VANCOUVER -- There was much rejoicing, in Edmonton, at least, when the Calgary Stampeders drove Wally Buono out of town two seasons ago.
The Eskimos were finally rid of their long-time nemesis, the power behind a Stampeder powerhouse that kept Edmonton out of more Grey Cups than they'd care to remember.
Unfortunately, for Edmonton, at least, he didn't go far. Just one province over, where he is architect of a B.C. Lions powerhouse that could very well keep Edmonton out of more Grey Cups than they'd care to imagine.
"They had such success in Calgary that when he left Calgary, we were hoping he'd go to the east," said Eskimos linebacker A.J. Gass, only half jokingly. "His teams are always tough to play against. They're hard- working and assignment-conscious; he gets them going and always has the athletes to get the job done."
It is no coincidence that as soon as Buono left the Stampeders - fed up with over-the- shoulder coaching and managing from former owner Michael Feterik - the team went into a swan dive. Nor is it any coincidence that as soon as he got to B.C., the Lions went to the 2004 Grey Cup, started the 2005 season 5-0 and have supplanted Calgary as the biggest threat to Edmonton's championship aspirations.
"He's a great leader, great coach, and we buy into everything that he's selling us," said Antonio Warren, one of several Stampeders who followed Buono over from Calgary. "He's a great motivational speaker and he treats the guys really well. Going to war for him is the easy part. And he knows talent. This year was the most talent I've ever seen in a training camp. "
Don Matthews gets a lot of credit for being the best coach in Canada, but in a lot of cases he simply inherits great teams and rides the wave until his three- or four-year shelf life forces him to move on to the next great situation. Buono settles in for the long haul, establishing rules and discipline early and surrounding himself with character people who'll abide by those guidelines. Soon, his teams become a self-perpetuating force.
"Everyone that plays for Wally knows that it's his way or you're out of here," said Bobby Singh, another ex-Stamp. "He ran a tight ship in Calgary and everyone knew what to expect. When he left and coach Barker came in there, a player's coach, Jamie Crysdale said it was like going from Saddam, the tight regime, to George Bush, freedom to run around and do whatever you want. But, as professional athletes, we need the discipline more than the freedom. I think that's what bit us in Calgary after he left. And Wally's track record, it speaks for itself."
His track record is 182 career wins heading into tonight's first-place showdown with the Eskimos and seven trips to the Grey Cup in 15 years (and three wins). In 15 seasons as a head coach, he's been to 12 Western Finals.
But that's not why players are so quick to buy into his no-nonsense approach.
"They buy into consistency when they know you're going to enforce it," said Buono. "They don't buy into what you say they buy into what you do. So I'm an enforcer. My job is to enforce the rules. It's not that hard - you just state black and white and move on.
TOO MUCH OF A PAIN
"And eventually, if it gets to be too much of a pain, you get rid of the guy."
There's never a shortage of players waiting to fill the vacant space.
"A lot of players aren't going to get the big bucks, but we know that with Wally, we're going to the playoffs and we've got a good shot at a ring," said linebacker Otis Floyd.
"And look at the results: When I first came in the league in 2000, we'd come in to play B.C. and it was like a scrimmage. There'd be 10,000 people. Now, there's 40,000. We went to the Grey Cup last year and this year, we're 5-0. That's big. And back in Calgary, they're still trying to pick up the pieces."