VANCOUVER — If there is one thing you can learn from Wally Buono it might just be that every challenge is an opportunity.
Take his four-year absence from the sidelines: it was, if anything, a chance to evaluate, recharge and take control of a team that may just be in a very good position to challenge in the West Division in 2016.
“If I had to describe what I’m feeling today, I would have to compare it to 2011,” says Buono.
As Lions fans recall, a young rising quarterback in Travis Lulay had taken them to double-overtime versus the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the 2010 Western Semi-Final. Long before Aaron Rogers made the Hail Mary pass a regular event, Lulay was hooking up with Manny Arceneaux for a game-tying major on the CFL’s version of the frozen tundra in Regina.
“When we started to piece together the team heading into 2011 we knew we had something very special in Travis and right now, I believe we have something very special in Jonathon,” beams the Hall of Fame coach.
Jennings, who burst onto the scene following injuries to both Lulay and back-up John Beck, made his first appearance of any consequence in Calgary on Sept. 18. The end result was a loss to the reigning champs, but for fans, teammates and coaches, the quick feet and strong arm of the young pivot gave them reason to believe that the club might have another starter in-waiting.
As the season progressed, Jennings did too and his production over the final four games of the year was among the league’s top quarterbacks, which tells Buono one thing.
“He gives you hope, and in January, hope is what you’re selling.”
The Lions have not been hibernating by any means as Buono nailed down critical contract extensions for Kirby Fabien, Arceneaux and David Menard prior to Christmas and started off 2016 by re-upping offensive lineman Jovan Olafioye and began to piece together his coaching staff.
“I haven’t just had a Christmas break to think about how we need to change,” admits Buono. “I’ve had four years of evaluation to drawn upon to now turn things around.”
While the decline in the standings is of concern to everyone in the organization, it’s also important to note that the club’s regular season record since the 2011 championship season is 40-32.
“When you are competitive, at least in the eyes of the fans, it creates expectations and rightly so,” explains Buono. “A 13-5 record in 2012 or the 11-7 season in 2013 not to mention winning eight games at home in both of those seasons is absolutely reason enough for fans to believe we should have made it to a Grey Cup or past divisional semi-finals.
“We did not get the job done,” he laments. “The past two seasons have been difficult, but the pieces are there and the core is strong.
“We will compete at a high level this season.”
Ironically, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who finished the 2015 campaign with just three wins, may have the most buzz of any CFL team going into 2016 due mainly to a significant front office shakeup. But it’s a tough sell here, says Buono.
“The past two seasons have been difficult, but the pieces are there and the core is strong.” Head Coach/GM Wally Buono
“I’m not sure that kind of season here in Vancouver is something you can recover from in a short period of time,” he says. “Being competitive creates disappointment when you don’t win, but that kind of rapid decline can create disinterest in certain markets and disappointment is easier to rectify than disinterest.”
So does returning to the sidelines intimidate the all-time wins leader?
“When I retired from coaching I felt it was getting difficult to communicate with younger players,” Buono reflects. “Young football players are just that – young men. The young men we had on our team in 2003 or 2004 are different than those who are with us now.
“One generation is not better than the other, they just come to you with different life experiences now such as social media. After four years away, I believe I might actually be better equipped to coach our young players than I was when I left in 2011 and I am excited to take on that challenge.”
With just weeks separating the Lions from training camp it’s a busy time but an exciting one too.
“I’ve wrapped up our coaching staff and I have a pretty full desk these days as we begin to look at potential free agents as well as our own camps in the U.S., but I am re-energized and very excited about the days ahead. The season can’t come soon enough.”