Jim Tomsula had a lot on his plate when he was the head coach of the Rhein Fire in 2006, including, well, eggs.
The eggs they served in Germany came from free-range chickens. They were healthier and arguably tastier than what typically is served in the United States. But to an American eye, they looked funny, particularly the yolks, which were orange and sometimes even brown.
And that was a problem for players, many of whom were 20-somethings who never had been overseas.
“It wasn’t good or bad, it was just different,” said Tony Wragge, an offensive lineman on that team. “It’s still eggs. I mean, I don’t know what else to say. If I put green eggs and ham down in front of you, would that be something you eat on the first try?”
One of Tomsula’s first triumphs was solving the egg issue. His players woke up one morning and found the familiar fluffy, piping hot, just-like-mom-makes eggs on their plates. They figured their new head coach had flown them in – thousands of them – from the States.
Actually, Tomsula got creative.
He went into the hotel kitchen and showed the chefs how Americans liked their eggs cooked – a bit longer than Germans so that they weren’t as runny. He also recommended using a little food dye during preparation.
“Yellowest eggs you’ve ever seen,” he said. “Same eggs. But now they were the best eggs these guys had ever tasted.”
The story isn’t meant to highlight the new 49ers head coach’s ability in the kitchen, but to note that running an NFL Europe squad – Tomsula’s only previous head-coaching experience – required skills beyond those needed in the NFL.
In Germany, Tomsula had to be part cook, part travel agent. He had to dabble in groundskeeping and even worked part time as an equipment manager.
Before games, he and his assistants would test the field where they were playing, whether it was Hamburg, Cologne or Amsterdam. Then he’d return to the locker room, set up a table, grab a cup of coffee and start rapidly screwing cleats into the soles of shoes as if he was part of a pit crew at the Indy 500.
“Jim was the head coach, the GM, the conductor, the coordinator and probably the psychologist when everybody needed to talk about their problems,” Wragge said.
He began that season in the role of ambassador.
The year before Tomsula took over the team, there had been an ugly incident at a Dusseldorf nightclub called Checkers. Some Fire players got into a brawl with bouncers, leaving three injured, including the team’s 23-year-old tight end, who was admitted to the hospital with a broken cheekbone and later needed plastic surgery.
The sidewalk outside the club was stained with blood. Brass knuckles were found at the scene.
The incident frayed the relationship between the league and the city, and Tomsula traveled there several times in advance of the 2006 season to try to repair the damage.
“I spent a lot of time flying over and walking the altstadt (old town) and stuff like that, giving them a phone number to call if they had any concerns,” Tomsula said. “I met with the Lord Provost, the mayor. It ended up being a fantastic relationship.”
Tomsula also sent a message to his new players when they assembled in Tampa for training camp in the spring.
“He told us, ‘You’re never to set foot (in Checkers), you’re not even allowed to walk by the front door,’” said another offensive lineman on that team, Harvey Dahl. “And there was no issues. No one went there. Everyone obeyed him and didn’t go.”
What NFL Europe needed
Tomsula got his start in NFL Europe in 1998.
He was exactly what league officials were looking for. He was young – 29 – with boundless energy. Better yet, he had been an assistant at tiny Catawba College in North Carolina and was accustomed to working with players who weren’t exactly polished.
NFL Europe was a developmental league that pulled some of its players from places like France, Holland, Germany and Mexico. All were raw, and many didn’t understand English. A coach had to be patient and he needed to know how to communicate.
“If a player was a challenge, Jimmy would always say, ‘Well, that’s just a little bit more work we’ve got to put into the kid,’ ” said Tony Allen, who coached with Tomsula on the England Monarchs in 1998 and who later was in charge of international player development. “He was everything you were looking for in terms of the type of coach for those situations.”
One of those challenges was Tom Tovo, an Englishman of Tongan descent. He was massive, powerful and fast but, Allen said, “one of the shiest guys you could meet.” During an introductory session, coaches had trouble even getting Tovo to stand up and say his name.
