TORONTO — Five Grey Cup championships. Four Annis Stukus Trophies as the CFL’s coach of the year. And yet Wally Buono believes the B.C. Lions might be better off without him as their head coach.
Buono was a runaway winner of the 2011 coach of the year honour Friday, receiving 45 first-place votes from the 56 voting members of the Football Reporters of Canada. Paul LaPolice of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Kavis Reed of the Edmonton Eskimos were the finalists.
Buono was a clear sentimental choice given he resigned as head coach a week after B.C.’s improbable Grey Cup championship to concentrate full-time on his GM duties. Buono didn’t look far for his replacement, promoting defensive co-ordinator Mike Benevides.
For nine seasons, Buono was the Lions head coach and GM, which he said meant the club went much of the off-season without someone to co-ordinate coaching responsibilities because Buono was too busy being the general manager. Now, with Benevides on board, that situation has been rectified.
“The organization today might be better off because during the off-season it has a head coach who can deal with everything,” Buono said. “When I was doing it most of my energy was put into being a general manager, scouting, personnel, contracts, business.
“For me it has been very, very helpful and very good to have Mike. He takes care of a lot of things and from that perspective hopefully two minds are better than one.”
But Buono wasn’t feeling overly sentimental Friday. He says the trophy will be on display at home in a room his wife has set up for his football accomplishments. But Buono won’t be spending a lot of time there admiring the latest addition to his hardware collection.
“I’m not into a lot of this stuff,” he said. “My wife has a little bit of what looks like a shrine set up but that’s for her.
“For me, it’s more about the memories, the relationships. I don’t wear my Grey Cup rings, I never have. I’ve received the commissioner’s ring, I don’t wear that and it’s not that I don’t appreciate it. To me, the memories and emotions are what are important to me.”
It was a roller-coaster 2011 season for Buono and the Lions.
B.C. opened the campaign intent on making a Grey Cup run with the CFL title game scheduled to be played at B.C. Place. Only three teams in league history had ever won the Grey Cup at home, with the Lions being the last in 1994.
But the Lions opened with five straight losses and only one win in their first seven games. There were calls in Vancouver for Buono’s head, something he says he was able to weather in part because he was also the club’s GM.
More importantly, Buono had the support of owner David Braley, who loyally stuck by his embattled head coach and GM. Buono kept true to his core beliefs and philosophies and didn’t stray in his message to his players to stay the course and believe most of the solutions to the team’s woes were already in the dressing room.
The move paid off as quarterback Travis Lulay, the CFL’s outstanding player, caught fire and led B.C. to victory in 10 of its last 11 regular-season games to finish atop the West Division standings.
B.C. beat Edmonton 40-23 in the West Division final before capping its most improbable championship run with a 34-23 Grey Cup win over Winnipeg.
“From an internal point of view it was a struggle,” Buono said. “The thing we didn’t do was panic.”
And when the situation became most dire, Buono recollected his days as a linebacker and punter with the Montreal Alouettes in the 1970s playing for Hall of Fame head coach Marv Levy.
“I’ve never been a big believer (of panicking) and that’s from my Marv Levy roots,” Buono said. “Marv never panicked. He’d say, ’Hey, this is my team, these are the guys I’m going to go with.’ Yes, he’s going to tinker when he has to but that was imbedded into us as players that it was our own responsibility, our ship and our own team and the success of that was going to be predicated on what we did.
“I felt the same thing, I felt we had a lot of good players playing bad football and maybe good coaches not coaching as well as we could and when those things were fixed things started improving.”
Both LaPolice and Reed said Buono was a deserving winner.
“When you strive for championships, you can’t be disappointed when someone who wins the championship gets coach of the year,” said LaPolice. “I have tremendous respect for coach Buono and when I came into the league he was doing it right and even when he’s going out he’s still doing it right.”
Added Reed: “I’m truly convinced the right person won this award. Given what coach Buono has accomplished in his career and what he did this past season, I truly believe they got it correct.”
Buono admits his decision to leave coaching hasn’t fully sunk in. But it will become real the night before the Lions open training camp in June, he said.
And when the 2012 season does kick off, Benevides will have huge shoes to fill as Buono left the sidelines as the all-time leader in CFL coaching wins (254), years in playoffs (21) and first-place finishes (13) and tied for most Grey Cup appearances (nine) and victories (five).
But not even a fourth Annis Stukus Trophy is enough to make Buono second-guess his decision to leave coaching.
“For me, there is no closure because I’m still involved in football and am involved in a capacity where I think I can be of tremendous assistance to the organization,” Buono said. “”As far as coaching, that takes its toll on you, both physically and mentally.
“It’s a time in my life where I need to do other things.”