There’s no sense of finality yet for Wally Buono.
The 2018 season will be the last of Buono’s Hall of Fame career, but the B.C. Lions’ venerable head coach says that fact hasn’t sunk in yet.
“No because there’s way too much to do and focus on,” Buono said. “If I stop focusing then I shouldn’t be here because I’m already gone.
“If this was us going into the Grey Cup in Edmonton and it was going to be my last game, yes, I would be lying if I didn’t say there was probably some emotional attachment. But it’s too early in the process.”
B.C. kicks off Buono’s final campaign hosting the Montreal Alouettes as the Lions look to atone for a miserable 2017 season. The CFL club missed the playoffs after posting a 7-11 record.
“To me it’s Week 1, we— missed the playoffs last year, we hurt the organization, we’ve got to do a whole lot better than we did,” Buono said. “Say what you want, we won our two (exhibition) games.
“Professional football is about winning games. Winning always makes you feel better and more positive about yourself and always gives you, I think, momentum. This is what we want. We’re healthy, the guys are starting to buy into (GM Ed Hervey’s) and my philosophy and approach and part of that is they see the success we’re having.”
The regular season begins Thursday night with the Edmonton Eskimos visiting the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Toronto Argonauts begin their Grey Cup defence the following night in Regina against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The Calgary Stampeders host Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Saturday while the Ottawa Redblacks will play their season opener June 21 at home to Saskatchewan.
For many players, training camp is a necessary evil and grind. But not for Buono.
“I love training camp, it’s pure football,” he said. “I’m not going to miss it until maybe next June and my wife says, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’re going to keep you really busy so you won’t be missing anything.”’
Buono, 68, has won more games than any CFL head coach (273 and counting) and captured a total of seven Grey Cup titles as a player (two) and head coach (five). He remains the Lion’s vice-president of football operations but stepped down as GM in November 2017 after 15 seasons in that job.
Jonathon Jennings begins his third season as B.C.’s starting quarterback with a new offensive co-ordinator in Jarious Jackson. The unit struggled with consistency during the exhibition season while the Lions’ defence registered three TDs in the two pre-season games.
But Buono said that’s not surprising, given many of the starters on defence played for defensive co-ordinator Mark Washington last year.
“The offence is new so for the quarterbacks it’s always a harder transition,” Buono said. “Jonathan has a good grasp but right now it’s not second nature.
“They (Lions quarterbacks) still have to think about it.”
B.C. was the only West Division club to post a sub .500 record last year. Buono has been in the division since 1987 and can’t remember the last time a team finished first with less than 12 or 13 wins.
That makes starting the season strong is important.
“Getting off to a good start is wins you have in your bank account,” he said. “If you get off to a poor start it’s a debit you have in your account and it’s hard to make that up all the time.
“All bad things happen when you lose.”
Here’s a look at other 2018 storylines:
JOHNNY FOOTBALL: Johnny Manziel made headlines last month when he signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and the CFL club had plenty of American reporters attending training camp to speak with the ‘12 Heisman Trophy winner and former Cleveland Browns first-round pick. Jeremiah Masoli is bona fide starter but if Hamilton falters coming out of the gate — the club opens with five straight games against West Division opponents — there could be calls for a quarterback change. Manziel, a six-foot, 210-pound Texan, was 21-of-32 passing for 168 yards and a TD with 29 yards rushing on six carries in Hamilton’s two exhibition games but did show flashes of brilliance, especially when using his mobility to extend plays.
THE TRESTMAN EFFECT: The Toronto Argonauts captured last year’s CFL title in their first season with Marc Trestman on the sidelines. They enter the season looking to become the first back-to-back Grey Cup champions since the Montreal Alouettes, who won in 2009 and 2010 with Trestman calling the shots. After mulling his football future this off-season, quarterback Ricky Ray returns to lead Trestman’s pass-happy offence.
SHERMAN ON THE SIDELINES: The Mike Sherman era in Montreal officially kicks off Saturday night when the Alouettes visit the B.C. Lions. Sherman has previous pro head-coaching experience with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers (2000-05) and served as the club’s GM from 2001-04. The Packers were 57-39 over Sherman’s tenure and won three division titles (2002-04). He takes over an Alouettes squad that lost its last 11 regular-season games in 2017 en route to a league-worst 3-15 record and missed the CFL playoffs for a third straight year.
BOMBER DOWN: Rookie Chris Streveler will start at quarterback Thursday night when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers host the Edmonton Eskimos. The six-foot-one, 211-pound Streveler replaces veteran Matt Nichols, who’s out four-to-six weeks with a knee injury suffered last week in training camp. Streveler played in both of Winnipeg’s exhibition games, completing 13-of-19 passes for 184 yards and two TDs with an interceptions. The Bombers also have quarterbacks Alex Ross and Bryan Bennett on their roster. Ross appeared in four games last year with B.C., completing 5-of-12 passes for 82 yards.
QB CONTROVERSY?: Head coach/GM Chris Jones still hasn’t said whether Zach Collaros or Canadian Brandon Bridge will be the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ starter when they host the Toronto Argonauts on Friday night. The Riders acquired Collaros from Hamilton in the off-season after he’d been supplanted by Jeremiah Masoli as the Ticats’ starter. Collaros was the front-runner for the CFL’s outstanding player award before suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2015. But he’s struggled since returning, tying the league record for most consecutive losses by a starter at 12. Bridge, of Mississauga, Ont., was effective coming off the bench last year for the Riders and Jones hasn’t been afraid to use two quarterbacks in a contest. Stay tuned.
DYNAMIC DUO: Winnipeg running back Andrew Harris came close to becoming the first player in CFL history to register 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. The Winnipeg native led the league in rushing (1,035 yards) and catches (105) while adding 857 receiving yards. Toronto running back James Wilder Jr. was the top rookie in 2017 with 872 yards rushing and 51 catches for 533 yards as a part-time starter. Fully entrenched as the Argonauts’ No. 1 running back, Wilder has said one of his goals this season was the reach the 1,000-1,000 plateau.
RECEIVERS GONE: Mike Reilly was the CFL’s outstanding player last year after passing for a league-high 5,830 yards. But the Edmonton Eskimos quarterback will be minus Brandon Zylstra (Minnesota, NFL) and Adarius Bowman (Winnipeg) this year. Zylstra had 100 catches for a league-best 1,687 yards and five TDs last year. Bowman had 45 catches for 534 yards and five TDs but in 2016 registered 120 receptions for 1,761 yards and nine TDs. Derel Walker, the league’s top rookie in 2015, will anchor the receiving corps after registering 198 catches for 2,699 yards and 16 TDs his first two CFL seasons. He returned to Edmonton last season after a stint with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.