Wally Buono and the B.C. Lions

Altered egos.

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Forget that saying about old dogs. This seasoned cat has a few new tricks up his sleeve.

“I’m excited about 2010,” says a rested Wally Buono from behind his desk at the B.C. Lions’ practice facility in Surrey. “A lot of people say, ‘You’re different this year.’ I mean, I don’t feel I am, but a lot of people say I am.”

In fact, he admits there has been a conscious decision to change during the off-season. But why? Buono became the winningest coach in CFL history last season and boasts just three losing campaigns on a coaching resumé that spans 20 years. However, one of the few subpar seasons came in 2009, so Buono spent much of his offseason diagnosing flaws in his football club rather than basking in the glow of his career accomplishments.

“I don’t want to be disrespectful, but my reflection had to do with our inability to be a better football team,” quips the Leos bench boss when the subject of his individual achievement is broached. “Now breaking a record, going 15–3 and winning the Grey Cup… I might have said, ‘Well, I’ve done enough, it’s time to move on.’ ”

Instead, Buono endorsed a contract extension that will have him oversee the pride through 2013. An obvious decision to some is seen as just the opposite by others. Buono has won everything there is to win; he is more than stable financially; and he is 60 years old, an age many of his contemporaries are looking to lighten their workloads. But men of great accomplishment rarely follow conventional wisdom, and Buono’s rationale reveals an intense ambition that is rivaled by few.

“What I’m trying to do is address a lot of different things other than players—the confidence, the swagger… We have to raise that bar.”

“If I felt I was ineffective, I would step aside. I do feel there is going to come a time where I do have to step aside. You need to give it to a younger person, you need to give it to a different person. I’m not ready to do that, no,” he explains patiently, knowing full well his decision needs no justification whatsoever. “What are the most tragic moments for a person like me? Watching Team Canada celebrate their gold medal. Watching the Super Bowl championship team celebrate their championship. Watching the Alouettes celebrate their championship. Why is that? Because you covet the moment, you covet the feeling. I’m thrilled for them, but I want to be there. I want to be that person. I know how satisfying it is, how fulfilling it is, and that’s what drives you.”

His personnel moves over the past nine months offer proof of his commitment to that singular goal. Most recently, he rubber-stamped the hiring of Rich Stubler to coach the defensive line, a position for which the former Toronto Argonauts head coach and defensive coordinator is overqualified; less-secure individuals would have balked at the idea of employing a potential replacement. Buono also reconfigured his offensive coaching staff, admitting his personal loyalty clouded those appointments last season. As is often the case, his most publicized alterations involved significant shuffling within the locker room. Always mindful of an escalating payroll, Buono normally replaces high-profile departures with virtual unknowns who generally transform into the players they supplant in relatively short order. However, this time around he has replaced household names with household names—an extreme departure from his traditional tactics.

“I’m also changing my approach because I believe this approach hopefully will give us success quicker,” Buono declares in a tone that suggests he would gladly begin training camp three months early. “What I’m trying to do is address a lot of different things other than players—the confidence, the swagger… We have to raise that bar.”

“I believe I have to reflect change in myself first. As somebody told me, they said, ‘Wally, you need to listen more.’ So I’m starting to listen more.”

And who better to do so than the rediscovered face of the franchise, Casey Printers. Nearly four years after spurning the Lions for an NFL opportunity amidst a very public squabble with teammate and rival Dave Dickenson, the electrifying pivot was welcomed back to the Lions late last season. The CFL’s Most Outstanding Player of 2004 seemed to recapture his magic from the moment he took his first snap last fall, his rebirth somewhat symbolic for a franchise that returns to its roots at Empire Field this summer in a temporary outdoor facility.

“I get excited about what he brings to the organization. He brings that wow factor, that glee factor … you can see what that spark did for Geroy [Simon], right?” Buono grins with the enthusiasm of a wide-eyed freshman. It’s a look that speaks volumes; a look that can be found on the face of a child attending his first game in person. It’s the look of a football fan, not of an employee.

It’s that passion that has allowed him change at a time when the majority of his peers are set in their rigid ways. The Lions’ failure to consistently win games last season finds him both reinvigorated and reinvented as his 21st season commences. This year’s version of Wally Buono appears to be a confident combination of enthusiasm and experience with a dash of humility. “I believe I have to reflect change in myself first,” Buono readily admits, in assessing his club’s chances of altering its prospects in 2010. “As somebody told me, they said, ‘Wally, you need to listen more.’ So I’m starting to listen more.”

With ears wide open, he longs to hear the same thing as the devoted football fans of British Columbia: “Come on and roar, you Lions, roar.”

Photo: Kyle Clapham.

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June 18, 2010