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Wally’s Way: How Wally Buono became the CFL’s most iconic coach

Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

“Do you really know who I am? Most people don’t have a clue. Maybe 10 people, maybe five people really know who you are. That’s including your wife and your kids. You have a persona, you live the persona. Our whole life, are we actors? I say everybody has two lives. We all live two lives. The life we see and the life we are.”

Wally Buono

If there was any question about how serious Wally Buono would take the final (technically meaningless) game of his team’s regular-season, he answered it definitively on Wednesday morning.

As the Lions settled into their meeting room at their practice facility in Surrey, B.C., Eminem’s The Real Slim Shady pounded through the speakers. It felt more like a spacious high school classroom than anything else, as the players laughed and chatted while Buono got in front of the room.

The chatter was still fizzling out as Buono told them they had a number of players show up late to their walkthrough practice on Tuesday.

When he told them the offending players had all been fined, he got the silence he was looking for.

“You were late,” he says, simply.

“My point is, let’s not relax. This isn’t a bullsh– game. Don’t coast into this game. Take care of the little things. If I’m on time, why can’t you be?”

There was some grumbling about the fines.

“It’s only $25 guys, it’s not the end of the world.”

Before he moves on to what he wants his team to focus on in practice that day, he addresses the issue one last time.

“Sometimes I’m benevolent,” he says. “Sometimes I’m…not benevolent.”

Wally Buono addresses his team before a game during the 2017 CFL season (Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

For all of the hoopla around Saturday’s game — Buono’s last at BC Place as a member of the Lions before he heads into retirement at season’s end — he has remained remarkably like himself at this point in any one of his previous 23 seasons coaching in the CFL. Buono has spent this week still the benevolent dictator, still fuming about a lackluster performance the week before in Saskatchewan and still just a football coach immersed in his team’s season, heading into its most crucial point.

Next week’s playoff date with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats helps him categorize Saturday’s game against Calgary as just another one to him, his staff and his players. To just about everyone else it’s the complete opposite. With a playoff date secured and no way for the Lions to be impacted by Saturday’s result, this game against the Stampeders (who are very much in a different boat, needing a win to clinch first in the West) is the perfect opportunity for Lions fans to celebrate and say goodbye to an icon in the CFL.

The winningest (and losingest, he’s quick to tell you) coach in CFL history, someone that’s been a part of the CFL as a player, coach or executive for the past 45 years, will stand on his home field sideline for the final time on Saturday night. This isn’t just any other game.

. . .

“Do you really know who I am?”

My conversation with Wally Buono is entering its 20th minute. It’s August 17th and we’re at the team’s hotel in Burlington, Ont. No other team in the league stays this far away from Toronto when they play the Argos, but Wally’s Lions are at this same hotel that they’ve always gone to. I’m told that it’s where they stay when the come to play the Ticats, too, which makes a little more sense. After 16 years in BC, no one questions it. It’s Wally’s way.

We’re in those slightly oversized, over-cushioned chairs that only hotels ever seem to buy, angled at each other in an open hallway outside of the team’s meeting rooms. This is the second or third long-ish conversation we’ve had to this point in the season. One seems to spill into the next and once we get past the first few minutes of each one, the weeks spent between don’t seem to matter.

After 449 career regular season games, Wally Buono is set to coach his last on Saturday night (Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

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To answer his question, with players occasionally walking by, I tell him that I don’t know who any of these people are, really.

“No, no, no,” he continues. “Who do you think in the sports world that you know? How many people really think they know who I am? Most people don’t have a clue. Maybe 10 people, maybe five people really know who you are. That’s including your wife and your kids.

“You have a persona, you live the persona. Our whole life, are we actors? We’re in a high-profile position. Who we really are…do we live two lives? I say everybody has two lives. We all live two lives. The life we see and the life we are.

“You don’t see me when I’m at home. That’s who I really am. Here it’s, ‘Can I turn the switch?’ If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be here. I think a lot of us are that way.”

Buono’s journey to his switch-flicking, dual persona life wasn’t an easy one. His father, Michael, came to Canada from Italy in 1951. The rest of their family — Wally, his brother Rocco and their mother Carmela — followed suit in 1953. Their boat docked at Pier 21 in Halifax and the family settled in Montreal. His father, a construction worker, died in his sleep in 1959. Wally and Rocco were placed in Shawbridge Boys’ Farm in Shawbridge, Que. It served as both a home for orphaned or wayward children and a juvenile detention centre. The brothers spent three and a half years there.

“It hasn’t been talked about too much (with him),” Wally’s daughter, Christie Buono says.

“I can’t imagine how difficult that would have been. I think that really speaks to the resilience that my father has and I think that’s inspiring. A lot of times people come from nothing. Sometimes they go up and sometimes they stay down. I think that speaks volumes about him.”

