March 2, 2012
Wally's a winnerCFL coach of the year Buono caps amazing final championship season
By Frank Zicarelli, QMI Agency
No coach in the long history of the CFL has won more games, no coach has conducted himself with as much grace and humility, and no coach was more worthy to cap off a remarkable season.
Welcome to Wally’s World, better known in three-down football circles as Wally Buono, the guy who many pundits believed the game had passed by as he presided over a B.C. Lions team that began last season with five consecutive losses.
It’s the same Wally Buono who, fittingly and not surprisingly, won the Annis Stukus Trophy as CFL’s coach of the year, an honour the league bestowed on the veteran during a Friday luncheon in downtown Toronto.
Whether it’s the CFL or any other pro loop in North America, winning such an honour normally serves as a precursor for some eventual firing.
In Buono’s case, there will be no such departure seeing that he decided to step down as head coach following B.C.’s Grey Cup championship to concentrate on his full-time duties as Lions general manager.
For Buono, it would mark the fourth time in his distinguished 22-year run that he’s copped the award.
Winnipeg’s Paul LaPolice and Kavis Reed of the Edmonton Eskimos were finalists, but in reality neither had a chance given the odds Buono overcame to help lead B.C. to its title, which would be produced on its home field at renovated B.C. Place.
“Football is about winning,’’ Buono told the audience when he took to the podium. “When you’re 0-5, life isn’t very pleasant.
“But I had been there before. We had a tremendous group of good guys, good coaches. We had good leadership.”
More than anything, what Buono exercised during B.C.’s slide was patience and perseverance, qualities he learned to appreciate when he played in Montreal for head coach Marv Levy.
What Buono gleaned from the cerebral Levy was to never panic, remain committed to the team concept and don’t afraid to make changes when changes are required.
When he reflects on last season, which literally turned out to be Buono’s last as a head coach, he remembers a meeting with team management, spearheaded by owner David Braley, that would serve as a turning point and a catalyst.
“It was self-evaluation, self-scouting,’’ Buono began. “Everyone had to be honest with themselves. We began to look at all aspects and tried to figure out what caused the issues.
“We talked about a lot of things, but we weren’t going to panic, we weren’t going to appease the fans or the media. It was a struggle, but there was a plan and direction. We felt we had the right pieces.”
While the Lions did make some minor adjustments with their roster, Buono believes the key to the team’s turnaround was maintaining the belief in his team’s leadership.
From a coaching perspective, he challenged each assistant, and himself, to be better.
“Marv Levy would always say this is my team,’’ added Buono. “And these are the guys I’m going with. It was imbedded in me as a player because basically it’s up to the team to take ownership, it was our responsibility and our success was predicated in what we did.”
From that 0-5 hole, the Lions would go on to play host to the West final, where they would beat the Eskimos, and then topple the Blue Bombers.
Back in his playing days under Levy, the Als won a Grey Cup on their home field in the famous staples game.
As a head coach, Buono got to experience a similar ending and a feeling that will resonate for an awful long time.
As he made his way to the trophy presentation, Buono was joined by his grandson, a memory of a lifetime, one of many Buono cherishes.
Unlike some of his peers, Buono does not wear any ring he has won, Grey Cup or otherwise.
When it comes to class acts, Buono is in a class of his own.
“My wife has kind of a shrine back home with all these things,’’ Buono said of victory’s spoils. “What appeals to me are the memories, the emotions, the heart.”