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The Tomsula Effect

Posted Sep 20, 2011

There’s a reason why the longest tenured coach on the San Francisco 49ers coaching staff understands the importance of teamwork. Jim Tomsula, the team’s defensive line coach, has held a number of positions in his 28 seasons of coaching. So it should come as no surprise that Tomsula goes out of his way to show appreciation for everyone around him.  Click here to watch Tomsula's interview.

past four seasons, San Francisco’s defense has allowed just 3.7 yards per carry thanks to the tutelage of respected line coach Jim Tomsula. The 43-year-old former collegiate coach and youngest head coach in NFL Europa history has plenty to share with his players, who will do just about anything for their leader. The unique relationship is largely due to Tomsula’s role in his players’ lives on and off the field. Not only does the coach stress the importance of football techniques, but he emphasizes topics away from the football field, too. In three seasons playing for Tomsula, 49ers defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois can attest to the difference his position coach has on his teammates. Call it, “The Tomsula Effect,” if you will. Jean Francois credits Tomsula for believing in him and giving him a chance to go from a seventh-round pick to a key contributor in the team’s defensive line rotation.

“Every day when I go out on the field,” says Jean Francois, “I want to represent him in the best way. So when you look at me, you’re looking at a reflection of my coach.” The 49ers defensive linemen have represented Tomsula well in his five seasons with the club. Since Tomsula’s arrival, the 49ers have not allowed more than 3.8 yards per carry in any season and currently have a streak of 24-consecutive games of not allowing an individual 100-yard rusher. Hired in 2005 by former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan, Tomsula has proved his importance to the organization, having been retained by coaches Mike Singletary and Jim Harbaugh.

Tomsula, who finished last season as the team’s interim coach for a Week 17 victory over Arizona, is proud to be a part of the 49ers organization. And while he’s pleased to be around the hard-working players in the locker room and in his meeting room, Tomsula equally takes enjoyment from interacting with people throughout team headquarters. “Everybody’s job is so important,” says Tomsula. “When you’re under one roof, it opens up your eyes to all this going on, and all the people that do the things that they do to make that experience when the cameras go on what it is. And that’s not to downplay what the coaches or players do, it’s amazing what the players do, but you have all these people that work together. The team concept is important on the field, but team is from the ownership all the way down. And everybody, everybody, is a part of that team. Most of the teamwork is happening off the field.”

PERHAPS NOBODY appreciates quality collaboration quite like Tomsula. Without the support of Julie, his wife of nearly 20 years, as well as his two daughters and son, Tomsula would never been able to live out his coaching pursuit. But before he started a family, Tomsula was hoping to carve out a football career as a player. Much like the group of men he coaches today, Tomsula was a hard-worker while playing on the defensive line at Middle Tennessee State and lesser-known Catawba College. After transferring to Catawba, a small school in Salisbury, N.C., Tomsula maximized his ability with the right attitude and outlook. “I wasn’t a professional athlete,” jokes Tomsula. “I had to work like crazy to play college football. I had to out-work people to get on the field.” So when it became clear Tomsula wasn’t destined to become a professional football player once he suffered a major knee injury, he turned his sights elsewhere.

Tomsula’s first gig was coaching at Catawba where he served as an assistant with the defensive line and special teams. He even ran the school’s strength and conditioning program. “Coming from Pittsburgh, football is engrained in you,” explains Tomsula. “It’s a way of life… I was afforded that opportunity (to coach) and I loved it, loved every minute of it. But once I graduated, I got out, and got into the business world.”

Tomsula tried his hand at various jobs, some in medical and food sales, and some in construction. He enjoyed masonry work especially, but after time, it couldn’t compare to his time on the football field. So after careful thought, Tomsula went back into coaching. “My wife is really the one who has encouraged me to follow this passion and keep going,” says Tomsula. “As long as I was with my wife, as long as we were on the same page, life was good.”

LIFE GOT even better for the Tomsulas; even though it didn’t take much for them to truly appreciate it. Tomsula landed as job as an assistant at Charleston Southern University from 1992-95, but that didn’t guarantee financial security. So the football coach took on side jobs, as many as four at a time, to make ends meet. Soon after, Tomsula returned to Pittsburgh to hold down multiple jobs again, including one as a sales rep for Sysco Foods. Ultimately, it didn’t give him the same satisfaction as football. So Tomsula, determined to get back into coaching, returned to Catawba in 1997 as a volunteer defensive line coach while selling entrance matting and doing construction work in addition to his coaching responsibilities. “It wasn’t ordinary,” says Tomsula. “But, everybody, no matter what they’re doing or what field they’re in, everyone has their path. My wife and I never saw (ours) as struggles; we were just making our way. Our family was making our way in the world and enjoying life, enjoying every bit of it.”