Wally Buono is pictured in uniform alongside his former coach, Marv Levy, who had a prolific career as a CFL and NFL head coach (Photo: BCLions.com)

“When you came out of Shawbridge you’re either going to get into trouble or you’re going to get into sports,” Buono said in one of those earlier conversations this year. “So fortunately for us, we got into sports. A lot of that had to do with a young man named Al Phaneuf.”

Phaneuf spent three years playing defensive back with the Alouettes and was a CFL All-Star in 1970. He coached Buono, taught him the game and set him on a path that led to a scholarship to play at the University of Idaho. Buono would graduate with a degree in education and played linebacker for the Als from 1972 to 1981, winning his first two Grey Cups in 1974 and 1977.

Teaching came naturally to him and he actually put the degree to use for a few years while he was playing for the Als. He’d work short-term for schools, leaving to join the football team in May and returning when the season was over, teaching from elementary to high school students. The foundation for a future football coach was already there.

His cleats on the shelf for good, Buono assisted with the Montreal Concordes in 1983 and in 1987 went to Calgary as an assistant. After three seasons, Norm Kwong made him the Stamps’ head coach in 1990. He added GM duties in 1992 and held both roles until 2002. In Calgary, it all started to fall into place. The dynamic quarterbacks, the wins, the first-place finishes, the playoff runs and three Grey Cups all piled up. And with each passing season in Calgary, the team, the league and the country got to know Buono.

“Your job is about more than winning football games. This is a gate-driven league. Your job is to also be accessible, to entertain, to help sell the franchises, to help sell the league. Wally figured that out from Day 1.”

Farhan Lalji, TSN

“Wally as one of the most old school guys understood what many of the youngest coaches in the league don’t,” says TSN’s Farhan Lalji, who has been around Buono for every one of his seasons with the Lions and covered some of Buono’s time in Calgary as well.

“And that’s that your job is about more than winning football games. This is a gate-driven league. Your job is to also be accessible, to entertain, to help sell the franchises, to help sell the league. Wally figured that out from Day 1.”

Jamie Cartmell, the Lions’ director of communications, has spent 13 of Buono’s 16 years in BC with him. He sees a world that’s changed drastically, even over the last 10 years, and a 68-year-old coach that has continually adapted to find success.

“Everything’s changed since he’s been a coach,” he says.

“Roster sizes and players and salaries and CBAs, no pads for practice, all that kind of stuff. There’s social media and everything else, but he’s always maintained through that. It’s almost ironic that he still is arguably the most accessible coach through it all.

“I think what he’s demonstrated is that you don’t have to give up any of your strategic game planning as far as winning a football game goes by being approachable and open and finding that time to sell the game.

“We’ve won championships in 2006 and 2011 and he’s the one suggesting, ‘Put a mic on a defensive guy. Come in and shoot halftime, come and shoot the pre-game speech, what do I care, I don’t say anything anyway. What do I care, shoot it. Put a mic on me, I don’t care.’

“It’s kind of weird that he’s got that old school mentality but he completely gets why this new school is sort of in class.”

The CFL's eventual all-time coaching wins leaders, Wally Buono and Don Matthews, pose in front of the Grey Cup in Regina on Nov. 16, 1995 (Photo: The Canadian Press)

. . .

Jarious Jackson was trying to enjoy his off-season in Vancouver when he opened up a newspaper. It was 2007 and Jackson had been working through the winter, hoping to move his way up in the Lions’ QB rotation when they’d begin their defence of the Grey Cup. A trade wasn’t going to let that happen. So Jackson drove out to Surrey to see Buono at the Lions’ practice facility.

“I come up to the facility and sit down with Wally and talk man-to-man and he said there was some truth to it,” Jackson, now the Lions’ offensive coordinator, says.

“He heard me out and said, ‘Hey, if you want to play, if you feel like you want to play out your option year I’m all for it.’”

Jackson played through his option year and filled in for an injured Dave Dickenson and Buck Pierce. The Lions went 14-3-1 and lost in the Grey Cup that year.

“I feel like that was a turning point for me, anyway, in our relationship,” Jackson says. “Talk to him like a man, he treats you like a man. I think we’ve had a great relationship ever since then. I let him know how I felt. I didn’t want to be taken advantage of and I know the club needs to be in a good position as well, but I’d rather play out my option and go from there. I think we’ve had the utmost respect for each other since then.”

Talk with enough current or former players and Buono’s honesty — at times in all of its spare-nothing bluntness — will come up.

“It was always transparent. You always knew what you got with Coach Wally Buono,” former Lions defensive lineman Brent Johnson said at his Canadian Football Hall of Fame induction.

