SANTA CLARA — Jim Tomsula went off the NFL grid last year once the 49ers were done with him.
Colleagues and prospective employers struggled to reach him. Word was he and his tight-knit family headed to Florida. Basically, he vanished the way countless players have after NFL dreams got extinguished.
The 49ers fired him after a 4-12 season as their coach, a mere 354 days after his promotion to replace Jim Harbaugh.
But now he’s back doing what he does best: coach defensive linemen.
When Washington coach Jay Gruden looked to fill that spot on his staff in January, he sought out Tomsula. And sought. And sought.
“It was not easy. It was not easy. I will tell you that,” Gruden recalled on a conference call with Bay Area media Wednesday. “He’s not a guy that’s going to call you right back after a call, either.
“I had to wait a little while, be a little patient,” Gruden continued. “But finally he called, had a great conversation with him, flew him up here, had a good conversation with him. We did what we could to get him and we got him.”
Washington got a defensive-line guru who flopped in a one-year, uncomfortable whirlwind as 49ers coach.
Transitioning out of the Harbaugh era remains a daunting chore. After Tomsula came Chip Kelly for a 2-14 season, and now Kyle Shanahan is off to an 0-5 start but with a six-year contract as job security.
“I thought (Tomsula) was a good head coach,” said Aaron Lynch, a fourth-year defensive end. “Being a head coach has nothing to do with how the season goes. It’s about the players you have.”
The 49ers have only 16 players on their 53-man roster still around from Tomsula’s lone season, which was the penultimate season for general manager Trent Baalke, who hired Tomsula rather than co-finalist Adam Gase.
Tomsula had spent eight seasons as the 49ers defensive line coach. He had gusto, personality, passion and a humanitarian side few could match. Then came his promotion and a new role, with a four-year, $14 million contract.
“He would teach me some but he let the (assistant) coaches do their job,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead, the 49ers’ top draft pick in 2015. “When he saw certain stuff, he’d tell you certain stuff.”
Lynch kept in occasional contact after Tomsula got fired hours after the 2015 finale, such as sending a text on Father’s Day.
“He’s doing good now, he’s in shape, he’s coaching his (butt) off and I’m happy for him,” Lynch said.
Tomsula “has respectfully declined interview requests” such as one for this story, according to Washington’s public relations department.
When he spoke in June to Washington reporters, he sounded, well, Tomsula-esque.
“I don’t know everything about anything,” Tomsula said. “I appreciate that, but I don’t. I like that (the defensive line is) a different kind of a guy, a different group in there. The O-line is more cerebral.
“The D-line, you’ve got to be pretty smart for what we’re asking to do,” Tomsula added. “They’re a bit nuts, you know? It’s almost like The Muppets in there. I’m a Muppet, so there it is.”
Tomsula returned to the NFL’s theater with a new look. After his wife told him he looked “old and scraggly,” the 49-year-old former 49er coach shaved his mustache and shed weight. He landed right at home coaching defensive line, however.
“He’s a great defensive line coach,” Lynch said. “He knew everybody, he knew how to coach guys and he knew the schemes.”
Gruden knew all that about Tomsula, too.
“I called him before I hired a defensive coordinator and wanted to see if he was interested in coaching again, because you just never know,” Gruden said. “He was (interested) and he was really excited to work with Coach Manusky, so it was kind of a package deal there.”
Manusky was the 49ers defensive coordinator from 2007-10, a role he’s assumed with Washington.
Gruden said he is “fortunate” to land both defensive coaches, adding that Tomsula has “our defensive lineman playing at a much higher level than before.”
Washington is allowing 88.8 rushing yards per game and just 3.9 yards per carry. Opponents averaged 4.7 yards per carry the previous two seasons combined, the league’s worst mark; the 49ers allowed 4.4 ypc.
Bolstering Washington’s defense is the addition of first-round draft pick Jonathan Allen, free agent Terrell McClain and linebacker Zach Brown, who complement linemen Ziggy Hood and Matt Ioannidis and linebackers Preston Smith and Ryan Kerrigan.
“We’ve got newcomers that have helped a lot,” Gruden said. “Coach Tomsula’s been a big help in our defensive front.”
Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins noted how Tomsula’s impact goes beyond the defensive line, as it did on the 49ers.
“Players love him and he has a great demeanor about him, not only on the practice field but throughout the day in the building and in meetings,” Cousins said.
“Guys play hard for him,” Cousins added. “They do what he says, they trust him to help them be successful. He’s good for our team, for our chemistry, for our locker room, for morale. It was a great hire.”