He is unseasonably tanned for this time of year, looks as fit as ever and is no longer labouring from an offseason surgery to repair a nagging back problem. Before the interview starts, he takes out his iPhone to proudly display a photo of 12-year old grandson Jonah helping his Cloverdale Minor Hockey team win gold at their tournament in Kamloops over the weekend.
Yes, the reduced workload has served Wally Buono well in the final offseason of his illustrious coaching career. He is, however, quick to remind that just because he has spent a big portion of the winter at his “vacation” home in Arizona, doesn’t mean he hasn’t been in football mode for the last several weeks.
“You don’t have to be at the facility to work,” the CFL Godfather proclaims with his signature laugh.
“I’ve been here when I needed to be. I was here for Ed’s transition, we had a good few days at the national combine in Winnipeg, saw some great prospects there and a lot of the work you do on your own can be done outside the office. It has been a nice balance.”
This marks the first time since 1991, his second year with the Calgary Stampeders, where Buono won’t be serving in the dual role as GM and head coach. With Ed Hervey now in charge of football operations and putting his own stamp on the 2018 Lions, Buono has been afforded the luxury of focusing on how he can simply be the best head coach he can be. Early returns suggest he has loved the new organizational structure.
“It’s been different,” he says.
“The personnel side of it is a big part of your offseason. That is something Ed has kept me abreast of, but I’ve really not had to be too involved. He will always give me the heads up on players he wants to sign. The bulk of the signings, scouting have all been done by him and his people and I think they have done a great job. Obviously, you are bound by restrictions, but I think he has addressed the offensive line and some of these players coming in have all kinds of great physical attributes. Defensively, we really wanted to improve our pass rush and he’s been able to do that too. Even our new defensive backs coming in, he has added some more size to that position. Depth and competition are going to be good.”
Some of that will be on display starting Wednesday when a handful of newly signed rookies will be on the field for the start of a three-day mini-camp, also known as Organized Team Activity or OTA for short. Over the course of a long offseason, film evaluation can start to take a toll. Getting a live look at some of these unknown players up close can not only give you a better idea but also help you lay some important groundwork before training camp kicks off on May 20th in Kamloops.
“We just had our first staff meeting on the OTA. I told my staff it is the beginning of setting that groundwork for what you want to accomplish,” Buono explained.
“We’re excited to see the kind of players Ed has brought in and obviously you now have to start picking the guys you believe can help improve your team. We try to now evaluate them as CFL players, not NCAA players. Although the game is the same the field and other techniques are slightly different.”
Another thing that has made this offseason different for the CFL’s all-time leader in coaching wins is the fact he is coming off a year where his team failed to make qualify for the playoffs. The only other time that happened for Buono as a head coach was his final season in Calgary which, ironically, was a catalyst for him moving to the west coast in January of 2003. Being the savvy veteran he is, Buono is of the mind you have to take it as a lesson.
“There is no disbelief,” he explains.
“Sports is cruel. You don’t deserve things, you earn things. I don’t think we won many close games. There was some we were ahead by a point or two or behind by a point or two and couldn’t keep the lead or couldn’t take the lead. I’ve said it many times: each game comes down to five or six plays. If you make the critical plays at the critical times, you win games.”
That sounds simple, but it holds true. Another thing that doesn’t require a Ph.D. is the belief they must be better behind centre. Buono has coached many great quarterbacks in his day and has all the confidence in the world that Jonathon Jennings can be the player he was in 2016.
“Quarterbacking is about growth and experiencing different things you have to deal with,” the head coach said.
“He had the injury, followed by some ups and downs and I think he’s learned from that. Jonathon has put on some weight to help him be stronger and more physical. We believe under a new system and new coordinator he can get back to the player he was.”
“Every year is one day at a time,” he cautions.
“If this was the last week of my last game I might look at it differently. It’s the beginning of a new season with high expectations internally. That’s really where it counts. It doesn’t matter what people outside the organization or in the media says. The internal belief is what is critical. I’m optimistic we have assembled a good coaching staff and that Ed is going to give us the players that allow us to be a good football team.”
And the long and hopefully rewarding process begins this week. It’s a good thing he is charged up and ready to go. Because you know deep down inside he plans on riding out the farewell tour as long as he can.