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Wally Buono is the most successful coach in CFL history with 266 wins and counting. Twelve of those wins came last season in a return to the BC Lions’ sidelines, a return not everyone thought was going to be a smashing success.
As Buono returns for another year at BC’s helm, it’s abundantly clear the best of all time is ready and able to keep adding to his legacy.
He’s still got it
I had the chance to chat with Wally last week to get ready for a 2017 season chock full of high expectations for the Lions. After a 12-6 finish last season and a really impressive off-season, BC enters the coming year with the chance to take some big steps forward and challenge for a West Division crown. But it’s the 67-year-old, five-star general on the sidelines that fascinates me the most.
After Buono stepped away from coaching following BC’s 2011 Grey Cup title, it was a fair assumption to think that was it. After all, the guy had just led his team on a dominant run and earned his fifth ring in 22 straight years as a head coach. The timing made sense for a partial retirement, even though we knew a guy like Buono wasn’t going to be able to step away from the game completely.
But it wasn’t quite that simple.
“On the day that I told (Lions’ owner David Braley) I was going to step down . . . his question to me was: if the club needed you to come back to coaching, would you do that?” Buono told me last week. “I said to David I would, I didn’t think I would have to, but, you know, unfortunately circumstances dictated that.”
After three seasons with Mike Benevides as head coach and an underwhelming single year under Jeff Tedford, the time came when BC did need Buono back as head coach. And, as it turns out, it was exactly what Buono needed, too.
“The other thing I really learned during that four-year process was if I was going to be involved, I had to be involved 100 per cent,” Buono said. “To me, 100 per cent involvement means you’ve got to be the coach and the GM.
“It’s something that, you know, I can do better, I can just manage the whole situation better, and, you know, it puts a lot of pressure on the person that’s working for you. I thought coach Benevides did a great job, but unfortunately, sometimes the shadow you cast is so, you know, so dark and so big that it just doesn’t give that individual the things that he needs to be able to be successful.”
“When the game is on, you know, the juice is always there, you don’t lose that.”
Lions head coach, GM Wally Buono
I thought that was a fascinating way of looking at things and, when you think about it, it makes a ton of sense. Having the winningest coach in CFL history serve as your boss can’t be the easiest thing in the world. That’s a lot of clout looking over your shoulder and Buono realized it wasn’t an ideal situation, so he returned to his dual role of coach and GM. And he returned to that dual role as if nothing changed.
“When you get away from something, you start realizing . . . how important communication is,” Buono reflected. “How important accountability is. How important just the little things are that make you successful or not successful.
“When you’re away from the sidelines, you know, you’re looking . . . into the game, into the field a lot different. The thing I came to realize, maybe, and maybe appreciate more, was how much you had to communicate with your coaches, with your players.
“That goes a long ways in helping you to make them understand your message and when they buy into your message, then obviously a lot easier to get them to work as a team.”
At 67, Buono is showing no signs of slowing down. He turned a 7-11 team in 2015 into a balanced 12-6 squad last season with plenty of reason for optimism going forward. Buono sounded as driven and as passionate as ever when I talked to him, but he admitted there’s one thing in particular that gets him up in the morning.
WALLY ON THE WAGGLE
Episode 51 – Wally Sharing Wisdom
BC head coach and GM Wally Buono sits down with James and Davis to talk about his years of experience as a legendary coach and GM.
“When the game is on, you know, the juice is always there, you don’t lose that,” Buono said. “What you’ve got to understand is when you get to be at my age, at the point in my career, there are only certain things that really get you excited.
“The things that satisfy you, the things that excite you, you know, in our business is winning. Whether it’s that simple or not for other people, but for me, all the hard work you do, all the sacrifice you do, all the sacrificing that everybody else does, is really almost senseless unless you win.
“You just appreciate the value of winning, how difficult winning is, and the rewards of winning.”
Buono has done plenty of winning in 23 CFL seasons, and it won’t surprise anyone if the greatest of all time keeps that trend going for at least a few more years.
The Money List part six
With training camps very much on the horizon and this year’s draft in the books, we might as well put a bow on our 2017 Money List. A few weeks ago, we added a pair of special teams aces to our list of the best players we’d select to start a winning team right now.
Quarterback: Bo Levi Mitchell, Calgary Stampeders
Running Back: Andrew Harris, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Receiver: Adarius Bowman, Edmonton Eskimos
Defensive Tackle: Ted Laurent, Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Defensive End: Charleston Hughes, Calgary Stampeders
Linebacker: Solomon Elimimian, BC Lions
Defensive Back: TJ Heath, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Kicker: Justin Medlock, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Punter: Rob Maver, Calgary Stampeders
Now all we need to do is to select our offensive lineman, which was not an easy decision whatsoever.
Offensive Line: Jovan Olafioye, Montreal Alouettes
There was some stiff competition here. Reigning Most Outsanding Lineman Derek Dennis got some serious consideration heading into his first season with the Riders, while Ottawa’s SirVincent Rogers always figures into this conversation, too. But, even though he’s starting a new chapter of his career in Montreal, I just couldn’t pick against Olafioye.
With another nod in 2016, Olafioye has been a CFL All-Star six years running for a reason. He’s the league’s most consistently dominant left tackle and was up to his old tricks last season. Thanks in large part to Olafioye, BC led the league in rushing yards in 2016, giving up the third-fewest sacks in the process.
Don’t let the fact he was traded this off-season fool you, either. Sure, BC moved Olafioye to bring in the very promising David Foucault, but the deal was made just as much for salary cap reasons. I think Foucault has the potential to be a top end talent, but as it stands right now, Olafioye was the best player in that trade.
I love the fit in Montreal, too. Under new general manager Kavis Reed, the Alouettes have revamped their offence with acquisitions of quarterback Darian Durant and receiver Ernest Jackson and, most recently, Olafioye. I think they’ve got the best left tackle in the league, and that’s why he makes this list in 2017.