Gallagher column: Coaching in the Super Bowl? No sweat for Tomsula

  • Posted: Saturday, February 2, 2013 11:57 p.m.
Former Catawba player and coach Jim Tomsula will coach in tonight's Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers, who take on the Baltimore Ravens. Photo by Jon C. Lakey, Salisbury Post.
Former Catawba player and coach Jim Tomsula will coach in tonight's Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers, who take on the Baltimore Ravens. Photo by Jon C. Lakey, Salisbury Post.

Jim Tomsula didn’t return a call to the Salisbury Post this week. It’s OK. I’m guessing he was probably a tad busy.

As defensive line coach for the San Francisco 49ers, there’s today’s Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens to think about.


“He don’t wanna talk to nobody,” drawled his former head coach, David Bennett. “He doesn’t like that stuff.”

In Salisbury, we remember Tomsula as a sweaty, hard-working, lover of football coaching at Catawba, a man so unassuming, so glad to be out of the spotlight, he would always turn the attention away from himself and say focus on the players.

That’s why I’m wondering how he handled Super Bowl Media Day earlier this week.

Bob Lancaster, a good friend of Tomsula and an assistant for him in NFL Europe, has a good idea.

“He probably went out there trying to look good and ended up a sweaty mess,” Lancaster said. “He’ll take the garbage out to the curb and come back sweating.”

We look at Tomsula’s journey as living a fantasy world. How he made it to this point is nothing short of a dream come true.

After his playing days ended at Catawba due to a knee injury in 1988, he didn’t stay in coaching. By the mid-90s’ most of us would have loved to be living his life, making some good money selling medical supplies, providing for a sweet wife and two daughters.

He was making $160,000, driving a Mercedes. His wife was driving a Cadillac.

“And he was miserable,” Bennett said.

Plain and simple, Jim Tomsula wanted to coach football. That was evident when he attended the 1996 Catawba spring game.

“He told me, ‘I would just love to come back to my alma mater and coach. Will you hire me?’ ” Bennett recalled.

Bennett ain’t stupid. He saw a little of himself in Tomsula, a guy who would coach his butt off and not think about how big — or small — the paycheck was going to be.

He got a job selling rugs for $25,000 a year and coached in the afternoon. It came out to about $731 a month. Ugh.

“It would be 3 p.m. and he’d come in and rip off that tie and say, ‘This is where I feel my best,’ ” Bennett said.

Tom Childress helped him find a house. Wife Julie was all in.

Not everyone was.

“His dad wouldn’t even talk to him,” Bennett can chuckle now. “He said he was selfish. He had a family to provide for.”

Tomsula was on the right path. His career was going to be football and he helped Catawba go on an unbelievable run that put the tiny college in the national spotlight while hosting playoff games. He nurtured a group that became as good a defensive front as there was in Division II football.

Defensive coordinator Richard Kent then got Tomsula’s foot in the door of NFL Europe.

Suddenly, Tomsula, Julie and the kids were spending summers in Germany, Scotland and England.

That’s where Lancaster, a Catawba assistant through last season, remembers seeing Tomsula’s motivational skills with the Rhein Fire. He was the youngest head coach in NFL Europe history at 38.

“The players and staff would run through a wall for him,” Lancaster said. “I know I would. He got everybody to believe.”

NFL Europe training camp was in Tampa, Fla., and in 2006, Lancaster remembers a certain meeting with the NFL brass.

Art Shell was in the room and a cell phone went off. Everyone looked at each other, wondering who would be dumb enough to have his phone on.

It was Shell’s. He was offered the head job in Oakland. Later, Lancaster was told by Tomsula their team meeting might have to wait because he was driving Art Shell to the airport.

“I asked, ‘Why are you driving him to the airport?’ ” Lancaster said. “He said, ‘I think he’s going to offer me a job.’ ”

Shell did and Tomsula turned him down. Oakland came back with a better offer and Tomsula turned it down again.

“But he was on the NFL radar,” Lancaster said.

Tomsula didn’t turn down 49ers coach Mike Nolan six years ago. And San Francisco has had one of the best defenses since. For example, during the first 14 games of the 2011 season, the 49ers allowed just three rushing touchdowns, the lowest total since the 16-game schedule started back in 1978.

Mike Singletary replaced Nolan and who can forget the play where Tomsula appeared behind Singletary, urging him to throw the challenge flag.

That made all the national TV highlights.

And who can forget when Tomsula was named 49ers interim coach in 2010 when Singletary was fired? In the Associated Press photos, Tomsula looked like he was sweating when he met the media. He was.

“You know what he did when they made him interim coach?” Bennett said. “He spent the night in his office all week. He wanted to make them proud.”

He sure has made Salisbury and Catawba proud. You can ask Tomsula where he became a man and he’ll say right here.

“Jim will tell you he owes Bill Mauldin,” Bennett said of the Catawba head man from 1987-90. “Jim was very mischevious. Nothing too bad.”

But bad enough to have Mauldin getting in his ear at 6 a.m., making him run.

“Jim said Mauldin was up in his face so close he could smell his coffee breath,” Bennett laughed. “He’d say, ‘You gonna do what’s right, boy, or am I gonna have to run you off?’ Bill Mauldin changed him.”

Today, you can bet those memories will be somewhere in the back of Tomsula’s mind as he takes the field in New Orleans against the Ravens. Julie and the two daughters have been joined by a son, appropriately named “Bear,” and they’ll cheer on Dad. Turns out, he knew what he was doing all along when he took that $135,000 pay cut to coach football.

“You know why he’ll be a good NFL head coach?” Bennett mused. “To provide for his family. If he can go from $400,000 to $4 million, he’ll do it for them.”

For at least six hours in the Superdome, Tomsula won’t have to deal with the media, instead focusing on what he does best.

And when Jim Tomsula is coaching football?

No sweat.

Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 704-797-4287 or rgallagher@salisburypost.com.

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