Jim Tomsula

Jed York gets his guy (four years later): Jim Tomsula, new 49ers head coach

Hey, it could work. The 49ers aren’t an expansion team, and Jim Tomsula has coached for a long time. Maybe he just needed a big break.

And if you’re Jed York, and you KNOW this guy would be amazing at this job, and Trent Baalke agrees that Tomsula could become one of the best head coaches in the NFL, then this makes sense. If York and Baalke provide results, they owe us nothing else. And by “us” I mean everybody — fans, media, 49ers players. That’s their right, as York’s mother owns the team and Baalke put in the work to be where he is, and as much as we joke about transparency (or lack thereof), transparency is irrelevant to most if the season ends with the franchise’s sixth silver trophy.

We’re not naive. It’s not as if York and Baalke were going to tell us, “Hey, we already know who we’re going to hire, and his name is Jim Tomsula. You may know him as the guy we liked better than Jim Harbaugh several months ago. Anyway, we’re going to chat with some competing coaches about our team in an ‘interview’ setting and satisfy our Rooney Rule requirement, because why the hell not? Nowhere does it say that we have to find a new head coach within 36 hours of firing the last one, regardless of how many games that guy may have won.”

If I was in York’s spot and I just knew that a guy I truly liked could be the next Lombardi, and he was under my roof and I had the chance to propel him toward the football heavens, I’d probably make the same decision. Why not take advantage of the interview process — even if it was probably a charade from start to finish — and get as much intel as possible?

If you win, you can do as you please. And Tomsula may very well win a lot of games. York definitely thought so, according to Tim Kawakami.

York indicated to people in the building as far back as last summer that he was pretty sure Tomsula could win more games than Harbaugh.

I’ve heard, coincidentally, that Harbaugh got wind of that management sentiment and he and Tomsula barely spoke in the last several weeks of Harbaugh’s’ tenure here.

Maybe he’ll even get to the playoffs and win more games in January or February than Harbaugh. Maybe the 49ers will listen to Tim Ryan’s constant references to how they could easily cut Colin Kaepernick before next season. Anything is possible in the NFL, certainly in Santa Clara.

But there’s some silliness and skepticism we need to fight through before this Tomsula hire is hunky dory, like any standard free agent acquisition that doesn’t kill the cap. Let’s talk this out, shall we?

The stuff with the coaching staff seems weird. 

So the front office was so upset with what was going on during the previous coaching regime that a fullscale “housecleaning” was in order. Goodbye, Jim Harbaugh. Peace out, Greg Roman. Later, Vic Fangio. Adios, just about every other assistant besides Tom Rathman, including guys who routinely made gourmet meals with leftovers (I’m looking at you, Ed Donatell). But Tomsula was the one guy who was so AMAZING, the one guy they had to keep, the one guy who predated the others and built up enough trust to stick around. Rathman and Solari predate Harbaugh as well, so maybe that’s why Rathman is reportedly going to stay and Solari’s exit isn’t a done deal just yet — although that could change any minute.

Hmmm … how did Tomsula bridge the eras between Nolan and Harbaugh, and remain on the staff after coaching a game as interim head coach?

(It was weird at the time when he was named head coach in Week 17 of 2010, but the team was so mediocre that anything halfway interesting was welcomed wholeheartedly by fans and media alike back in 2010.)

We don’t know if Tomsula will do whatever York says, but picture how you’d feel if you were someone like Donatell. Or Jim Leavitt. Or Fangio. Imagine the stories those guys are telling off the record right now about Tomsula, and the reasons why they think York likes him so gosh-danged much.

With Tomsula, we’re left with no other options besides guessing and trusting. 

Tomsula could be great. But other than blind allegiance to the colors, what concrete information do we have that proves Tomsula has a better-than-average chance to succeed in this new role? Other than trusting that York knows what he’s doing, or Baalke just really loves some assistant coach who’s been around longer than he has, there’s not much else to go on, here. We don’t know Tomsula’s defensive, offensive or special teams philosophies, or what he thinks of Kaepernick. We also don’t know if Tomsula was a cheap hire, or a yes-sir hire.

We do know that some people are waiting to see if he grabs Marc Trestman or some other well-known coach before even throwing out an opinion.

We can assume all we want about Tomsula, but we know this for certain: If a team hires a great head coach, no one cares a bit about what assistants the guy might hire.

A great head coach possesses a mind that can adapt. If his No. 1 choice isn’t attainable, he’ll land some other football genius who shares many of the same philosophies. Tomsula is a blank canvas.

What’s Tomsula’s “football philosophy,” to borrow one of York’s reasons for letting Harbaugh go? Play for each other, work hard, speak passionately and hit people really hard on Sundays? That’s not a horrible philosophy, by the way — it’s one that can probably win at least eight games with a talented roster and decent play-calling. But is it enough reason to blow the whole thing up?

