Jed York undoubtedly tired of the feuds, the information leaks, the serial locker room drama in a disappointing season that rubbed the shine off a spiffy new Levi’s Stadium.
So what does he do? On the day the Raiders hire Bay Area native Jack Del Rio, a much sexier candidate with a wealth of NFL playing and head-coaching experience, the 49ers’ CEO runs a misdirection play. He punts on third down. He takes the kinder, gentler approach, opting for 49ers defensive-line coach Jim Tomsula, a familiar figure in the organization who also happens to be its most engaging personality.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio – architect of one of the NFL’s most formidable defenses and a popular choice to be Jim Harbaugh’s successor among the 49ers faithful – received an interview, but he most assuredly has started packing up and heading out the door.
These 49ers-Raiders developments almost sound like newborn twins accidentally switched at the hospital. The Raiders play it safe with Del Rio; the 49ers gamble with Tomsula.
In his statement announcing the unusual decision to promote a defensive-line coach to head coach – dismissing the common move where the lead assistant hops one chair over and onto the hot seat – York seized on the buzz words he has repeated since Harbaugh’s departure.
“Jim is a great teacher and a tremendous mentor who conducts himself with class and integrity,” said a statement by the embattled CEO, whose strained relationship with Harbaugh became an oozing wound that wouldn’t heal. “We have the privilege of working alongside Jim for the past eight seasons. He is a proven leader, teacher and mentor, and we look forward to seeing him apply his craft and vision to our team.”
The moves occurred during a frenetic coaching hiring/firing blitz around the NFL for the past several days: Harbaugh leaves and signs with Michigan. The Jets dump Rex Ryan for Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Doug Marrone opts out of his contract with the Bills, leaving his office keys for Ryan. The Falcons fire Mike Smith, the Bears torch Marc Trestman, and on Monday, Broncos general manager John Elway and John Fox “mutually agree” to part ways.
Of the Bay Area decisions, the Raiders’ is easiest to comprehend. While general manager Reggie McKenzie is thought to have pushed for interim coach Tony Sparano, owner Mark Davis recognized his situation for what it is: His Raiders and their facilities are far down the list of preferred coaching destinations these days.
Davis had no chance of luring Jon Gruden out of the broadcast booth, less chance of outbidding Michigan for Harbaugh, and probably would have represented a hold-my-nose appeal for Fox or Marrone. Yet there it was, almost served on a platter, a homegrown offering in what proved to be a successful pursuit of Del Rio.
The son of Al thus finally landed someone with significant head-coaching chops. A Raiders fan since boyhood, Del Rio, 51, compiled a 68-71 record with the Jaguars (2003 to 2011) that included two postseason appearances..
The 46-year-old Tomsula, as is true of all rookie head coaches, enters the world of the virtual unknown. Moving seat to seat, inches to inches, is rarely a seamless transition. But York’s thinking is transparent. After the internal discord and player delinquency accompanied the team from old Candlestick Park to palatial Levi’s Stadium, the embattled owner wanted (a) someone within the organization who preceded the Harbaugh regime; (b) someone well liked by the media – as if that would prevent future public undressings; (c) someone who deserved a chance and would offer almost daily reminders of how much happier he is without having to hang with Harbaugh; and (d) someone who had been a longtime assistant and probably deserved a head-coaching opportunity.
The listing of all the official criteria? About being a mentor, winning with class and converting the locker room into a classroom?
Those were jabs at Harbaugh, make no mistake. Nowhere in Tomsula’s portfolio does it establish he is credentialed to teach, say, your neighborhood middle school. But his background offers plenty about a man who has donated everything to the coaching cause, at times even a salary.
Tomsula, who often can be seen walking around the locker room after a game with his dress shirt untucked, sweat streaming down his face and generously offering insights and observations, is the common man’s coach. His 28 years of coaching include volunteer assignments and vast experience at all levels, including high school, college, NFL Europe and the NFL. He also worked an assortment of odd jobs, including delivering newspapers and cleaning carpets.
In other words, as York undoubtedly will remind his audience during Thursday’s news conference, his new coach is nothing like his former coach. This makes him smile. Whether his new coach can trump his former coach – and three NFC Championship Games, one Super Bowl appearance and a 49-22-1 record is tough competition – remains to be seen.
But for the moment, perhaps only for the moment, a calmer, less contentious atmosphere makes its debut in Santa Clara.
Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.