Jim Tomsula grew up 8 1/2 miles downstream from old Three Rivers Stadium, giving him plenty of opportunities to watch Steelers games, both legitimately and through stealthier means.
“Official or sneak in?” Tomsula said when asked how many games he attended while growing up. “Hey, I can talk about it because that was old Three Rivers. We knew how to sneak into Three Rivers.”
The native son returns on Sunday while doing his best to make the game, his first on the road as the 49ers’ head coach, seem as routine as any other contest. For Tomsula, it’s anything but.
The Steelers were a near religion in Pittsburgh when he was growing up in the 1970s. The steel mills were being dismantled, the local economy was sputtering, and families were struggling. The local club, however, won four Super Bowls from 1975 to 1980 and lifted the city.
“I really did live in a place where football was something that just absolutely galvanized the community,” Tomsula said on KNBR radio during the week.
His beloved Uncle Tic – formally Robert Cloherty – worked as the scoreboard operator at Steelers games for 12 seasons. Cloherty said he’s gathered 21 tickets to Sunday’s game for family that will include Tomsula’s parents and sister as well as aunts and uncles. Another two dozen or so of Tomsula’s buddies and high school teammates will be in the stands, too.
All were raised as Steelers die-hards, but don’t expect any to be waving yellow Terrible Towels.
“Blood is thicker than water,” Cloherty said. “We’ll be rooting for him.”
Tomsula, meanwhile, is trying to make the trip as businesslike and unremarkable as possible. In that way, he’s following the lead of predecessor Jim Harbaugh, who refused to make a big deal – at least to his players – about long trips east and 10 a.m. (PDT) kickoffs. Harbaugh’s 49ers went 11-1 in the Eastern time zone over the last four seasons.
“Been zero talk about it this week,” Tomsula said about the travel challenges.
He said the 49ers will wake up Saturday at the same time they usually rise for practice on the West Coast and they’ll have a team meeting at the same time they would if they were playing at Levi’s Stadium. He has stressed what he refers to as “our parameters” – a 40-second play clock, a field that’s 53 1/3 yards wide and 100 yards long, for example – which are standard wherever the 49ers go.
“I just want to deal with the facts,” he said. “We don’t need to deal with the – what is it? – ‘If ifs and buts were candies and nuts, it would be Christmas throughout the year’? ... I’ve got a couple other analogies, (but) I’ll be in trouble.”
Linebacker Michael Wilhoite said Tomsula had a similar message before the Vikings game on Monday. The 49ers have one of the NFL’s youngest rosters after so many veterans departed in the offseason. Eight rookies played against Minnesota, and two more, running back Mike Davis and wide receiver DeAndrew White, could suit up against Pittsburgh.
Said Wilhoite: “The night before the game, the one thing he mentioned is, ‘This is football. We’ve been playing football a long time. The field is the same. The crowd’s going to be the crowd every game.’ At the end of the day, we’ve got a lot of young guys, a lot of rookies. And the best way to keep them calm is and make them understand is (tell them), ‘This is football. Every one of us can play, and it’s just going out there and doing it.’ ”
Tomsula said he might spend a couple of hours in his mother’s kitchen – it was his grandparents’ house when he was growing up – the day before the game. But there will be no family members inside the team hotel, and he wasn’t even responsible for procuring and dispensing tickets. That was Uncle Tic’s job.
“Yeah, I am from there,” he said. “I love it there. But I am not making that kind of connection on this trip. This is a football game.”