VANCOUVER - Wally Buono was in typical pre-game form until the subject came up.
“How would you describe your relationship with Edmonton?” the columnist inquired.
“I hate Edmonton!”
And there it began.
“As a player with the Montreal Alouettes, the only team I played in Grey Cups was Edmonton,” he got going.
Those were the five-in-a-row Eskimo days, he didn’t have to mention.
“Then I go to Calgary as a coach and who is always there like big brother beating up little brother.
“For 10 years as a player and 17 years as a coach ... now I get so old I can’t change how I feel.”
The Eskimos have returned to the West final for the first time since 2005, when for the second time in their history they beat the B.C. Lions here and came back the following week to win the Grey Cup.
That was early in Buono’s nine year run as B.C. boss after his 17 seasons as assistant and head coach in Calgary.
If Buono figured he got rid of them, well, they’re baaaack.
Wally Buono goes into this game as owner of the two most compelling statistics in CFL coaching history.
This is the 18th season in the 22 years he’s been a head coach that he’s taken his team to a divisional final.
He’s 8-9 when he gets there — 8-8 in the West Final and 0-1 as a crossover team in the East final.
Edmonton has been the biggest reason involved for his record being so so considering his teams have had the bye to 12 of those 16 West finals going into this one.
“They’ve always given the Eskimo coach what he’s needed to win,” said Buono of the community-owned team from Edmonton.
“They’ve been the model. They were willing to pay the price to win. Did I always agree with the way they did things, no. But the strength of the CFL has always been Edmonton. They’ve always been ahead of most teams.”
Until lately. And now there’s Buono, the winningest coach in CFL history, who has had no other flaw than that he’s had trouble closing ... and there’s the Eskimos again.
The Eskimos and his Lions were part of a three-way photo finish for first place in the West with 11-7 records but the Lions had a 3-1 record against the Eskimos to claim the bye to the final.
While Eskimos’ rookie head coach Kavis Reed is being trumpeted as Coach of the Year, what about Buono.
Reed took a team with a 5-0 start to this game. Buono took a team with a 0-5 start, going 11-2 the rest of the way after a significant percentage of the population had turned on him like he was Roberto Luongo or somebody.
Buono went from being 0-5 to winning his last game 43-1 over the Alouettes.
“Was there a time I was ready to blow the whole ship up? Yes.”
But he didn’t. He got the Lions to the bye week with only one more loss and that bye week brought them together.
“They needed time to get replenished from their emotional scars. The start had taken it’s toll.”
And now they’re coming out of a different bye week.
“It’s been a good two weeks. We’ve used them very productively. We’ve refreshed and we’ve improved certain areas.”
When he’s 8-9 in division finals, can you really know what you’re going to get on game day?
“The most important thing for me is the mindset you go into the game with,” said Buono.
“You can only go by history. A lot of the times it’s indicative they’ll be ready to play. Their work ethic and focus has been excellent. The character of the players and their mindset this week has shown that they’re close and not going to back off.
“We had a most miserable weather day at our practice facility in Surrey and I didn’t hear one complaint.”
But what if it happens again to Wally Buono?
What if he loses another West final? To Edmonton?
“Unless we get it done (Sunday) or next week I will not feel that it’s been worth it,” he said of turning the team around from the 0-5 start.
“There is satisfaction of being here and hosting the game. But it’s what we do (Sunday).”
If Wally Buono loses this one, he’ll hate Edmonton at a whole new level. This should be his defining season of an incredible career.