When Wally Buono turned in his whistle and walked away from his legendary career of coaching following the 2011 Grey Cup, he hoped he was making the right decision for himself and the B.C. Lions organization.
He felt the time was right for the change, but he wasn’t certain he’d be comfortable solely in a managerial role as he maintained his general manager’s title and accepted a position that was created for him: vice president of football operations.
However, the news last month that Buono had agreed to a three-year contract extension to remain in the Lions Den through the 2016 Canadian Football League season is affirmation that the 63-year-old has found peace and a comfort zone in the front office. And save for a few specific hours each week, he’s settled into the rhythm of being a full-time football executive.
“I still enjoy what I do and I still have a passion for what I do except when I’m in the press box watching for those three hours a week,” Buono, sounding every bit the former coach, told the Georgia Straight by telephone from the team’s Surrey headquarters. “That can be painful, because I don’t have control over what’s going on out on the field. I had to find out if being a GM only was something I wanted to continue with, and as I’ve said before, 90 percent of my job is good, and sometimes the 10 percent can be quite frustrating,”
Game nights aside, Buono has welcomed the challenges and opportunities that come along with his new position. He’s no longer swamped with the many hours of weekly preparation for the team’s next outing. Instead, he’s able to focus his attention on evaluating the talent he’s assembled while always keeping an eye out for players that can make the Lions better.
And with the wealth of experience Buono has as the man who’s won more games as a head coach in the CFL than anyone else, he’s now taking great delight in being able to share his wisdom with those around him—including the man he chose to succeed him as head coach, Mike Benevides.
“At the stage I’m in in my life, I like to be able to help and mentor people, whether it’s players or coaches,” Buono explains. “The young people are our future. I’ve had lots of experiences—most good and some not so good—but at the end of it, when you can share your knowledge and you can help them grow, you help yourself grow too.”
After watching the Lions go 11-7 last season and get off to a 4-2 start this year, Buono is pleased with the way the organization has been able to transition between coaches and still remain a model franchise in the CFL.
His team gives every indication it’ll be a Grey Cup contender this season, and Buono’s new contract ensures he’ll be at the helm next season. That’s when the Lions play host to the 2014 Grey Cup at B.C. Place, where Buono will be hoping for the same outcome he enjoyed in his final game on the sidelines.
But the new pact will also keep him employed past his 66th birthday which raises the question: is this the last contract he’ll sign with the Lions?
“I said that the last time I signed,” Buono says with a laugh. “We’ve talked about the future, and as we go further and further, then we have to have a transition plan for that. I think any good organization has a plan in place when people move on or change roles. The most important thing is that the organization still stays very successful.”
This season marks 40 years that Buono has had a place in the Canadian Football League. He started his playing days in 1973 with the Montreal Alouettes and began coaching a decade later as an assistant before getting his first head-coaching opportunity in Calgary in 1990.
Buono and the CFL are seemingly inseparable. Yet as a devout family man surrounded by his wife, children, and grandchildren, he has understandably contemplated his future and openly talks about transition plans for the Lions. On so many levels, though, it’s near impossible to imagine the seven-time Grey Cup winner and four-time coach of the year making a clean break from the league and the game he loves and one day simply walking off into the sunset.
Then again, as someone who underwent triple-bypass heart surgery nine years ago, Buono understands that there is more to life than touchdowns and tackles.
“I think you have to look at stages in your life and then evaluate where you are,” he says. “If you had asked me four years ago if I would have extended until 2017, I probably would have said, ‘I don’t think so.’ You’re looking so far ahead, you’re tired from the season, you’re tired from the pressure you’re under and the emotional commitment. But I feel really good about the extension because I know that I still have the energy and I still have the enjoyment. It’s still fun. I still like to be around the guys. I still like to find the new players. That’s all part of it. At the end of it, we still like to win. And ultimately…what makes our job fun is the winning.”
The challenges Buono faces in his day-to-day job are different now than they were when he was patrolling the sidelines. But he’s finding them every bit as fulfilling. And that was his big concern when he decided to turn the page and step away from field level. But like almost everything else he’s done in his CFL days, it seems Buono has yet again made the right move at the right time.