Jim Tomsula is one win away from working a second straight Super Bowl, which is quite a step up from other jobs the San Francisco 49ers defensive line coach has had since embarking on a storybook football career. Tomsula, 45, was a married father of two daughters struggling to make ends meet as a Charleston Southern assistant coach from 1992-95.
So he cleaned Piggly Wiggly parking lots, delivered Post and Courier newspapers and photographed homes for an insurance company while cutting fire wood on the side.
“Whatever I could do to make a buck,” Tomsula said last week in Charlotte amid a joyous 49ers locker room after a 23-10 playoff victory over the Carolina Panthers that put San Francisco in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game in Seattle.
Things got tougher for Tomsula after his departure from CSU. He quickly realized a sales rep job with a food distribution company wasn’t for him and lobbied his way back into college football. While serving as a volunteer assistant coach at his alma mater, Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., Tomsula sent the family to Florida to temporarily live with relatives.
He slept in his car, an old red Cadillac.
Along with the family dog, cat, pet food and litter box.
Salisbury side job: Carpet salesman.
Few NFL coaches have grittier stories than Tomsula, an NFL head coach waiting to happen.
No wonder the 49ers’ defensive linemen love the guy.
“He’s a hard-working, blue-collar guy and a lot of guys in the locker room can relate to him,” defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey said of Tomsula, in his sixth season with the 49ers. “He knows how to put football stuff in life terms that you can understand.”
Bill Blanton witnessed the Tomsula touch two decades ago while observing a CSU practice.
“Jim was an unusual individual,” Blanton, a longtime Goose Creek insurance agency executive, said of the Homestead, Pa., native. “I’ve seen him work his players until they would actually throw up on the field — and then they would get up and hug his neck.”
Blanton helped Tomsula find moonlighting work, for which Tomsula remains grateful.
“I still wear the suits Bill Blanton gave me when I didn’t own a suit,” Tomsula said. “He gave me suits so I could put a suit on.”
Both of Jim and Julie Tomsula’s daughters, Britney and Brooke, were born in Charleston (they also have a 6-year-old son, James Bear). They lived in Summerville near the YMCA.
“This group of guys I’m coaching with the 49ers, they’re a great group,” Tomsula said. “They work so hard. I learn more from them than they learn from me. They’re just superb dudes.
“But you know what? It was great coaching those kids at Charleston Southern, too. Coaching is coaching. It was just awesome at Charleston Southern, and Charleston itself is such a great place.”
Head coach potential
The big break came when Tomsula was at Catawba and landed a summer job coaching with the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe. He served for one season as head coach, going 6-4, and made lots of NFL contacts.
The next big break seems imminent. Tomsula reportedly interviewed for the head coach job with the Minnesota Vikings last Saturday in Charlotte (he declined comment). Though the Vikings eventually hired Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, it was an extraordinary opportunity for someone who has never been an NFL coordinator.
But Tomsula has been an interim NFL head coach. He led the 49ers to a 38-7 victory over Arizona in the 2010 regular-season finale just after the team fired Mike Singletary. Defensive end Justin Smith provided the post-game Gatorade bath.
Only a few minutes into an interview, incoming 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh knew he would retain Tomsula on the new coaching staff.
“Defensive line is the one area of our team I never have to worry about,” Harbaugh said.
Tomsula is the prototype “player’s coach.” He has a riveting glare. He sort of growls when he talks. Tomsula’s hair is slicked back. He is no slave to fashion, and didn’t shower before the press conference at which the 49ers introduced him as interim head coach (because he worked all night at the practice facility).
He tracks action from the sideline like a wolf seeking prey. In short, Tomsula looks like the work-a-day fan given a special access pass.
But Tomsula helped build this city, an NFL power by the Bay with a penchant for defense and pressure.
Bring on Seattle
Twice against the Panthers in the second quarter, the 49ers stuffed Carolina with goal-line stands. They stopped quarterback Cam Newton for no gain on fourth-and-goal at the 1 and forced a field goal after fullback Mike Tolbert ran for a first down at the 49ers 7.
“We had our backs against the wall,” Dorsey said. “But we perform better like that. In games like this, you want it to come down to your defense. As a defense you want to hold them to nothing, so we always play angry.”
It’s a reflection of Tomsula, who is part Mike Ditka and Bill Parcells, part mother hen.
“He’s real fun,” said Dorsey, a former LSU star in his first season with the 49ers. “He brings a lot of enthusiasm to the game, and a lot of wisdom. He works well with us and we respond well.”
Tomsula, typical for him, deflected praise.
“I might be intense,” he said, glancing over at the defensive linemen, “but you ought to spend five minutes at practice with those guys if you want to see intense.”
Dorsey and Smith are certain Tomsula will become an NFL head coach, and a good one.
“He’s the best D-line coach in the NFL,” Smith said. “Just the way we attack formations on the offensive line. It’s unique, no one else in the league does it the way we do.
“He will make a great head coach. No. 1, he knows what the hell he’s talking about and, No. 2, he has the personality to go with it. A lot of times those don’t always match up.”
Dorsey: “He’d make a great head coach. He’s just a tremendous coach, and he’s helped me a lot, on and off the field.”
Next up for the 49ers’ defense: Notoriously noisy CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks and crafty quarterback Russell Wilson in the NFC Championship Game.
“It’s the playoffs and it’s Seattle and here we go,” Tomsula said with the same enthusiasm he had when he was a Charleston Southern assistant coach cleaning Piggly Wiggly parking lots and delivering newspapers.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff