Wally Buono wants to go out a winner.
The 2018 CFL season will be the last for the B.C. Lions veteran head coach. And Buono is willing to adopt the late Don Matthews’ high-risk, high-reward mantra to win games in his final campaign.
“This is my last year and I’m going to work harder to win,” Buono said during a conference call Wednesday. “If that means I’ve got to take more risks, then what’s the worst that could happen?
“Are they going to fire me? If they do, God bless them. I’ll just have an earlier retirement than I already have. To me, I want to win, Ed (GM Ed Hervey) wants to win, the coaches want to win and I think the players want to win. If that means I have to be a little bit more outside the box, hey, I’m going to do that.”
Matthews, who died in 2017 at age 77, was one of the most prolific coaches in CFL history with 231 wins and 10 Grey Cups on his resume. Players loved playing for Matthews because he created a winning atmosphere and protected them. But Matthews never shied away from controversy and was always willing to roll the dice in pressure situations.
Buono, 68, has won more games than any CFL head coach (273 and counting) taking a much more conservative approach. But he’s made it winning five Grey Cup titles and being named the league’s top coach four times.
Buono has also been a model of consistency through his CFL career. He spent 13 seasons (winning three Grey Cups) as the head coach/GM of the Calgary Stampeders before joining the Lions in 2003.
Buono was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014 before being named to the Order of Canada in 2015.
He’s entering his 12th season as B.C.’s head coach and seventh as the vice-president of football operations. Buono stepped down as GM last November following 15 seasons in the role, appointing Hervey as his replacement.
Buono isn’t feeling nostalgic heading into his final CFL season.
“I want to think of it as the next season with high expectations,” he said. “I’ve always approached it the same way.
“Honestly, I thought 2017 was going to be my last season until probably more towards the latter part of October when (owner David Braley) was very candid he wasn’t going to sell and wanted me to help him in the transition. To me, I don’t want to put pressure on the team … my job is to coach in 2018 and after that life goes on.”
Quarterback Jonathon Jennings said Lions players don’t feel any added pressure to send Buono out a winner.
“(Buono) preaches it all the time, our job is to come in and win,” Jennings said. “We have that expectation of ourselves and it would be icing on the cake to send Wally out on a good note.”
The Lions have work to do in order to achieve that goal. They missed the playoffs last year after posting a 7-11 record.
But now the job of tweaking the Lions’ roster is Hervey’s, much to Buono’s relief.
“It’s been very good for me because I haven’t had to go through the ordeal of being the GM,” Buono said. “I’ve thanked Ed about 100 times for that because at the end of it when I see him struggling or gut-wrenching over a decision I know it’s in good hands but I know I’m not the one who has to make it .”
Hervey said the Lions’ front-office decisions are a collaborative effort.
“We work as a team,” he said. “Obviously they give me the freedom to select the players but we both share the same goals, the same passion for this football team and that’s winning games.
“Those areas where I have questions, it’s easy to walk in there and ask him a question and get a different perspective. It has allowed me to continuously grow in the position I’m in but it also allows me to make decisions I feel best fit this football team.”
One question facing the Lions is the status of veteran quarterback Travis Lulay, 34, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in September.
Buono said Lulay, who signed a one-year deal in February, will work out Friday as part of his team physical to show he has fully recovered.
“Travis is very comfortable, he’s very much looking forward to it,” Buono said. “Once we get Friday done that’s going to be more to let the media see, let the public see where he’s at.
“But I think in (Lulay’s) mind he’s coming to training camp to be a part of practice.”