It appears that Baalke either has a major hand in putting together “Tomsula’s” staff, or he’s 100% in charge. We often hear how coaches can’t handle personnel duties; can general managers handle the task of deciding an entire staff without undermining the entire operation in some way? Getting a good staff is what matters most, but Tomsula’s sway in that locker room and with his coaches depends a lot on how this process goes.

We know Tomsula can lead in one particular way: he’s a good spokesperson (translation: he can talk … and talk). He’s going to provide more quotes during the preseason than Harbaugh did in his entire first year on the job. And the 49ers were surely tired of hearing complaints about Harbaugh’s press conference demeanor, or Kaepernick’s (which was always tied to Harbaugh). But media loquaciousness doesn’t go particularly far with players. And speaking of players …

What exactly has Tomsula done? 

Bryant Young was at the end of a phenomenal career when Tomsula started in 2007. Justin Smith was already an incredible player when the 49ers signed him away from Cincinnati in 2008. So Tomsula’s best work was with Aubrayo Franklin, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald. There’s a long list of serviceable players who came in without strong reputations who contributed (Ian Williams and Tony Jerod-Eddie come to mind), and we don’t know how many players’ lives Tomsula has touched, but it’s not readily clear that Tomsula is a magician when it comes to strategy.

Jed York won’t let go of those meaningless keywords.

From the 49ers’ statement on the Tomsula hire:

“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,” said 49ers CEO Jed York. “Jim is a great teacher and a tremendous mentor who conducts himself with great class and integrity.”

Since “class” is a word people use to put down those they don’t agree with, the fact York keeps using it when describing what he wanted in a head coach and what he got in Tomula is telling. It says he didn’t like what Harbaugh was doing, and Tomsula is the opposite of what Harbaugh represents.

What is “class” in a football context, anyway? Is Tomsula going to write flattering haikus about opposing coaches who happen to beat his 49ers? Will gift baskets be involved somehow? Everyone has their own words or phrases they wish were eradicated from sports — I’d put “class” at the top of my list, along with “talk about” (as a way for reporters to begin “questions”).

While York has entrusted Baalke with a lot of the logistical details, hiring Tomsula was ultimately York’s decision. A lot of people more cynical than myself (which is hard to pull off) think York hired Harbaugh to get the stadium built. I believe it’s a little more innocent than that.

I think York’s mind repeatedly drifted back to that last game in 2010, with Tomsula gleefully bouncing around the sideline and a previously downtrodden team winning (a meaningless game) with ease. Tomsula left his ego behind (there’s some of that “class”) when Harbaugh was hired, dutifully returning to an assistant coaching position. With every loss, every new Harbaugh flaw that was exposed, York may have gotten more and more wistful, looking forward to the day when he could reward Tomsula with a chance to prove that he could steer Baalke’s ship better than Harbaugh.

And that brings us to the main worry: York isn’t a football guy. He’s a business guy with means, who insists on including another non-football guy (Paraag Marathe) throughout the interview process. And since Tomsula predates Baalke, and Harbaugh was jettisoned in part because York didn’t feel like keeping him around, it’s hard not to wonder if Tomsula is a York hunch, a personality the 49ers CEO has seen in person enough to convince the him that Tomsula is strong enough to lead a team through sheer force of will.

That sounds a bit like Mike Singletary, who was given the benefit of the doubt by nearly everybody upon his promotion to 49ers head coach. That’s not to say that Tomsula isn’t a better, more experienced coach than Singletary. However, Tomsula won’t even get that same benefit of the doubt due to the clumsy fashion in which York and Baalke gave him this job.

I wrote yesterday about the “Five Stages of Gase,” and pretty soon 49ers fans will come to the same sort of “acceptance” I mentioned there, only for different reasons. Tomsula is probably going to “win” today’s press conference, and that will lead to a sizable contingent of the “faithful” supporting Tomsula, York and especially Baalke — a GM who is considered a genius by some, and a capable-yet-flawed personnel guy by others (including yours truly).

The supporters will point to Tomsula’s affable personality and willingness to work his way up the chain. Even the most strident York-basher has to admit, Tomsula’s personal story (working multiple jobs, coaching in NFL Europe) is pretty great. It’s easy to see why York and Baalke made this decision (money probably had something to do with it, too), but it’s more difficult to envision how Tomsula is going to fulfill York’s promise: “We don’t raise division championships banners. We don’t raise NFC Championship banners. We raise Super Bowl banners.” It could work, and York and Baalke hold the positions in the 49ers hierarchy that allow themselves to put their necks on the line (well, Baalke’s neck is on the line, anyway). But football seems to be a brutal business where success has nothing to do with class and hunches. Maybe Tomsula will prove me (and many others) wrong on that one.

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