Wally's wonderful world

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

The most famous graduate of the Shawbridge Boys Farm and Training School doesn't call himself Pasquale anymore.

Wally Buono isn't comfortable in allowing the world a view of his past, talking about losing a father at so young an age, explaining what it was like to have his widowed mother, who spoke neither English nor French, send him away to reformatory school.

"I thought about running away from there 100 times, but we were at least 50 kilometres from Montreal," said the kid once known as Pasquale.

"Every time I'd get to the fence I'd stop. Where was I going to go?

Buono is running no more, standing on the field at Frank Clair Stadium on a frigid November afternoon, talking about how this kid who had nothing became Wally Buono, the legendary Canadian Football League coach.

"I never saw myself doing this when I was young," he said.

"I couldn't even think that way."

This is Buono's 15th season as a head coach, and so much of that time the image of who he is and where he comes from has been hidden behind the numbers and championships and an inner strength and stability that mark his football life.

He is famous but not known, approachable but rarely sharing. Don Matthews always has been an explosion waiting to happen. Buono, one Grey Cup appearance behind, has been a career postscript.

"The real difference," said Duane Forde, the former CFL player who played for Buono and is now doing commentary for The Score, "is you get the impression Don Matthews is all about Don Matthews. Wally Buono is all about winning."

He understands how to treat people. He deals with his players firmly and honestly. He rarely raises his voice or loses his temper.

"He doesn't have a coach's death stare, but if he walks by you and shakes his head, it means he has given up on you. It means you're gone."

The most uncomfortable look came four years ago. Buono calls it the toughest decision he has ever made in football. He knew it was time to let receiver Allen Pitts go in Calgary. It was one legend saying goodbye to another.

"Allen Pitts might have been the greatest player that played for me over that long period of time," Buono said. "And when you look at your life and you look at your success, you see a guy that helped me to win -- he helped me be who I am on the football field. To do what I had to do, that was not fun."

"But he had to do it," said Dave Dickenson, the B.C. Lions quarterback who is now stuck in a backup position he would rather not be in. "That's what Wally does best. He's knows when it's time. He understands that completely.

"He may not be the greatest Xs and Os coach in the world but he knows how to make the tough decisions. And you ending up respecting him for it."

Twice, Buono was offered the head coaching job of the Argos and both times he turned down the opportunity. He didn't like the feel of the team, the times, the organization.

It wasn't comfortable for him.

The move from Calgary to British Columbia was one of illness and fatigue. He had quickly grown sick and tired of the new Stampeders ownership.

Two years into Vancouver and with a brand new starting quarterback, Buono is back in the Grey Cup. Back in first place for a remarkable ninth time.

He doesn't make the headlines Matthews does or cause the perfunctory angst.

All he does is win.

"I've worked with 22 coaches in the CFL, NFL and XFL and three guys stand out in my mind," Lions president Bobby Ackles said.

Tom Landry wasn't one of them.

"Not necessarily in this order: Jimmy Johnson, Don Matthews and Wally Buono. They all had certain similarities, but Wally is different from the other two."

More human.

More real.

More religious.

More dignified.

"Early in my coaching career I wondered 'Why am I doing this?' Then it becomes a bigger part of your life. When you have some success, it becomes fun, you want more.

"And sometimes I kid myself: 'I can't believe I get paid this much to do this.' "

So far removed from a shattered childhood and a reform school north of Montreal.


Videos

Photos