“He wouldn’t sugarcoat things for you. He would tell you when you did a great job and he’d tell you when you screwed up and he’d tell you when you were not doing a good job and you were not meeting expectations. That’s refreshing sometimes.

“Players can take that both ways. I always took it as very refreshing. I never wanted a coach to tell me that everything’s great and then when they have their personnel meeting say, ‘Johnson, he doesn’t have it.’

“I think he has a knack for knowing when a player’s time is up. Lots of players don’t like that, right? That’s not a great conversation that you get to have, but it’s an honest conversation and he always gave you his honest opinion. To me, that’s a really great way to be coached. That’s a great way to be in a profession, whether you like the answer you’re getting or not. Transparency is really key and I think that’s what made him very special.”

Wally Buono signs autographs after the team's practice in Vancouver ahead of the 87th Grey Cup (Photo: The Canadian Press)

Respect, Buono says, is something that needs to be earned on both sides.

“I don’t care what the players think of me. There’s a point and time they’re all going to be upset with you,” he says. “But I do care that they respect you. Respect doesn’t mean they like you. It doesn’t mean they like you at all. If you want to be liked, you will not be respected.”

For Mark Washington, that respect came in a unique way. Like Jackson, Washington played for Buono then joined his coaching staff. He started his playing career in Montreal. When he was a free agent, his phone rang one day.

“I was out working out and he called the house and he talked to my wife and,” Washington trails off and laughs.

“It was funny. Teams had been calling and if I wasn’t home they would just leave a message. But he actually took time and he spoke with my wife, and had a nice little five, 10-minute conversation. That showed the kind of man he is, that he’d talk to my wife and just see how she’s doing. That right there was my first quote unquote encounter with him. It really wasn’t with me, it was with my wife.”

It was a small thing that Buono may have thought nothing of at the time. It may not have made Washington’s decision for him outright, but it was different.

“It meant something. It meant something. It was important,” he says. “And really, when you do it in comparison to what other teams did…”

“I just know this about Wally, and I’ve said this for years,” Lions QB Travis Lulay says. “The thing I respect the most, whether you agree with him or not on some of his decisions or whatever, or the way he speaks to the team, I just know everything he does is about us winning. It’s about putting a winning product on the field and I have a lot of respect for that. You have to respect that.”

Winning is the root of the whole thing. Without the wins, Buono wouldn’t have the career that he’s had. He wouldn’t have been afforded the luxury of essentially being able to call the shots through much of that career, moving only from Calgary to Vancouver. But chasing wins is balanced by dealing with losses and that’s a tension that you can feel hang over a coach and their organization.

Even when the Lions have exceeded the expectations of the majority of fans and pre-season pollsters, that pressure to keep winning is there. You can hear it in how often last week’s loss to Saskatchewan is discussed. Dave Dickenson, one of Buono’s star quarterbacks and now the Stampeders head coach, wore the same stress on Friday, with his powerhouse team coming in on a three-game losing streak.

“You can see what made the man and you can see what’s made him a success. As much as he’s been the winningest coach, he’s also been the losingest coach,” Cartmell says.

“He’s got longevity but he’s lost a lot of games and he’s endured all those losses. I remember the game when Travis went down in Ottawa (in 2014) after he’d come all the way back from surgery and everything else, (Buono) was the GM. He said even winning couldn’t make him happy anymore. It was so hard to win.

“I was saying to someone the other day, since training camp we’ve felt good about ourselves nine times. Nine wins, right? You can enjoy your job day-to-day and enjoy what you’re doing day-to-day and be on a relatively good mood in practice, but feeling really good about yourself, we’ve had that nine times in six months. That’s not an easy occupation to be in at any level, especially when you’re the head coach.”

Wally’s daughter Christie notes how the entire family chose to get involved with the team as a means of being closer to their dad in his demanding role. While Wally may take losses on a different level than the rest of the family, it’s felt across the home. Christie remembers her emotions getting the best of her one night in Calgary when she was a university student.

Listening to the post-game show on CHQR, she heard then-Stamps owner Michael Feterik speaking highly of Wally when she felt he wasn’t being treated the right way.

“I actually disguised myself,” she said of her radio appearance.

“I was so nervous because (Stamps play-by-play man) Mark Stephen and I know each other so well. So they had the owner, Feterik at the time, and he was going on and on about how he loves my dad and all this stuff.

“Meanwhile I knew he wasn’t being treated well. I called in, I think I was the only girl that called in that night and challenged him on why he’d let my dad speak to BC if he really wanted him to stay. After that he started talking about a jumbotron so he didn’t really answer my question.

“I was so nervous. I called my parents and confessed that this girl Sabrina was actually me. What’s funny is that when my dad was meeting with a couple of coaches a couple weeks later telling them he was leaving, they said (the Stamps organization) was going on and on about some girl named Sabrina on the radio station, about how she was bang on.”

