Catawba alum Jim Tomsula’s path to becoming coach of NFL’s 49ers started in Carolinas

Jim Tomsula, who worked a series of odd jobs trying to break into football coaching, landed one of the biggest jobs in the business Thursday when he was introduced as the San Francisco 49ers’ coach.

The announcement marked the pinnacle of an unusual coaching-ladder climb that included stops at Charleston Southern and Catawba, where Tomsula briefly lived out of his car and sold carpet after returning to his alma mater as a volunteer assistant in 1997.

Tomsula stayed at the Division II school in Salisbury through 2005, spending the fall and winter at Catawba and coaching in NFL Europe during the spring. The NFL Europe experience led to a position in 2007 with the 49ers, who promoted him from defensive line coach to take over for Jim Harbaugh.

Tomsula’s passion for coaching – and his willingness to sacrifice a good-paying job to get back into it – left an impression on his former Catawba coach.

David Bennett said after the Indians’ spring game in 1997, Tomsula showed up on campus with his wife, Julie, and their children pleading for a coaching position – salary optional.

“I said, ‘We don’t have any money,’ ” Bennett said Thursday. “He said, ‘I’ll find a (second) job if you just let me coach at my alma mater.’ ”

“He was driving a Mercedes. Julie was driving a Cadillac,” Bennett added. “He told his daddy he wanted to get back in coaching. He said, ‘You’re crazy.’ I don’t think he talked to his daddy for a whole year.”

Tomsula, 46, spent about a year as a sales rep for a food distributor before returning to Catawba, where he had graduated in 1990 after transferring from Middle Tennessee State. He was a defensive lineman at Catawba before a knee injury ended his career.

Tomsula, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh, also held a number of part-time jobs when he coached at Charleston Southern in 1992-95. He delivered newspapers for the Charleston Post and Courier, was a nighttime janitor at an insurance agency and cut firewood.

He sent his family to live in Florida when he first moved to Salisbury, where he at times slept in his car with two of the family’s pets.

“I had all my suits hanging in the back of the car, so I had everything in there. The dog and a cat, a litter box. It’s just where I slept. It’s not as bad as it sounds,” Tomsula told NFL Films for a piece that aired a couple of years ago. “It was good, until the cat started using the ties as a litter box. That got bad.”

Radell Lockhart, a former defensive lineman from Independnece High who played for Tomsula at Catawba and in NFL Europe, said he’d see his car parked on campus.

“It was a champagne-colored Mercedes,” Lockhart said. “I can’t say I ever saw him sleep in it, but he had a whole bunch of stuff in it.”

Tomsula sold carpet – mostly entry-way rugs and welcome mats – during the day, then joined Bennett and the full-time assistants at Catawba’s coaches offices before practice each afternoon.

“He’d come in with his coat and tie, and rip it off,” said Bennett, who left Catawba in 2001 to start Coastal Carolina’s program and is now football coach and athletics director at River Bluff (S.C.) High.

Tomsula eventually became a full-time coach at Catawba when school officials created a position for him, overseeing the strength and conditioning program for all the Indians’ sports teams.

The school also arranged for Tomsula and his family – he has two daughters and a son – to move into a college-owned house on campus, according to Bennett.

Bennett said Tomsula turned the basement into a film room.

“Jimmy’s addicted to it,” Bennett said. “He’d go into that basement in his house, put his daughters to bed and watch film all night. He’d sleep an hour and come in.”

Lockhart, who played at Catawba in 1997-2000 and now coaches the Indians’ defensive line, said Tomsula had a way of being intense without alienating his players.

“He was fiery. He’d get up in your face and yell, and have spit going everywhere,” Lockhart said. “He did it and then after that he’d come up and pat you on the back and tell you how good you are.”

While at Catawba, Tomsula began splitting his time with NFL Europe. Lockhart said Tomsula returned one year from Europe and suggested Catawba begin filming practices and games from the end zone – in addition to the traditional sideline angle – so linemen could get a better look at the action in the trenches.

Tomsula worked for three teams before becoming head coach of the Rhein Fire in 2006 and leading the German-based club to a 6-4 finish.

It was his only head-coaching experience with the exception of one game as San Francisco’s interim coach after Mike Singletary was fired near the end of the 2010 season. Tomsula, a popular players’ coach, called a tackle-eligible pass play (unsuccessful) as the 49ers routed Arizona 38-7.

He worked for three head coaches in San Francisco before getting the job himself this week after the 49ers had interviewed eight known external candidates.

Lockhart said Tomsula will have no problems winning over the locker room.

At Catawba, Tomsula would get the defensive linemen fired up by calling them “cold, calculated (expletives),” according to Lockhart.

“Everybody wants to play for him,” Lockhart said. “(San Francisco players) will play for him. They’ll respect him enough to play for him.”

Bennett said Tomsula can handle all the extra responsibilities that come with being a head coach in the NFL, although it won’t be his first priority.

“All the media stuff you have to do, he isn’t going to be crazy about it,” Bennett said. “He’d rather be with his family or watching film. Family and football – those are the two things he cares about.”

Though Tomsula has gone from about $30,000 a year at Catawba to a seven-figure salary, Bennett predicted he’ll be the same guy who initially worked for free in Salisbury.

“He’ll downplay the position, and he’ll go to work.”