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June 12, 2018

Rallying Cry: Buono’s farewell season motivation for Lions

“Ultimately, the good teams have one rallying cry. Being a part of Wally’s final season should be motivation for a lot of these guys, as it is for myself.”

– BC Lions general manager Ed Hervey


or the 2003 Edmonton Eskimos, their rallying cry came late in the season. Stuck in Toronto during its infamous blackout in mid-August, waiting for their game against the Argonauts to be rescheduled, the Esks spent almost a week together. They went 13-5 that year, en route to a Grey Cup win over Montreal. When they had their championship rings made, they added a single black diamond to commemorate that stretch in Toronto.

“We all have something that motivates us,” Ed Hervey, a receiver on that Esks team and the new GM of the BC Lions said over the phone from his office in Surrey, B.C.

“All teams want to win the Grey Cup and everyone has their own independent motivations as a worker, as a player, or anyone else in the building. But ultimately, the good teams have one rallying cry.”

It wouldn’t matter if Hervey were seven months into the job with the Lions or seven years. He knows what this team’s rallying cry should be.

“Being a part of Wally’s final season should be motivation for a lot of these guys, as it is for myself.”

Buono, 68, enters into his 33rd season as a coach or GM in the CFL. His resume is decked out with accolades. The league’s all-time leader in wins, he’s won five Grey Cups as a coach, while winning four coach of the year awards. He’s a Canadian Football Hall of Famer (2014) and has won the Order of Canada (2015). After handing the GM reins to Hervey at the end of the 2017 season to focus on head coaching duties, he said that 2018 would be his last season with the Lions.

The BC Lions are using Wally Buono's final season as a rallying cry (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)


For his part, Buono is doing everything he can to keep this season from turning into a city-by-city farewell tour (note: It likely will still be a city-by-city farewell tour). You can’t get the word sentimental fully out of your mouth before Buono jumps in to squash the idea.

“No. No. My thing is honestly, it’s way too early in the process,” Buono said. “We’ve got way too much work to do, way too many games to play. We went to training camp and it was great. It was a good camp, great weather.

“What was different about it? My wife brought all my grandkids down for the weekend. She did it because it’s our last time. It was nice. Did I get emotional about it? No. But it was nice to have all the kids there to be a part of it for one more time.”

Through 19 years in the league as a player, then a scout and GM, Hervey developed a deep respect for Buono. He’s tried to take a seven-win team from last season and build it into something that Buono can steer through a successful curtain call season.

“I have a unique opportunity, just as the players do to work with one of the most iconic personalities, coaches in this league; that this league has seen. That’s rare,” Hervey said.

“For this to be his final season, I can imagine that he would want it to be downplayed and not want to draw any attention to himself. That’s the kind of coach and leader he’s always been. But on the flip side of that coin, you can’t hide from the fact that this has a very special meaning to this organization, to this league and to myself, having the first opportunity to work with him.

“These players who have been with him their entire careers, I would imagine it would mean something to them. And for the players who have been in this league long enough to know you say the word, ‘Wally’, everyone knows exactly who you’re talking about.

“It’s an opportunity for us all to go out there and do our jobs to the best out our ability.”

Coaches always stress leaving the past behind them, but you can hear the disappointment in Buono’s voice over how last season went for his team.

“We kind of lost our way last year. Because of that we didn’t make the playoffs. It hasn’t helped us at the gate, it hasn’t helped us with sponsorship. There’s a big responsibility to get back on track,” he said.

To that end, with the GM title squarely placed at Hervey’s desk, the former Esks GM set about rebuilding his new team from the trenches out. Gabriel Knapton, Ivan McLennan, Odell Willis, Julian Laurent all came over in the off-season and defensive tackle Davon Coleman arrived during training camp in a trade with Hamilton. On the offensive line, Joel Figueroa is in at tackle and Hervey was able to use some set aside cash to sign former Lion and six-time CFL all-star tackle Jovan Olafioye when Montreal released him at the start of training camp.

“When you look at our team last year, after the first six or seven games and things started to fall apart, the biggest area of concern was those two,” Buono said of the offensive and defensive lines.

“Jovan is a proven player, a proven all-star in this league,” Hervey said. “(He’ll) help solidify our offensive line and that’s been a priority for us from the outset.

“Davon, good players like that don’t just come around. We believe he’s going to be a good fit for us as well. He brings experience, he can get to the quarterback and he fills a void with the guy who has played and had some success while we continue to develop the guys behind him.

“Those two guys coming in have clearly made our team better on paper, but as you know you have to go out there on any given day and prove that this team can compete with the better teams in this league.”

Odell Willis is just one of the changes to the Lions roster this off-season (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)


That may be the most unfortunate part of this equation. In the East over the last few years, there’s been room for error, time for teams to find their way and turn it on later in the season. In the West, where Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg all have Grey Cup aspirations, there’s less wiggle room.

“It’s going to be a dogfight again,” Hervey said. “It’s a nine-team league, nine competitive teams and the beauty of the CFL is any given day anyone can win a game.

“That’s our focus right now, is not worry about the other division, or even the other teams. We have to focus on ourselves and get prepared for the Montreal Alouettes who are coming in this weekend.”

Behind that tweaked offensive line, Hervey and Buono hope that Jonathan Jennings can bounce back from a disappointing and injury-riddled 2017 season. He’s still learning new offensive coordinator Jarious Jackson’s offence, Buono noted, and thinks he’ll trend upward once the season gets rolling. He’ll be backed up by veteran Travis Lulay, who’s being eased back from last year’s season-ending knee injury, and rookie Ricky Lloyd, who showed a lot of promise in his pre-season action.

The last time Buono was solely a head coach was in 1991. He’s enjoyed the freedom that bringing in Hervey has brought. When the team’s training camp wrapped up in Kamloops last week, Hervey handled the cuts. Buono visited with his grandkids.

“I’m happy to hand off all the GM jobs. It’s way more taxing, it’s way more emotionally a grind, it’s way more burdensome,” Buono said. “For Ed to deal with that, to take that all off my plate but still keep me in the loop, still keep me included…it’s like you get to take care of the kids but you never have to get up at night, you never have to take the dirty diapers off.

“Ed’s good about it. He’s got his own style. The good thing is we talk and it’s in his hands and I know it’s taken care of.”