Tomsula’s hard-working reputation didn’t just stick out in his hometown. It traveled. People outside of the country were aware of the coach’s unique blend of strong instruction and impeccable energy. Namely, former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lionel Taylor, who happened to be the head coach of the NFL’s Europa’s London Monarchs. Taylor wanted Tomsula to be his defensive line coach. At the time, however, Tomsula wasn’t buying Taylor’s interest. “I actually thought someone was messing around with me,” says Tomsula. “Apparently, he knew somebody I had coached against.”

Things soon changed for Tomsula and his family, who quickly made the move across the pond. For Tomsula, coaching was no problem. He knew he could survive in a foreign nation. It was his kids, however, who he was concerned for. How would his two daughters take to such a unique experience? Thankfully for Tomsula, Julie kept the family together and his daughters enlightened and entertained. “My wife took the kids everywhere,” said Tomsula, who went on to vividly recount their trips all over London. “The kids went to international schools and my wife just made it an awesome experience for the girls.”

IT WAS also a successful experience for the aspiring coach. In two seasons as the Monarchs defensive line coach, Tomsula’s teachings were in demand in the former training ground for NFL hopefuls. He went on to coach the defensive linemen for the Scottish Claymores for five seasons and later served as the Berlin Thunder’s defensive coordinator for two seasons before taking over the head coaching position with the Rhein Fire in 2006. Tomsula became the youngest coach in the league’s history by the age of 38.

The international experience caused Tomsula to place an even higher value on the people around him. “The buildings, the culture, the history – that was all wonderful. But the biggest thing was the people,” says Tomsula. “The people you meet along the way. Everybody looks different, talks different, speaks different, but the bottom line is there are good people and bad people. That’s it.”

Tomsula considers himself fortunate to have been around so many of the good people. Longtime Canadian Football League coach Ron Lancaster was one of those people. Lancaster offered Tomsula advice that the 49ers coach keeps with him to this day: Be an enabler. Since then, Tomsula has carried that mantra into his day-to-day activities as a football coach. “Enable people to do the jobs they’ve been hired to do,” says Tomsula. “That’s advice I took really serious.”

A STRONG showing in NFL Europa enabled Tomsula to take the next step in his coaching career. In 2005, Nolan called the up-and-coming line coach to interview for a position in San Francisco. Soon after, Tomsula had the job and brought his family back to the states. Since his hiring, Tomsula has been with the club for five seasons where he’s overseen one of the best defensive lines in pro football. It was a non-traditional career path to the professional ranks, Tomsula admits, but it shaped him to appreciate the destination.

Those challenging experiences aren’t forgotten either. Tomsula continues to share his stories with his players, who find parallels between their struggles to make it professionally. “He shows everybody love. I don’t care who you are, the custodian, PR people, the equipment managers – he’s going to show love to you,” says Jean Francois. “He came up hard and now he’s in a good place, but he keeps it to where he’s still humble and he wants to keep going. That’s what I appreciate.”

But it’s not just life lessons Tomsula offers. He can up coach football players, especially defensive linemen. Justin Smith, the team’s sack leader of 2010 with 8.5, has made two consecutive Pro Bowls under Tomsula’s guidance. And still, Tomsula doesn’t overly take satisfaction from seeing players like Jean Francois and Smith excel. He knows strong line play won’t matter if the scoreboard doesn’t reflect victories. “We’re in a performance-based business and our objective is to win. That’s what this is,” reveals Tomsula, who’s quick to point out that his players are close to taking the next step, the playoffs. “When you talk about good people, hard-working people, guys who put their ego on the shelf and really want to win, and will pay the price to win, they’re here. It’s really exciting.”

If asked, Tomsula could spend hours talking about his love for his players. But in reality, it’s a mutual respect. “We can start talking about the whole roster, but it’s a great group of guys,” continues Tomsula. “You love coming to work with them, you work real hard, they work real hard; everybody respects the hard work.” Tomsula also appreciates the effort of the new coaches on the 49ers staff. With a unique offseason shaping Harbaugh’s first offseason in the NFL, veteran coaches like Tomsula were leaned on to supply information on the current roster. And in constant meetings throughout the offseason the staff came together to prepare for 2011. It was an enjoyable process for Tomsula. After all, in his mind, it all goes back to people.

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