Pride of the Lions

JULIE HORBAL -- Special to the Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

There is a reason Wally Buono is one of the most respected coaches in the Canadian Football League. And it's not just the fact he is good at what he does.

Buono coaches his B.C. Lions with passion, demand and a little help from Christ -- three things which have worked very well for a decade and a half and are poised to continue working for both the coach and his players.

Using his trusted triad, the 56-year-old Buono coached the Calgary Stampeders to 12 straight playoff appearances and six Grey Cup games between 1990 and 2002. After missing the playoffs in '02, Buono moved one west for the start of the '03 season -- and his methods have not let him down since.

"I'm like everyone else. I do what I believe is right," says Buono, who leads his Lions into Winnipeg on Thursday.

"God has a plan for everyone, God gives you a passion and a skill set, and mine is to coach football.

"I'm fair to my players, but I have high expectations. I'm pretty understanding of what they're going through. At the same time, I'm also high in my expectations of myself."

It is those high expectations that have left Buono -- the second winningest coach in CFL history -- only halfway impressed with his squad's performance so far this year. The coach admits to being frustrated with the way the season started out, as he believes his team is better than its record shows. But he also admits to having faith in turning things around -- something he has done on more than one occasion in his 15-year CFL career.

"The teams I've coached have been consistent and this team has that potential. I believe if you surround yourself with coaches and players who are highly motivated, you'll do well," he says, noting the responsibility for the disappointing record falls heavily on the shoulders of any coach.

"As a coach, you put the players out there and if they're not doing their job, you aren't necessarily doing your job. You need to have your players playing better on offence and defence for a longer period of time. That's consistency.

After being courted by the Lions between the '02 and '03 seasons, Buono was touted as the cream of the coaching crop and was put on a pedestal by fans and peers alike.

The praise lasted for the better part of two campaigns, but then started to wane when B.C. trumped an 11-0 start to the '05 season with an inconsistent 1-7 second half.

According to Buono, however, the fan-inflicted pressure doesn't affect him nor push him to strive for more consistent action as much as the Wally Buono-inflicted pressure.

"Fans are like anyone else and when expectations aren't met, they show their displeasure," Buono says. "But a coach who has had successes, he understands the nature of the business. He understands what it is to win every week, not to see what happens. And when that doesn't happen, it gets frustrating. The frustration is when you know you've got a better team than what you are experiencing. That makes you pressure yourself."

The father of four has reason to expect greatness of both his players and himself, as his all-time CFL record is a glimmering 188-98-2-3 and suggests he should do nothing other than coaching -- a goal which he set only four years into his own playing career.

Buono joined the Montreal Alouettes as a punter in the mid 1970s and played in 152 games prior to becoming an assistant with the team in 1983. He credits his Alouettes coaches with igniting his passion for sitting behind the bench, though he does admit the jump from player to coach was not an easy one to make.

He cites the clerical aspect of coaching as something players don't learn rising through the ranks, but stresses the fact that when all is said and done the only thing that matters is passion for competing -- and more importantly, winning.

"Competition is something everyone in the game enjoys. The thrill, the excitement and the highs and lows," Buono says. "A big part of it is being part of something and the fact you can do something. You work with good people, good players, good coaches and a good organization. It's fun, it's exciting. It's always changing. It's today, every week."

The Lions themselves appreciate Buono's excitement for the game and recognize it every time they hit the field.

According to slotback Geroy Simon, it is the coach's undying passion and love for the game which make his players want to play for him -- high demands and all.

"One thing I love about Wally is he's gonna be honest with you about what he wants," says Simon. "You know exactly what he expects from day one. He expects you to go out there and win. His big thing is you're paid to win, not paid to play. He can get anyone to play, but it takes a special group of people to win."

With the demands on himself matching those he puts on his players, Buono admits to sometimes being overcome by pressure. But it is in times like those the devout Christian calls the third and possibly most important aspect of his coaching methods into play.

"When you look at how consuming football can be, you sometime lose perspective and it's a tremendous asset to have your spirituality. It keeps things in perspective," he says.

"Your spiritual side never leaves. It moulds how you deal with things, how you react. You can't ever separate your spirituality from your physical and emotional side. That keeps me sane."

Buono relies also heavily upon relationships within his two families -- blood relations and football relations -- to help keep him sane and says the fondest coaching memories in the bank are those including mending relationships with players departed.

"When there are players you either have cut or have left on bad terms and a year or two later, you meet up with them and they come up and give you a hug. That's the best part and it has a lot of value," Buono says, noting the job -- though hard -- is the only one he could dream of doing.

"There's good and bad of what you do -- it's just part of the job -- but you're basically in the arena, in a foxhole with these guys and that's what makes you what you are. And I'm a coach."


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