SURREY, B.C. — Wally Buono always hoped to go out on a high note — and now he has.
The winningest coach in CFL history is stepping away from the sidelines to concentrate on his managerial duties with the Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions. Buono was named vice-president of football operations and will retain his general manager’s title.
“I think now is the perfect time,” said Buono, 61, in an interview with The Canadian Press after a news conference announcing his decision Monday at the team’s practice facility. “When you look at your own usefulness, I think I’ve been useful in terms of climbing this club to another Grey Cup.”
The announcement came just over a week after Buono guided his club to a 34-23 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Grey Cup. The Lions completed a miraculous worst-to-first run after starting the season 0-5.
Buono said the Lions need another voice and another face to guide them into 2012 and beyond. He does not think he can reproduce the same amount of energy the team put forth in the 2011 campaign.
“I don’t I think I can get the players or the coaches to buy into it again,” said Buono. “If there’s another face, another voice, that in itself will be more energetic, more exciting — just a better stimulus.”
Buono posted a 101-60-1 record with the Lions after joining the team as GM and coach in 2003. He led B.C. to a pair of Grey Cup wins, seven division final appearances and five first-place finishes in the West Division.
“Everybody dreams of exiting on top,” said Buono. “Everybody dreams about exiting on their own merits. But David (Braley, the Lions owner) has given me the opportunity to do that since I’ve been here. He’s always allowed me to have the last say. I can’t honestly say that all leaderships would have done that.”
Noting that coaching takes an exacting toll physically and emotionally, Buono said he has been contemplating the move for years.
Buono has a 254-139-3 record over 22 seasons as a coach with the Lions and Calgary Stampeders. He has won five Grey Cups in that time — two with B.C. (2006, 2011) and three with Calgary (1992, 1998, 2001).
He joined the Lions after falling out of favour with Stampeders owner Michael Feterik and his right-hand man Fred Fateri. Buono admitted he did not expect to go out on his own terms after that difficult time in 2003.
The devout Christian chalked up the rare opportunity to divine intervention.
“Honestly, when I left Calgary, I had a lot of uncertainty, but I just believed that God had directed us here,” said Buono.
Late Lions president and CEO Bob Ackles’ strong pursuit of Buono also greatly influenced Buono’s decision to come to B.C.
Ackles’ unexpected death at 69 due to a heart attack in 2008 during a weekend boating trip also played a part in Buono’s decision to leave the field as he seeks a better work-life balance. Buono wants to be able to steal a few days away with his children and grandchildren, but said coaching does not allow him to.
“Bob’s passing showed us that time is not endless,” said Buono. “Sometimes you look at time as endless, but you’ve gotta have the time to give yourself more opportunities.”
Lions defensive co-ordinator Mike Benevides, who also coached with Buono in Calgary and joined him in B.C. at the same time in 2003, is considered the top candidate to become the next head coach.
“Mike is a candidate,” said Buono. “But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself there. The thing I definitely appreciate is where a man’s been and how he’s gotten there and what he’s done with the opportunities he’s had. I like Mike. I think he’s done a lot.”
Former Lions and Stampeders quarterback Dave Dickenson, now Calgary’s offensive co-ordinator, has also been cited as a potential candidate. Buono indicated that Dickenson is his second choice at best.
“I have in mind who I’m going to go after first,” said Buono. “I don’t want to say Dave doesn’t have enough experience, because that’s not true. There are other teams that are going to be looking at him. From my perspective, I believe at this point that I have another person that I’d like to look at first.”
Reports indicate Benevides will head to Regina on Tuesday to interview for the Saskatchewan Roughriders vacant head coaching position. Buono has given Benevides permission to interview with the Riders, but the discussions won’t prevent the assistant from being promoted in B.C.
“I have said no (to other teams wanting to interview Lions coaches) before, but not at this time,” said Buono. “To prevent someone the opportunity (of coaching elsewhere), and not give him the opportunity (in B.C.), I don’t think is right.”
Buono said the next Lions coach will have CFL experience, but added it is not a prerequisite for the job. He noted Montreal’s Marc Trestman excelled without any previous experience in the league, as did Marv Levy with the Als in the 1970s.
Buono hopes to name his successor before he departs Dec. 13 for his annual vacation in Hawaii. He will leave the decision on the future of the current coaching staff up to the next field boss.
“If I wanted to do all that, then I wouldn’t have (stepped down),” he said.