Wally Buono's return to the sidelines at forefront of B.C. Lions' revival | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Wally Buono's return to the sidelines at forefront of B.C. Lions' revival

B.C. Lions' head coach Wally Buono gestures on the sideline during the second half of a CFL football game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday November 5, 2016. Buono's return to the sidelines this season is at the forefront of the B.C. Lions' revival. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
November 10, 2016 - 6:35 AM

SURREY, B.C. - When the television cameras are switched off, a different Wally Buono emerges.

More at ease, the coach with the most wins in CFL history — and counting — will sometimes sit down with reporters in his office at the B.C. Lions' practice facility to field questions, discuss strategy and even get out from behind his desk to diagram plays on a whiteboard to prove a point.

Every so often Buono will take off his glasses and get almost playfully annoyed at a query, but it seems like on some level he enjoys it all — the back-and-forth, the strategizing, the football banter.

The 66-year-old has had almost all the right answers in 2016 for the Lions, stepping back onto the sidelines to lead the resurgent club to a 12-6 regular season ahead of Sunday's West Division semifinal at B.C. Place Stadium against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

"I had no expectation," Buono said this week. "In training camp, you could see certain things that were very optimistic, very positive. You could see the speed and the athleticism on defence.

"I felt coming out of training camp that we had a very athletic, very good team. They had to grow, which they did."

Citing fatigue and a desire to focus on his front-office duties, Buono retired from coaching after guiding the Lions to a victory in the 2011 Grey Cup, but the itch to teach and motivate remained.

As B.C.'s general manager and vice-president of football operations — two titles he still holds — Buono would often hang around practice during the coaching tenures of protege Mike Benevides and successor Jeff Tedford.

And when Tedford left following a solitary 7-11 campaign that culminated in the Lions' fourth straight one-and-done playoff appearance, Buono kept a promise to owner David Braley that he would return to coach the team if there were no other viable options.

"The whole atmosphere has just been different," said wide receiver Bryan Burnham, in his third CFL season. "Wally commands a different level of respect than other coaches. The way he treats his players, he's always 100 per cent honest."

An inductee into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014, Buono entered his 23rd season as a head coach with 254 wins. He added a dozen more to that total with an old-school approach that has been tweaked for the modern athlete.

"The two main principles I feel like he brought back to our team were accountability and discipline," said veteran defensive back Ryan Phillips, in his 12th season with the Lions. "We went through our growing pains, but now guys are buying in and we're seeing results."

One example of the new Buono, who coached 13 years in Calgary before joining B.C. in 2003, is allowing music during certain portions of practice and often ending sessions early if he's happy with the work that's been done.

It's a kinder, gentler Buono.

But if things aren't going as planned, players can expect a blunt assessment.

"He doesn't sugarcoat anything. He doesn't care about your feelings," said running back Jeremiah Johnson, who signed with this Lions in the off-season. "You want coaches to shoot things straight. You don't want to be guessing."

A five time-time Grey Cup winner as a coach, Buono put his faith in quarterback Jonathon Jennings this season, sticking with the second-year man despite some ups and downs. Jennings repaid that belief by putting up more than 5,200 yards passing and 27 touchdowns in leading B.C. to second in the West and the club's first home playoff game since 2012.

"(Buono's) encouraged an environment of competition," said Jennings, whose team is on a three-game winning streak heading into Sunday. "Every coach expects to win, but something he instilled in us from the beginning was that we've got to come in here and compete every single day."

Apart from Jennings' emergence, B.C.'s offence has been the benefactor of breakout seasons from Emmanuel Arceneaux and Burnham — two receivers Buono also stuck with — a solid ground game, and a healthy and more mature offensive line. Meanwhile, the defence withstood three key injuries in the secondary and tied for the league lead in sacks with 52.

"You look at our roster, it's not drastically different from a year ago," said Lions backup quarterback Travis Lulay, who has played for Buono on both sides of his coaching retirement. "We were the youngest team in the league a year ago, so we've grown up a bit, but a big part of that is Wally's mindset and high expectations.

"That was a message early on: 'We're going to win, so either you get up to speed to the level we need you at on the field or we'll win with other guys.'"

It's one formula the old-school coach has carried throughout his career and into 2016.

"I don't care who you are," Buono said during one of his office chats with the media. "If you're a superstar and you're not giving me what I want, I'll sit your ass."

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News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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