Mike Benevides must coach the B.C. Lions to roar again
As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate preparing for his first game in his first season as head coach of the B.C. Lions, Mike Benevides is quickly discovering there is a lot more to the position than just the Xs and Os of professional football.
Benevides already has the enormous pressure of being the man to follow Wally Buono in calling the shots on the Lions sidelines. Buono is, of course, the all-time coaching-wins leader in Canadian Football League history who retired last December to focus on managing the football club. And his first order of business was hand-picking long-time assistant Benevides to be his successor.
On top of that, there is the fact that CFL pundits from coast to coast have made the Lions overwhelming favourites to repeat as Grey Cup champions for the first time in the 59 seasons the franchise has been in existence. And if that’s not enough, there are suggestions from various media pundits that this 2012 version of the Lions boasts the experience and personnel to win at least 15 of the 18 games they’ll play this regular season, and that anything less will somehow amount to a disappointment.
Oh, and the season better not start on the wrong note, not after last year’s Lions fell flat on their faces, dropping the first five games they played. A loss on opening night will have football fans wondering whether this year’s team is headed down that same rocky road, and whether Buono made the right call in handing the reins to a rookie head coach.
So, other than dealing with the weight of the world, Benevides, a 45-year-old Toronto native, starts with a clean slate when the Lions host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in a Grey Cup rematch on Friday (June 29) at B.C. Place Stadium.
“The one thing that we’ve said is that we set expectations for ourselves, and I really don’t care what other people think,” a confident Benevides tells the Georgia Straight in a telephone interview, when asked about dealing with pressure and off-field distractions. “External forces mean nothing to us. What I care about are the men in our room.”
Those men to whom Benevides refers are the ones who should make his transition from defensive coordinator to the guy in charge considerably easier. The Lions are bringing back virtually all of their offensive players from a year ago and will be led once again by quarterback Travis Lulay. On defence, there were a few holes to fill, but the core of last year’s championship crew is back and looking to pick up where it left off: 12 wins over its final 13 games.
One of Benevides’s first orders of business when the team reassembled at training camp in Kamloops was to let his players know that last year was a thing of the past. He now has the whistle and the final say, and together they are about to set out on a path to reach the Grey Cup again. But they’ll be doing things his way.
“As I told them the first night of training camp, the expectation is one of excellence,” Benevides says. “We’re never going to use the words good enough—we’re always looking to get better. Our expectations are set high, and the standard has been set here. We go to war together, and it’s about being as good as we can be, and that’s what we want to do every day and focus on the here and now.”
To the surprise of no one, the Lions won both of their preseason games—against the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Edmonton Eskimos—in convincing fashion. So it appears that Benevides has his team poised and ready to roll. But preseason football is one thing; the games that count are something else altogether.
And the fact that the Lions won the title last year will only make the job of repeating that much more difficult.
“We know that people will be gunning for us and we’ll have to bring our A game,” the coach says of his team being a measuring stick for the other seven CFL squads. “But there is no question that we have a good football club. We have a group of great men that work their tails off, are very talented, and have an experienced level of character. We’ve seen that from the majority of the group that went through what we went through a year ago. And fortunately for us, we won the last game we played last year.”
But now the entire league lines up at the starting gate with the same record and the race begins anew to get to the 100th Grey Cup game, in Toronto in late November.
Benevides believes he’s paid his dues and has earned the chance to run his own program. And he’s certainly been put in a position to succeed with the current roster. Now it’s up to him to push the right buttons to make the 2012 B.C. Lions roar once again—but he knows the football world is watching and there is nowhere to hide.
“Moving on to this year, it’s a whole different journey,” he says about his new role and his team’s approach. “The expectations are no higher than any that we place on ourselves, not only from the athletes in the room but from everyone in the entire organization. We welcome the challenge. We look forward to that challenge. And we still have the itch [to succeed].”
It’s a new era in B.C. Lions football, but the result should be the same as it was a year ago.
Lions players have the experience necessary to deal with lofty expectations. We’re about to find out how the new head coach handles the heat.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter.