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Buono, Lions full of emotion at the ‘end of an era’

During his 23 years on the sidelines Wally Buono always seemed ready with the right answer. So, it was poignant to see an emotional Buono battle back tears when faced with a query during his final gathering with the media as the BC Lions head coach.

Buono was asked how he would summarize what he’s accomplished in the CFL as a player, coach and general manager.

It took several long moments for the 68-year-old Canadian Football Hall of Famer to compose himself.

“The answer you won’t expect to hear,” he finally said in a near whisper. “It’s why me?

“I’ve been blessed guys. God has been good to me. I keep asking him, why me? And I still don’t know why.”

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Buono started the 2018 season saying it would be his last. Over his career he won 282 games, the first 153 as head coach of the Calgary Stampeders.

If he had any doubts about quitting, the Lions’ final game, a 48-8 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Sunday’s Eastern Semi-Final, convinced Buono he was walking away from the sport at the right time.

“I’ve always disliked losing,” he said. “I’ve always said nothing good comes out of losing.

“After a loss you have to go through a process of mourning, especially at the end of the year. I’m going through it. It reminds me of why coaching is so difficult. A loss, if nothing else, kicks you in the head and makes you realize you can only take so much of this.”

For eight of the CFL’s nine teams locker cleanout day is a somber affair.

Unless you win the Grey Cup, your team has failed in the goal set when training camp opened. There’s also the certainty that some of the players stuffing belongings in plastic bags and exchanging handshakes won’t be back next spring.

The Lions’ final gathering had a particularly melancholy feel. It wasn’t just the conclusion of a season, but the end of an era in franchise.

“This year has a different feel,” said quarterback Jonathon Jennings, who has experienced both peaks and valleys as a Lion.

“I haven’t felt like this throughout my four years. I can’t really disseminate what it really is. I guess it’s part of that, the end of an era.”

A dejected Wally Buono leaves the field for the final time after suffering a 48-8 loss in the Eastern Semi-Final (Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca)

Buono leaves the CFL with his legacy intact. He was coach of the year four times, guided his teams to 13 first-place finishes and won five Grey Cups. In his absence the winds of change will blow through the BC dressing room as General Manager Ed Hervey takes full control.

In his first year as GM Hervey brought in veteran players Joel Figueroa, Shawn Lemon, Odell Willis, Anthony Orange and DeVier Posey.

He credited the team with over-achieving by finishing 9-9 in the competitive West Division and earning a crossover playoff spot. That can’t gloss over the fact that the Lions were erratic all year and lost their final three games by a combined score of 109-33.

“Our team has learned you can’t turn it off and turn it on,” said Hervey.

“I’m not certain emotionally, since they clinched a playoff berth, they were able to generate that kind of energy it took to proceed and continue on.”

Hervey’s first task will be to hire a head coach. Names like Marc Trestman, DeVone Claybrooks and Orlondo Steinauer have already been mentioned as possible candidates.

Hervey isn’t looking outside the CFL for a candidate.

“It’s going to be a CFL guy,” he said. “I believe that we cut our teeth in this league for these opportunities. I feel like there are guys in this league who have committed to this league and deserve the opportunity to grow in this league.

“That’s how I’m wired.”

Then comes the question of which players stay, who goes and who do the Lions go looking for.

“The team is going to look different next year,” said Hervey. “Of course, it’s going to look different.

“I don’t think we will have a massive overhaul of this roster. Speaking candidly, we need to be more dynamic in some areas, we need to have more speed in some areas. I would like to be longer and more athletic in some areas.”

Deciding on a quarterback will be a priority. Both Jennings, 26, and Travis Lulay, 35, are free agents. Both are at cross roads in their careers and Hervey wouldn’t comment on either player’s future.

“To make commitments as this time, I’m just not ready to do that,” he said.

There already is speculation Hervey might try to sign Edmonton’s Mike Reilly.

Off the field, the Lions face the challenge of rebuilding their fan base.

The team’s largest crowd this year was 24,114 for Buono’s final game at BC Place Stadium. The Lions are in a market dominated by the NHL’s Canucks and must battle for attention with the MLS Whitecaps. The NFL Seattle Seahawks are also a three-hour drive away.

Buono praised owner David Braley for his long-time support of the team but said it’s time for local ownership.

“It’s time for somebody else to lead this organization,” he said. “It’s time for another voice to be heard.”

Buono is looking forward to life after football. Moving on has been made easier knowing Hervey has a vision for the Lions.

“I really, really believe Ed is the right man,” Buono said. “He has a tremendous commitment to wining. He works tirelessly.

“I thought I was driven, I thought I was focused. I would say Ed in a lot of ways surpasses even myself in that.”