San Francisco 49ers  

 

Jim Tomsula in for Jim Harbaugh? Heat's on San Francisco 49ers

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Jed York was there when Bill Walsh stepped down in San Francisco. Trent Baalke was present when Bill Parcells left the Jets' sideline.

So the 49ers' CEO and GM both know: The pressure is now on everyone left.

It was on those two to get the next coaching hire right. It's on Jim Tomsula to replace an outsized personality. It's on the players to show that it was the talent -- and not the man leading it -- that was responsible for the last four years.

Yes, try as they might to turn the page, Jim Harbaugh still casts a long shadow here.

"The pressure to win is there, no matter whom you follow, because the ultimate goal is to win championships," Baalke said, soon after the presser to introduce Tomsula. "I don't know that Al (Groh) did things any differently than Al would've, regardless of whom he followed. Following in Coach Parcells' footsteps isn't easy for anybody. And following in Jim Harbaugh's footsteps isn't easy. But somebody has to do it. I'm very confident that Jim is the right man for the job."

Four years and eight days after the Niners hit the kind of grand slam you admire jogging down the first-base line with Harbaugh's introductory press conference, Thursday's Tomsula reception at Levi's Stadium felt comparatively like a bloop that the team was hoping would fall in for a single.

That's just the reality of it. Hiring a defensive line coach from within will never stir the masses.

And that's why the heat is on the men in charge. Blame who you want -- Harbaugh's no longer here, and everyone has blood on their hands from the divorce of a marriage that quickly reared three NFC Championship Game appearances (plus a Super Bowl), and crumbled in even swifter fashion.

Call Tomsula's hire a remarriage buoyed by a comfort level that wasn't there -- for anyone -- over the last year-plus.

On the new coach's first day on the job, Tomsula called an all-staff meeting -- there weren't a whole lot of football coaches there, because many of Harbaugh's assistants are already gone -- and York and Baalke reintroduced him as head coach before he spoke about the importance of unifying the building. ("It's about us," Tomsula told everyone.) That, the guys here think, is the best way to make 2014 a blip rather than a trend.

"Press conferences don't win Super Bowls," York said, smiling. "I think the hire's right for all the reasons I said about Jimmy T, all the reasons I believe in him and believe in what he's doing. And I think it's about getting the most of the guys that are here, and continuing to go on the trajectory that I think we've been on. Now, it's time to finish the goal."

York hasn't been shy about setting the bar at the pursuit of rings -- the kind his Uncle Eddie won, the kind the team got closer to with Harbaugh than with any other coach in a decade-and-a-half. Harbaugh did it with Alex Smith. He did it with Colin Kaepernick. He did it by shaking up the building and creating a tense atmosphere that brought the monster out in a growing group of young players, and eventually boiled over.

Harbaugh was, by all accounts, a force of nature, and guys like that aren't easy to replace.

This organization is one of the rare ones that actually pulled it off: The definitively unflashy George Seifert once replaced the legendary Bill Walsh and won two Super Bowls, and the club even went to a third coach (Steve Mariucci) in a run of 10 straight years of double-digit wins after Walsh's departure. York was a kid, but he was there, and that remains his model.

"It shows what Bill tried to create -- he tried to create a system that could replace him," York said. "A lot of coaches don't think like that; the only one that comes to mind right now is in New England. You look at an organization that hasn't replaced (an assistant) coach from the outside in five or six years. That's how they build their organization. There's a reason why they've been to five Super Bowls and won three.

"When you start looking at those types of things, I think you have somebody in Jimmy T who understands the importance of the organization, understands the importance of coaching people underneath."

The underlying point there: That the Niners believe they've built something that Harbaugh was a part of, but didn't define completely.

The truth? That remains to be seen. Mariucci was the last coach not named Harbaugh to post a winning season in San Francisco, so the franchise was always going to face an open question -- Could Harbaugh's successor regain the momentum built in 2011 and '12 and '13? -- no matter what the eventual hire ended up being.

But the bar won't be lowered.

"I'm sure you heard the interview on KNBR," York said, referencing a local spot he did that made the rounds on the Internet. "I got crushed. It wasn't a good interview, it wasn't a good representation of who I am. But I think you understand what my expectations are of this football team, and I think I've made that very clear. So it's not about getting this hire right, it's about getting the organization right. It's not about one guy, it's about the organization."

That starts with York, and next goes to Baalke, who's now the undisputed leader of the football operation.

Both guys know the challenge of what's ahead, for everyone. Most teams don't let go of coaches like Harbaugh as unceremoniously as the Niners did -- in a night-of-the-season-finale press release.

But there are reasons, on both ends, why all of that happened, and reasons why Tomsula was right for the 49ers going forward.

"When you follow somebody with that kind of following, maturity is a must," Baalke said. "I think you have to be someone that is extremely mentally tough, that understands that when things get bad, they're not gonna start unraveling. They're gonna plow ahead. And they're not gonna change. I think that's important.

"When you're following somebody who's had a lot of success, it's important that if you don't start with immediate success, or you run into a period where you're not successful, that you don't unravel. That you're yourself."

Tomsula accomplished that part on Thursday. But, as he knows, filling Jim Harbaugh's shoes on Sunday won't be so easy.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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