SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Things were never as tough as they seemed for Jim Tomsula.
The former salesman, pushing medical equipment, food, carpet, and even newspapers, doesn't look back on those chapters of his life like he overcame great obstacles to get to his new gig coaching one of the pillar franchises of the NFL.
No, not even living in a car with his dog and cat was that bad, he says.
"We’re always laughing, saying, 'the real world.' I’ve done those things," Tomsula told Niners Digest. "That’s why I have a hard time when people try to make it like I was on this strenuous, awful, pay-the-price journey. No, it wasn’t. We had a blast."
When you ask Tomsula about the state of his team that just finished one of the toughest offseasons in recent memory, for any organization, he hits a similar tone.
The 49ers lost key pieces left and right to retirement - Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Chris Borland, Anthony Davis - a slew of others to free agency - Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati - and exiled others for off-the-field transgressions - Ray McDonald, Aldon Smith.
The dominos kept falling at rate of, 'you-gotta-be-kidding-me.'
That, of course, was after the team parted with Tomsula's predecessor, Jim Harbuagh, who, not only was one of the most successful coaches in league history over his first three years, but was also revered by the fan base for turning around an eight-year playoff drought.
"I grew up with, 'falling in the mud, staring at the moon.'" Tomsula said, looking toward a bright white ceiling in his expansive new office. "You want to get to the moon, take a look at the moon, and then bring your eyes back down to what you got to do right now.
"And I’m not a quote guy."
With the 49ers opening their season Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings, Tomsula remains stuck in the mud of the 49ers' offseason until kickoff. Then, he can finally start to get up, clean himself off and start looking skyward with the same outlook that got him to the NFL in the first place.
Tomsula was doing odd jobs in the mid-90s to support his wife, Julie, and two daughters. He did them, taking a hiatus from coaching in 1995 to work for Cisco Foods, because working is what he grew up with before his life in football.
"I come from a home where my father worked three jobs my whole life. He didn’t really like any of them," said Tomsula. "But he worked it out of responsibility for his family. That’s what I grew up looking at."
"I’m not making any money at that time. When I do have free time, it’s not spent with the kids, it’s spent finding another job, or finding something I could go make a couple more bucks with. So, that was the reason for getting out of it."
Then, out of the blue, Tomsula got an offer to coach the defensive line for the England Monarchs of NFL Europe under Lionel Taylor in 1998. That kickstarted a 17-year rise through the professional ranks that led to becoming the head coach of the 49ers.
In contrast to Harbaugh, who spent his adult life competing as an NFL quarterback before becoming a coach, nothing was expected of Tomsula. He was never on the traditional path to coaching at the highest levels. He didn't play in the NFL, get an graduate assistant's job at a Division I program or a coaching internship with an NFL team.
In that sense, without a loaded resume, Tomsula is joining a situation with the 49ers' in which he's used to. The perception of his team might be at an all-time low after this offseason littered with change and loss.
But that doesn't bother him. Nothing was ever expected of him, anyway.
"For me, what other people have expected of me has never really been a big deal. It’s always whatever I expect of myself," Tomsula said. "In terms of perception, that’s a word we’re not allowed to use around here. That’s the 'P-word.'"
That was evident in Tomsula's now-famous introductory press conference in January, when he stumbled and stuttered through his first chance to leave impressions with the fan base and media.
Tomsula, San Francisco's defensive line coach for eight years, never addressed large groups of writers and cameras like that before. But he didn't care about the fallout. He left the caring up to the club's PR point man, Bob Lange.
"(Bob) laughs all the time. 'Your in a bubble.' In the spring, he’d come in, his face is distorted," Tomsula said, "and I’m in here…with the coaches, getting stuff done, we’re having a laugh, we’re working. And he’s telling me, 'You really live in a bubble. You really don’t know. You’re getting crushed.'"
Given the way the last year and change has gone for the 49ers, a bubble was probably needed.
The 49ers went into their first game last season in Dallas amid rumors Harbaugh had already lost the locker room before the team had taken the field. For the rest of the season, there were different iterations floated by different media members, all telling the same story: Harbaugh was on his way out, no matter what.
Ultimately, San Francisco announced Harbaugh's departure minutes after Week 17's win over the Arizona Cardinals, finishing the season 8-8. That record could have been worse considering all that went wrong behind the scenes.
With all the change, the most impotant position on the field remains the same. Colin Kaepernick begins his third full season as starting quarterback, looking to rebound from a year which failed to meet just about everyone's expectations.
"That was a tough year for everybody," Tomsula said. "I understand he’s the quarterback. He’s going to get more of the credit he deserves when we win, he’s going to get more of the crap when we lose. That comes with it. I get that. So does he."
Kaepernick's rocky relationship with the media is no secret. There are times when he can be flat-out dismissive and unapproachable. In other instances, which mostly come in the offseason when things are more relaxed, Kaepernick has no problem smiling and letting his guard down. For many writers' liking, those instances come too few and far between.
"I’m really not too concerned about peoples opinions of what they see or view me as," Kaepernick said last week. "I mean, I was also the black quarterback with tattoos. So, once again, not something that really crosses my mind."
When Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith as the starting back midway through 2012, it didn't come without controversy both inside and outside the organization. Harbaugh's decision to go with the dynamic second-year player over Smith, who led the team to the conference title game the year before, put Kaepernick in a compromising situation.
Kaepernick always looked up to Smith as a mentor and credited him for his development, even after he was traded to Kansas City. But, Kaepernick obviously relished a chance to become a starting quarterback, even if other players in the locker room weren't completely on board.
In the NFL, media attention can go from lukewarm to boiling as quickly as a coach chooses to change the starting quarterback. And that switch to Kaepernick sparked an inflamatory conversation from a select few, which ultimately colored the new quarterback's perception of the media.
"San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick is going to be a big-time NFL quarterback. That must make the guys in San Quentin happy," Sporting News columnist David Whitley wrote in Nov. 2012. "Approximately 98.7 percent of the inmates at California’s state prison have tattoos. I don’t know that as fact, but I’ve watched enough “Lockup” to know it’s close to accurate. I’m also pretty sure less than 1.3 percent of NFL quarterbacks have tattoos. There’s a reason for that."
Kaepernick, who has no history of arrests, took exception. After rushing touchdowns, he began using a celebration where he would kiss his right arm as an homage to his tattoos, which are mostly faith based.
It hasn't taken long for Tomsula to relate to his quarterback in that way, now that he's front and center as head coach, with outsiders questioning if he's the right man for the job after Harbaugh's run.
"Quite frankly, a lot of the things people say and write and do, are from the perception angle, but not from the reality angle. And we really can’t concern ourselves with that," Tomsula said. "But then what happens to is it can put an edge on you. You don’t want to share, you don’t want to talk."
"During this whole process, people attacked my integrity. They were in the media...What am I going to do? I just assume say, 'to hell with everybody,' and just do my job. That’s fine, but I can’t. Well, that’s just where we gotta go. That’s what makes things harder on the outside with everything that’s gone on."
That's the difference between Tomsula's past and his immediate future as an NFL head coach. The microscope of a head coaching job is far different from coaching the defensive line, where it's easy to fly under the radar and avoid all that comes with blame distribution when you lose, and getting all the credit when you win.
Tomsula would love to turn around the conversation and start things off with a win in Monday night's season opener, or continue to find himself stuck in the mud.
He might be the right man for the job, because no one expected anything of him anyway. And now, he's here.
Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
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