Wally Buono’s final year in the Canadian Football League kicks off this week, and between Saturday’s season-opener and his final game, there will be no shortage of attention paid to the man.
Words will be written in newspapers and on websites across the country; the talking heads on the league’s television broadcasts will wax poetic – and rightly so – on the legacy that Buono leaves after nearly 50 years in the league, and as he heads into the home stretch, there are bound to be in-game tributes to the man in stadiums from Vancouver and Calgary, where he coached for decades, to Montreal, where he grew up and later played for the Alouettes, winning two Grey Cups in the 1970s.
The 68-year-old South Surrey resident, however, doesn’t have much time for victory laps.
Instead, he has a game to prepare for.
“To me, it’s business as usual,” Buono told Black Press Media in late-May from Kamloops, the host site of the Lions’ training camp.
“What happens next week, next month, next year, for us isn’t relevant. For us, what’s relevant is today. For me, it’s just always about the next practice, the next game, the next thing. You can’t focus on anything beyond that.
“It’s my last (year), but I don’t necessarily feel any different, and I shouldn’t.”
Regardless of whether Buono feels any different heading into his last season on the sidelines, much has indeed changed for the Lions.
Last November, it was announced that Buono – who had been the team’s general manager since 2003, and held the dual coach-GM role for all but four of the last 15 seasons – would give up front-office duties, and Ed Hervey, former Edmonton Eskimos’ GM, was hired to replace him. Buono – who had hinted at retirement in recent years – decided to stay as coach for one final season, to help ease the transition into a new regime.
So far, the transition has been a smooth one, Buono said.
“It’s not a big deal, really. The only thing that’s different is that if we have to bring a player in, or deal with a suspension or that kind of stuff, Ed will ask my opinion and keep me informed, but I don’t have to deal with it,” he said.
“So it’s been a little bit easier… you can focus more on coaching, on the players. It’s still about coaching for me, and about trying to build the best team. And I really like what Ed has done, and I like the players we’ve brought it.”
This year’s training camp did have one unique twist, as well, Buono acknowledged. Because it was his final one, his wife, Sande, his four children and six grandchildren joined him in Kamloops for the team’s annual Fan Fest weekend.
“We had a nice family picture taken, they had lots of fun. Would I do that every training camp? Probably not but I just thought because it was my last, we wanted to do it and it worked out great,” he said.
Prior to joining the Lions in 2003, Buono was the head coach of the Calgary Stampeders for 13 seasons, and an assistant coach for a few seasons before that. In total – between playing and coaching – he’s been involved in the CFL for 46 years. He has five Grey Cup victories as a coach to go with his two as a player, and is the winningest coach in league history. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014.
And while he’s unsure what retirement may bring – he joked with a Black Press Media reporter in 2016 that he’s coached as long as he has because “I’m just not that into golfing” – Buono said there will be a time and place for such thoughts.
That time is not now.
The Lions’ first regular-season game of the season is Saturday when they’ll host the Alouettes at BC Place. And Buono is focused solely on returning his team to the playoffs after a disappointing showing last season that saw the team finish with a 7-11 win-loss record, and a 1-6 mark over the final two months.
“Football’s a funny game. Last year, we lost six close games, and the year before, we won those games,” Buono said.
“This year, I’m hoping we’ll win them again, and if we do, we’ll be in the hunt, in the playoff run. And when you get there, anything can happen.”
The Lions’ record this season – good or bad – will have little to no effect on Buono’s CFL legacy, though he admits that it’s his goal to end things on a positive note. So much so, in fact, that he’s told media on a few occasions that he may be willing this season to take a few more chances on the field if it might help his team get a win.
“At times, my legacy as a coach has been to be very conservative, but… if we have to take some more chances, maybe let’s take them. That can sometimes give the players more confidence, too because they know you’re going to put the ball in their hands and expect them to succeed,” he said.
That said, don’t expect Buono to lead the league in third-and-long gambles.
“I won’t be going nuts. I may just occasionally surprise people, how’s that?” he laughed.
Though still loathe to look too far ahead, Buono does expect his final game to be an emotional one, and he’s quick to point out what the CFL has meant to him, reaching back to his days as an Alouette.
“I’ve had an excellent run in the CFL – 46 years plus – and it’s been a pleasure to work in this league,” he said.
“As much as people talk about what I’ve given the CFL, I feel like I’ve been given that much more.
“So, the last game of the year, is it going to be tough? I would think it will be, but between now and then I don’t think we need to get too focused on what’s to come.”
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