What a Wallyful world

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 6:22 AM ET

Ask B.C. Lions president Bob Ackles about Wally Buono's greatest contribution and he takes all of two seconds to respond. "On-field credibility," announces the Lions boss about his head coach and GM, brought on board before last year after 13 seasons calling the shots in Calgary.

"I think people, whether they're in the media, fans or staff, feel he has a plan and he's organized. He's put together a good staff, has brought in good players and he gives everybody an opportunity to win and be successful.

"That comes through from Wally to the team, through the media to the fans. The fans feel every time the team comes out on the field, they have a good chance of winning and of entertaining."

Sounds an awful lot like the Calgary Stampeders of the 1990s, that long-lost era when the club was considered the CFL's flagship franchise, now in jeopardy of setting an all-time record for futility just two seasons after Buono's departure.

But it isn't easy pinpointing the exact assets Buono has brought to the Lions, who enjoy the view from atop the CFL West standings with a 9-3 record heading into tonight's clash at McMahon Stadium.

There's the obvious coaching prowess displayed with the Stamps through 12 seasons without missing the playoffs, including three Grey Cup titles in six appearances.

But Buono has also enhanced the Lions by providing intangibles not necessarily reflected in a coach's record.

The other day, he was showing media film of last week's game against Edmonton, trying to educate and enlighten while sprinkling the session with his now famous 'Wally-isms,' his unique way of explaining football and life.

"Wally has a very good, genuine way about him and handles those things extremely well," says Ackles, a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in the builders category.

"There's a good buzz around town and through the province that really helps sell tickets and a lot is because of Wally."

Ackles argues the entire organization is reflected in results on the field, something the Lions are seeing this season in their climb to first place, while the Stamps continue to flounder.

"You've probably seen it in Calgary because the organization is where it all starts," Ackles points out about the

2-11 Stampeders' current woes.

"That's why Edmonton has been so good for so many years, they have a good organization in place. They never falter, they're the most stable franchise the last 30 years."

When Ackles left the Lions for the NFL in 1986, the team had 30,000 season tickets.

Even though the club enjoyed some excitement and success with quarterback Doug Flutie, the organization started going down hill with the team eventually losing touch with the community.

Ackles returned to the Lions in April 2002 and, in less than a year, had signed Buono to a three-year deal to resurrect the franchise while also hiring former Stamps director of player personnel Bob O'Billovich.

Finishing 11-7 last season, Buono's Lions earned a crossover berth into the East playoffs and appear destined to host the West final this fall while enjoying fan support and interest not seen in two decades.

"This city was very turned off from football when I got here. They just weren't interested," Ackles admits. "It was like, 'Aren't you the team that plays in that big domed stadium?' I'd go out to functions the first year I was here and it was like, 'My gawd, what ever happened to this organization?'

"I was devastated and finally realized the problem and I wondered, 'How do you cause that much apathy in such a short period of time?' Even after I left, the team through the years was pretty good but there was no interest."

That interest has returned, in part, thanks to Buono's special touch with off-field issues while turning the on-field product into a Grey Cup contender.

"After the first year, he went through the roster and pointed to the people he thought could play for us and help us win and indicated where we had to find better people," says Ackles.

They're doing that in B.C. and it all starts with Buono.


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