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As Wally Buono was clipping on the lav microphone ahead of the final official press conference of his brilliant head- coaching career, you could sense the emotion and reality of his goodbye was finally settling in.
Yet it took until the ten and a half minute mark of his last media debriefing when Global BC’s Jay Janower asked the CFL’s all-time wins leader to sum up his great legacy to see Buono finally at a loss of words.
“The answer you don’t expect until you hear it is ‘why me?’ That’s really all I can say,” said Buono while fighting back tears after nearly a 60-second pause.
“I’ve been blessed, guys. Like I say, God has been good to me and I keep asking him ‘why me?’ You know, I still don’t know why. So have I been blessed? Yes. Have I had to endure a lot? Yes. But it’s always been with God’s strength.”
Buono’s brief moment of reflection helped represent a wide range of feelings as the 2018 BC Lions players, coaches and staff members gathered together one last time as a complete unit. Some will immediately scatter to their offseason homes. Others will stick around and tie up loose ends before skipping town. And a select few will be here until training camp opens next May in Kamloops.
Now more than 48 hours after it came to an abrupt end in Hamilton, we are quickly reminded that the roster won’t look the same in 2019 with as many as 35 players are eligible to become free agents in February. But now that the initial disappointment of Sunday’s loss has subsided, the organization is reflecting on some of the good things they accomplished after few outside these walls expected much improvement from the 7-11 finish last season.
Heading into the second offseason of his tenure on the west coast, GM Ed Hervey summed up 2018 rather nicely:
“I’m proud of this team. As I spoke to them earlier I said to the guys, when we started together there wasn’t one so-called ‘expert’ that had you guys pegged to make the post-season. You were supposed to finish eighth or ninth in the league and kind of be fodder for everyone else. To be able to accomplish what you were able to do should be seen as a positive for the remainder of your careers, whether you choose to stay or go elsewhere.
You have to look back at the 2018 season as a positive because you’re playing in the toughest division, against the toughest competition and we said from the outset there were four teams above us that have been together for a long time and pegged to get into the post-season and we’re going to have to dethrone one of those teams and we they able to do that. They should be seen as a team that overachieved rather than seen as a team that lost big on Sunday, in my opinion.”
A roller coaster of emotions after what seemed like very much of a roller coaster season. As veterans were cleaning out their lockers and preparing for their exit interviews, all they could do was reflect what ultimately went wrong.
“This has to be one of the most up and down years I’ve ever been a part of,” said receiver Bryan Burnham.
“You know, it was special. A lot of lessons were learned this year. We were 3-6 at one point, the bottom of the league. Everyone had counted us out. The fact that we came back, I think we won six of seven going into clinching a playoff spot, and unfortunately, we dropped those last two games and I think in the end that’s what kind of hurt us. You’re only as good as your last game and the fact that we went into the playoffs on a two-game losing streak, Wally mentioned it in meetings, it’s hard to flip the switch again when you kind of cruise through two games like that.”
Coming off his third straight 1000-yard season and slated to be a free agent himself, Burnham was motivated at Hervey’s address during the final team meeting. He indicated his plan is to stay in the lower mainland throughout the winter and let the process play out as it may.
“What out for the BC Lions in 2019,” said Burnham of the message.
“It’s going to be a dangerous team and I’d love to be a part of it.”
Different kinds of emotions indeed. Unless you’re the team that sips from Lord Earl Grey’s trophy, there always is.
Hervey’s first order of business will be to hire a new head coach at some point after the 106th Grey Cup. When asked during his press conference what he is looking for in Buono’s replacement, Hervey admitted he would not be casting too wide a net.
“It’s going to be a CFL guy. I believe that we cut our teeth in this league for our opportunities,” explained the GM.
“Everyone’s different in who they choose. I feel there are guys in this league that are committed to this league and deserve the opportunity to grow in this league. I know there are a lot of good coaches down south, but I’m an example of getting your opportunity and trying to make the most of it. I feel like the coaches who would be interested in this position both internally and externally are guys that are coming from the CFL. I think we’re a unique fraternity of some sort. But that’s how I’m wired. I want to give it to someone who has cut their teeth and gone through the struggles that we’ve gone through in our league.”
Whoever that next leader may be is just another big piece to what should be a very interesting offseason puzzle.