Here is a link to my Tuesday column about Jim Tomsula. The full text runs below:


Today’s question is one word — no verb, no subject, no sentence. The question simply is OK?

OK is the most frequent, loaded and certainly the most revealing phrase in the Jim Tomsula lexicon, which we are just getting to know.

We were familiar with the Jim Harbaugh lexicon, fascinating in its way: low-hanging fruit, we’ve already plowed that field, I don’t like to compare people, that’s scheme and I can’t talk about it.

Harbaugh’s phrasebook was a book of secrecy, words that obscured the truth, murdered the truth, pretended the truth did not exist. It was the phrasebook of a closed world — closed to outsiders — and its words were an insider’s code. Harbaugh and his coaches and players were insiders, and you and I were not.

I learned to live with Harbaugh’s code, to have fun with it, to embrace it. If we could analyze Harbaugh’s words — and we did — it’s fair to analyze Tomsula’s starting with OK.


I come to Tomsula’s OK in a roundabout way. I attended a Giants game last week, had lunch with a well-known radio sports guy. I’ll let him remain anonymous. “I have a question, Lowell,” he said. “What’s with Tomsula and OK? Why does he use it all the time?”

A bolt of insight flashed through my brain. I had been aware of the OK, but had not asked the key questions: Why this repetitive verbal tic with Tomsula? What does it reveal? And believe me, to talk to him for three minutes, is to hear him end sentences with OK.

When the radio guy raised the OK issue, I knew I wasn’t the only person pondering Tomsula’s speech. It was obvious why the radio guy heard it. Radio people deal in sound and speech patterns the way you and I breathe air.

You may be wondering why I’m making a big deal out of OK. The professor who directed my dissertation (Joseph Conrad) at Stanford was the great scholar Ian Watt, a genius of an Englishman and head of the English Department. I was callow, young. I once wrote something — probably gibberish. He red-penciled it. His look was morally disapproving. Then I said the stupidest thing.

“You know what I mean,” I insisted.

I remember the sound coming from him as a growl of sorts. “My dear Lowell,” he said, “the only way people know what you mean is what you write or say. You must write what you mean.”

He meant don’t be vague or imprecise or careless or lazy. Because there are consequences. He also meant, when I read a novel and a character speaks, say Huck Finn, the choice of words, the delivery of words, everything that goes into Huck’s words is part of his autobiography and his essential character. Listen to Huck. Pay attention.

Watt is the one who asked me once: “Who is the greatest English novelist?” And when I hesitated for fear of sounding stupid, he burst out, “Dickens, Dickens, Dickens.”

I am not accusing Jim Tomsula of being Charles Dickens. But I pay attention to his words and cadence and to his key phrase. You bet your life I do because, in the nonfiction novel I never stop writing, he is a key character, maybe the leading character of sports figures in the Bay Area by virtue of being 49ers head coach.

So, Tomsula obsessively says OK. I am not accusing him of it. I am writing about it. When I taught creative writing at USF — I retired two years ago — I would make a point and say, “You understand me?” Then I would think, “Schmuck, why do you keep saying that?” It was a form of insecurity I never got over.

What do we learn about Tomsula from his OK? What would Ian Watt say?

Here are examples from his Sunday media conference call.

Asked about the lack of pass rush against Houston, he said, “We’re not all the way in sync, OK?”

Asked about the rocky performance of rookie quarterback Dylan Thompson (I want to write Dylan Thomas) he said, “That last ball sailed on him, OK? The rest of that, OK? I have to disagree with people that that was all the quarterback’s performance, OK? There’s a surrounding cast that has to be in the right places at the right times.”

That second Q&A contained a triple OK. It may be a world record.

I’m sure Tomsula doesn’t know he OKs all over the place. Doesn’t matter. What does he mean? What is he trying to accomplish?

At the most obvious level, he’s asking if the media understands him, if he’s getting across his point. Are we on the same page?

He’s being polite. Helpful. A nice contrast from Harbaugh who couldn’t care less if we understood him although, by the end, I enjoyed playing the Harbaugh game, got a laugh out of this brilliant, strange man.

But there’s more to Tomsula’s OK.

The basic thing Tomsula does is turn a declarative statement into a question. The simple declarative would be: “We’re not all the way in sync.” A firm, no-nonsense statement from a confident leader. A man who knows what he means. But then he slips in OK and his voice rises like when you ask a question. He turns a declarative into an interrogative.

The interrogative means — to me — he is insecure, isn’t confident how he comes across. Lacks conviction in what he just said. Asks for validation. From us, of all people. “Do I make sense?” he’s asking.

With the OK, he’s moved from a fact-first world to a question-first (and last) world.

Can you imagine Vince Lombardi, Mike Shanahan, Chuck Noll, Al Davis watering down — compromising — a declarative sentence with a question? Or Bill Walsh. His football world was a declarative world, a world of certainty.

Steve Young told me Walsh never praised him. In practice, Young would master an important play and Walsh would say, “You got it. Let’s move on.” No praise. Walsh expected perfection. Saw nothing unusual in it. Declarative football coach.

Tomsula is not. There’s a reason. Last season, he was just a position coach. As a defensive line coach, he praised his players. Had to. “Nice job, Justin.” Tomsula is touchy-feely, something Walsh didn’t understand. I never touched the guy except to shake his hand. Hands off.

Tomsula still thinks like a position coach. Not like a head coach. When he finally alters his diction, drops the imploring OK and the need to please, you’ll know he’s a head coach with standing and gravitas.


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