EDMONTON — Wally Buono, who has embarked upon his 25th and final year as a Canadian Football League head coach, will leave the loop with more wins than any other bench boss, five Grey Cup rings and, as one might expect, a head stuffed full of memories.
“I still can remember the ‘91 Grey Cup, the ‘93 Western Final, the ‘94 Western Final, the ‘95 Grey Cup in Saskatchewan, the 2004 Grey Cup,” Buono said. “And there’s more.”
The Toronto Argonauts won the 1991 Grey Cup. The Edmonton Eskimos won the 1993 Western Final. The B.C. Lions won the 1994 Western Final. The Baltimore Stallions won the 1995 Grey Cup. And the Argonauts won the 2004 Grey Cup.
Buono did not coach any of those teams. In each case, he coached the losers. That’s why he remembers those games so vividly from three decades ago. That’s why they stand out against his league-record 273 regular season wins, 18 playoff victories and five Grey Cup titles.
It’s the pain that endures.
“Success? What the hell do you remember about success? Seriously,” he said recently.
“You always remember pain more than anything else. Pain is a tremendous teacher and motivator because you do not want to feel that pain. You don’t want to go through that pain. And unfortunately, losing at any level, whether it’s pre-season, regular season or playoffs, it’s painful. That’s why maybe I’ve never been satisfied with winning. Winning is very short-lived. Pain is long-lived.”
At age 68, the deeply spiritual Buono is at peace with his decision to retire, no matter the outcome of this B.C. Lions season. He was going to pull the plug after his contract expired last winter. But plans change, and he’s happy with the one that installed Rick LeLacheur as president, Ed Hervey as GM, and has Buono on the sidelines one last time.
He’s pleased that owner David Braley followed through on all his promises, to stop the franchise from slipping any more than it already had.
All that makes sense to Buono. With a loving family and charitable work awaiting, he sounds ready to walk away.
But he isn’t convinced he won’t miss the pain.
“You’re going to miss working with people, good men,” he said. “You’re going to miss the competitive challenge you get every week. I don’t think any job gives you the highs and the lows.
“You miss that, but that’s also what you want to leave. It’s kind of a paradox, because I don’t want to be under the constant pressure anymore. I don’t want to be in the constant limelight. But in some ways you’re going to miss that because that’s how you’re built and that’s who you are.”
Buono is a great coach and teacher, and for a select few men who worked with and for him in Calgary and B.C., a mentor.
In his 13 years as the Stamps’ bench boss, he employed just 18 coaches. Now into his 12th year as B.C.’s head coach, he has taken on 33, including six who worked for him in Calgary; George Cortez, Dan Dorazio, Chuck McMann, Jacques Chapdelaine, Mike Benevides and Mike Roach.
That means, through a quarter-century, Buono has hired only 45 different assistants.
That speaks to his eye for talent, to the loyalty he engenders and the winning culture he builds.
Eleven of those assistants, essentially one quarter, worked for Buono and then went on to become head coaches elsewhere in the CFL: Benevides, Chapdelaine, Cortez, John Hufnagel, Tom Higgins, Don Sutherin, Rich Stubler, Danny Barrett, Marcel Bellefeuille, Jeff Tedford and Jim Daley.
“Ultimately what I learned from Wally is that character matters,” said Benevides. “But it’s really about competing, about always finding a way to push people to get the most out of them, never to get comfortable.
“I was fortunate to be a head coach for him. He taught me about big picture thinking. He’s just an incredible man with an incredible career. I was blessed to be with him for a long, long time.”
Higgins lost out to Buono in the contest to become Stamps head coach in 1990. Buono made him the assistant head coach; they added John Hufnagel and Jeff Tedford and started a powerhouse.
“He’s demanding and he knows what it takes to be successful,” said Higgins. “You have yourself a good staff, a good quarterback and good Canadian talent, you are going to win.”
And you are going to leave a mark on the CFL. Buono’s tree, if you will, has roots all over. His Lions host Montreal Saturday as the farewell tour kicks off. He can look across the B.C. Place field at two Alouettes coaches who worked for him, Stubler and Khari Jones. There are disciples in Hamilton, Edmonton and Saskatchewan. And there are fans all over.
“We all love Wally and I think the reason is we respect his work ethic, what he does as a coach and a mentor,” said current Stamps coach Dave Dickenson, who quarterbacked for Buono.
“I definitely have a lot of positives from Wally. What I like is how Wally treats men, treats his players. He is tough on them, but in my mind he’s fair and he cares about them.”
And if you pay attention, you will learn from him, just as Buono did as a player — punter and linebacker — in Montreal.
The coaching staff there was rock solid and Buono was a sponge. Marv Levy, who gave players ownership. Rod Rust. Dick Roach. Joe Galat, who made the game fun. Gene Gaines. Lamar Leachman.
“I’m not saying they’re all Hall of Famers, but they’re very notable men, coaches and leaders,” Buono said. “And hopefully you pass that on to the next group, right?”
“He is one of the most remarkably thoughtful guys you’ll ever meet,” said CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie. “He’s maybe a once-in-a-generation person.”
The league will make sure to usher him out with the proper pomp.
“I don’t think you can let the winningest coach in CFL history ride off into the sunset without some celebration of what he’s meant to us,” said Ambrosie. “So yeah, while we’re not in possession of a specific plan, I will tell you I will personally camp out at his front door to give him a hug and tell him how much he meant to the CFL.”
There will be a fuss made in every venue too, and Buono will have to enjoy it.
“You appreciate it, but I don’t like the attention, to be honest with you. As much as I’m a public figure, I really don’t like being a public figure,” he said. “I’ve come to grips with it. My wife and I have talked about this now for six months. She told me to be gracious about it, even though you might be uncomfortable.”
Even though it might give him some pain.
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