. . .

Buono holds his grandsons Lucas Uassher, left, and Jack Kapeus during a walkthrough before the 99th Grey Cup in 2011 (Photo: The Canadian Press)

He hasn’t worked as an actual teacher in a long time, but that education degree has gotten plenty of use through Buono’s coaching career.

You can hear it in the way he speaks during press conferences sometimes, leaving his sentences hanging for the audience to fill in the blank. (Though Lowell Ullrich, who has covered Buono for all 16 of his years in BC, argues that there may be a deeper strategy to this).

Lalji has coached high school football for 31 years now in Vancouver and lists Buono as one of his three biggest influences.

“He’s constantly teaching,” he says.

“I remember when I had my first kid and we were talking about certain things and I said, ‘I hope I’m a great dad.’ And he said, ‘You are a great dad.’

“I said to him, ‘What do you mean? I’ve only been a dad for a week.’ He says, ‘No, no, you ARE a great dad. It’s a mindset.’

“Whether he’s offering advice about coaching, or any of those things, he’s just constantly in teaching mode. I don’t know if he knows how to get out of that. In retirement I think that’ll be one thing that never changes. I think, whenever you have a conversation with him, he’ll be in teaching mode. I think the only person he doesn’t teach is Sande. She probably teaches him.”

. . .

It’s hard to picture it now, with the anticipation around the game in Vancouver and whatever the playoffs could hold for this team, to think past November and what lays ahead. The Lions will go into the 2019 season with a new coach and presumably a new staff. They have a president in Rick LeLacheur and a GM in Ed Hervey that will be heading into their second year with the organization. Free agency could potentially create roster upheaval across the league. And for the first time since the 1971 season, Wally Buono will not be on a CFL team’s roster.

“Whoever comes in knows that there’s going to be big shoes to fill. You’re following a legend. You’re following an all-time coach.”

Lions GM Ed Hervey, looking ahead to life after Wally

“Wally’s a household name when it comes to Canadian football,” says Lions linebacker Solomon Elimimian, one of many Lions players that consider Buono a mentor. “I think the game is definitely going to miss him. It’s going to miss Wally. Fans are going to miss Wally, players are going to miss Wally.”

“He’s left such a big footprint in the league that you’ll see his influence,” veteran fullback Rolly Lumbala says, while opening the door for an injured teammate to get out of the facility.

“The way he trailblazed for a lot of people. His coaching tree is huge. The players that he signed and brought into the league as well. It’s going to be interesting, but you’ll see that there’ll be a little bit of Wally sprinkled everywhere.”

Hervey’s ready for the playoffs to get here, to see if his team could be the first-ever crossover team to make it to the Grey Cup. But he’s also thinking beyond that, about that next hire.

“Whoever comes in knows that there’s going to be big shoes to fill,” Hervey says.

“You’re following a legend. You’re following an all-time coach and it’s going to take a coach that has…great confidence in themselves to come in and know that they’re following Wally. They’re not expected to be Wally or live up to what Wally is, but understand the expectations of what we want to give the Vancouver fans.”

While honouring its cornerstone, the Lions franchise is on the brink of its future.

“The next stage of the club without Wally as the principle football operations person is a new era,” Cartmell says.

“There will be a time at some point where Mr. Braley doesn’t own the team anymore and that should be of interest. It should be of interest to everybody who lives here. It should be interesting to see what the next steps will be. It’ll be interesting to see how the team takes shape, what elements of the team will be here? What new elements will be coming in? What changes we will see and how we operate as a club. It doesn’t have to be negative just because Wally’s departing and I think Wally would say why should it be? It’s just another step.”

A year after Wally Buono hired Ed Hervey to be the Lions' GM, Hervey will soon see the process through of hiring Buono's replacement (Photo: BCLions.com)

Football feels like the one sport where the least is guaranteed and that change is always around the corner. Maybe that’s why there was a respectful next-man-up mentality from some players when a post-Wally world was mentioned. One person leaves, someone else comes in and the game continues.

Lions’ special teams coordinator Jeff Reinebold said he’s loved getting this year to work with Buono. The two became fast friends, with Reinebold catching rides with him to the airport for the team’s road games.

“Life goes on. You look at, at one time Hugh Campbell ruled this league and Marv Levy ruled this league and Don Matthews ruled this league and then Wally ruled this league,” he says

“There’s always an ascension when the great ones step aside in this business. There’s always an ascension on who the next one will be. We’ll have to wait and see but I think the league is certainly better for having had Wally Buono in it. I know all the lives of all the players who have played for him, the coaches that have coached with him and everybody that’s been around him, their lives are better for having had Wally in it.”

If Wally’s right, if we all do lead a second life when we leave our homes every morning, we should all hope to have that second one held in such high regard.