomsula in mind as the potential head coach in the same way the 49ers conducted a general manager search in 2011 but ended up going with the in-house candidate, Baalke.
Tomsula’s promotion means he leapfrogged Fangio, whose 49ers defenses have ranked in the top five in each of the past four seasons, and it likely will lead to Fangio leaving for another defensive coordinator job. It’s not known whether secondary coach Ed Donatell, who is under contract for 2015, will be retained.
Tomsula could hire former Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver to run his defense. The two spent four years together on the 49ers’ staff. It’s not yet known whom Tomsula might tap to be the offensive coordinator.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.