Tomsula, who coached defensive linemen, made Tovo his special project. “Jim took it upon himself to train that kid,” Allen said. “And he was one of the best D-linemen in the league at one stage.”
Allen and the other league officials noticed Tomsula had a knack for drawing out and harnessing a player’s unique talent and then applying it to the overall defense. Tomsula’s NFL protégés have cited the same quality.
“So many coaches will show you a tape of, let’s say, Warren Sapp and say, ‘I want you to play like this,’ ” said Marques Douglas, who played under Tomsula with the 49ers. “Jim would never do that. He’d say, ‘Marques, you need to do this on this particular play. I know you’re not 300 pounds. So how you do it is going to be different than the way Isaac Sopoaga plays it.’ ”
Douglas, who played 12 years in the NFL, said Tomsula and Rex Ryan, his defensive-line coach in Baltimore, were his two favorites. Not only were they excellent teachers, they also cared deeply about their players.
“I just identified with a coach who had come up like I came up,” Douglas said. “He wasn’t one of these guys that went to a major college. He was a guy that had to work for everything he got. It made me want to put it on the line for him. Because I saw myself in him.”
In Germany, every member of the team – players, coaches, staffers – lived on a few floors of the same hotel.
Some coaches opted for a room at the end of the hall as far from the commotion as possible. Tomsula chose one in the middle and lived there with his wife, Julie, and their two young daughters. He welcomed visits, had picnic lunches on the floor of his room with players and encouraged them to take advantage of their opportunity by exploring the continent – go to Poland, Paris, Prague! – on their days off.
Tough guy, too
If Tomsula was a teddy bear in the hotel, he was a grizzly during work hours.
After warning players at the Tampa training camp that bad behavior wouldn’t be tolerated, he followed through when, four days after arriving in Germany, he sent one of his players home.
Said Tomsula: “The way I always put it is: ‘There’s the train. We all loaded the train, OK? Somebody’s got to be the conductor. If you’re messing up the other passengers, I’ve got to throw you off the train.’ ”
Asked to describe the Rhein Fire’s personality in 2006, Wragge and Dahl independently said, “hard-nosed.” The team began the season 4-0 before sputtering in the middle and finishing 6-4 and in third place of the six-team league.
“We were some tough son of a guns,” Wragge said. “We just were tough, gritty, kick dirt in your face and spit in your eye. The D-line was the same way.”
Dahl, who had a reputation for feisty, salty play in the NFL, called Tomsula a “bad-ass.” When he landed with the St. Louis Rams, he warned his fellow offensive linemen what was coming from San Francisco’s Tomsula-coached defensive line.
“I just knew that going against anyone he coaches it’s going to be an all-day, straight-ahead affair,” Dahl said. “There would be no fancy stuff. You knew they’d be coming right down the middle of you.”
Wragge played for the 49ers from 2005 to 2010. After Wragge’s stint in NFL Europe, then-San Francisco coach Mike Nolan called him to ask about Tomsula. Nolan needed a defensive-line coach and was wondering if the Rhein Fire coach would be a good fit.
“I told him Jim’s an excellent, excellent coach and an excellent person, for that matter,” Wragge said. “He’s got great character, great family man.”
In other words, the guy’s a good egg.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.
JIM TOMSULA AT A GLANCE
Position: 49ers head coach
Born: Homestead, Pa., April 14, 1968
College: Catawba (Salisbury, N.C.), 1990
College coach: Assistant at Catawba (1989, 1997-2005) and Charleston Southern (1992-95)
NFL Europe coach: Assistant for England Monarchs (1998), Scottish Claymores (1999-2003) and Berlin Thunder (2004-05); head coach for Rhein Fire (2006, 6-4 record)
NFL coach: Defensive-line coach for 49ers (2007-2014); interim head coach for one game for 49ers (2010 season, 1-0 record)
Personal: Lives in San Jose; married to Julie; daughters Britney and Brooke; son James Bear