May 30, 2016 - 6:00 AM
KAMLOOPS, B.C. - In some ways, Wally Buono never really stopped coaching the B.C. Lions.
Sure, he stepped down from the post following the club's Grey Cup victory in 2011, citing fatigue and a desire to focus on management duties, but like many retirees found it difficult to walk away from something that had defined him professionally.
"This is the thing that I didn't realize: you don't stop coaching ... you just don't have the responsibility," said Buono. "That's nobody's fault but my own. I'm not blaming myself for it because you are a coach, you were a coach, you are a coach."
Even as the Lions' general manager and vice-president of football operations, two positions he still holds, Buono would often survey practice from up close, sometimes offering tips to players on how to better execute a drill.
"Your mind and the way you see things doesn't change," he said.
Buono's protege, Mike Benevides, took over as coach in 2012, but was axed after three seasons that saw B.C.'s record slide from 13-5 to 11-7 to 9-9, including 0-3 in the playoffs. Jeff Tedford, a high-profile U.S. college coach, then lasted one disappointing 7-11 campaign in 2015 that culminated with another one-and-done playoff.
With the Lions suffering from declining results in the standings and, perhaps more importantly, a declining profile in the Vancouver market, Buono and owner David Braley agreed this winter that the best course of action was to have the 66-year-old return to the sidelines.
"There is an urgency to everything we do," Buono said as the Lions opened training camp Sunday. "Sometimes being in the fire is better than bringing somebody into the fire. I knew what we needed to do to improve the football club.
"How can we expedite that? The way I looked at it was that if I was going to be involved, maybe the best thing to do was be 100 per cent involved."
Buono won a record 254 games during his first 22 seasons — the first 13 years were with the Calgary Stampeders followed by nine with the Lions — and said he feels reinvigorated by the challenge ahead.
"When I got out of coaching I was tired," he said. "I was mentally, emotionally tired. Doing it for 22 years, it takes its toll.
"I'm at a point now where I'm refreshed."
Meanwhile, what's old is new again for some of the players, including Lions quarterback Travis Lulay, who played his first three seasons under Buono.
"It feels strangely familiar," he said. "I thought it would be different, but when he addresses the team it's like old times.
"He provides a calming confidence."
Veteran defensive back Ryan Phillips, at his 12th camp with B.C., said he owes his career to Buono and is excited to see where this next chapter takes them.
"I'll go to war with him any day," he said. "His disciplines are still the same and that's something that we need. That's something maybe we've lacked the last couple of years."
Buono conceded he's had to adjust his methods to the modern athlete — cell phones are now allowed in meetings as long as they're on silent — but the coach-player relationship remains intact.
"From standing outside the perimeter, you do learn a lot of things," he said. "You have to be cognizant that you maybe have to treat people a little bit different, but at the end of it I don't think things have changed that much.
"You tell the players what you expect, you hold them accountable and from there it's up to them."
A winner of five Grey Cups as a coach, Buono smiled and joked when asked if he was at all concerned his legacy might be diminished if things don't go as planned in his second tenure leading the Lions.
"Can I be a little bit of (a jerk) here?" he said. "If I go 0-18 are they going to take away my Hall of Fame or my Order of Canada?
"I would rather my legacy be that even though I didn't have to come back, I did."
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News from © The Canadian Press , 2016