When the B.C. Lions were shopping unproven backup quarterback Mike Reilly on the trade market after the 2012 CFL season, Wally Buono got turned down by a number of fellow general managers as he searched for a deal.
One that agreed to listen was Ed Hervey, who was less than two months into his tenure with the Edmonton Eskimos.
“Ed stuck his neck on the line, made the trade and reaped the benefits of it,” Buono recalled. “(Reilly) helped that organization win a Grey Cup, and made that organization into a contender every year.”
Hervey and Buono will now be working together towards that same goal in 2018 after the Lions announced a major front-office shift Thursday aimed at turning around the club’s sagging fortunes.
Hervey, 44, is taking over GM duties from Buono, who has held the post since 2003. Buono will coach his final CFL season to help with the transition, while also continuing on as vice-president of football operations.
“If I was going to take an opportunity, it had to be the right one,” Hervey said during a press conference at the Lions’ suburban practice facility. “It had to be something that was good for me, and good for the people I was going to work with. I feel this is it.”
The move comes after a disappointing season that saw the Lions finish last in the CFL’s West Division at 7-11 with Buono in a dual coach and GM role. Despite the stumble in 2017, Hervey said Buono’s continued involvement was a selling point when considering the job.
“I don’t think I would have made the commitment to come here if he wasn’t committed to being the head coach,” said Hervey. “With Wally as vice-president, he gives me someone to work with (and) bounce things off of.
“I can learn from one of the greatest in the game. I believe coach Buono gives this team the best opportunity to be successful.”
Hervey’s addition aside, the Lions remain a club with lots of uncertainty as the sun sets on 67-year-old Buono’s tenure, while owner 76-year-old David Braley remains keen to sell the franchise despite committing to hold onto it until after the 2018 campaign.
Buono said it was his idea to approach Hervey, adding the pair had four meetings over the last month before the final decision was made by Braley over Grey Cup weekend. Buono actually wanted to hire the former Eskimos wide receiver as an assistant back in 2012 before Edmonton promoted him to GM from its scouting department.
Asked about the optics of a general manager hiring his replacement – one with the power to fire him if need be – Buono emphasized that Hervey has the final say on football decisions, and that the long shadow he casts as the CFL’s all-time leader with 273 coaching wins won’t disrupt the chain of command.
“Ed had complete say on who he wanted as his head coach,” said Buono. “I’m doing this because I want to coach. I want to coach a football team that I still believe in.”
Hervey was GM in Edmonton for three seasons from 2013 to 2016, building a Grey Cup-winning team in 2015 with Reilly at the helm, but was criticized for restricting media access to players. When he was fired in April, Eskimos president Len Rhodes cited a “philosophy in the way we do business” as part of the reason.
Hervey said Thursday the characterization that he obstructed access in Edmonton was “misleading.”
Buono retired as coach of the Lions after winning the 2011 Grey Cup to focus on front-office duties, but returned to the sidelines last season with B.C. heading in the wrong direction thanks to poor performances on the field and sagging attendance in the stands.
The Lions had a resurgent 2016 with a 12-6 record before winning their first playoff game since 2011, and there were big expectations coming into this summer. But after an encouraging 5-2 start, injuries and inconsistent play saw the team spiral to a 2-9 finish to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
“I’ve always believed the GM and the head coach can be one person,” said Buono. “I’m not sure that today I believe that anymore. The reason is that complexity of the CFL in building your team has changed dramatically.”
Buono said that he’s staying on as vice-president to act as a buffer while Hervey and Braley get to know each other.
“David is comfortable dealing with me,” said Buono. “He has to now also start building a relationship with Ed.”
Hervey and Buono both sound keen to get started, eager to pick each other’s brains on football matters in hopes of rebuilding a once-proud franchise.
“Young people need to talk to grey-haired people,” said Buono, who cited Hugh Campbell and Cal Murphy as CFL legends he learned from as a young executive. “(Hervey) doesn’t know everything, just like I don’t know everything.
“We’re just talking about two football guys trying to get things right.”
And that’s something the Lions need now more than ever.