Wally and me: On 16 years chasing crumbs from a Lions legend

The end of a magnificent run is down to its final days and yet inadvertently Wally Buono was engaging in another teaching moment that so typified his contribution to the B.C. Lions.

The head coach and former general manager is asked how he will handle being the headliner at B.C. Place Stadium Saturday and at the same time focus on coaxing out a confidence-restoring win against the Calgary Stampeders.

Buono responded by telling a story. With Buono, there’s often a story.

“My wife keeps hounding me about not being a party-pooper,” he began, warming to his point. “You got to allow the process to happen. I understand it. It’s like this week…we took our grandkids out to dinner because they made a sports team and we say to them ‘always celebrate little victories’.”

And perhaps, in his own way, that sums up all his years with the Lions and the back end of a 47-year CFL career that will include a torrent of best wishes from former players and coaches and family-first moments during the halftime tribute planned for the 68-year-old legend.

With the Lions, there were plenty of little victories. Not enough Grey Cup wins to satisfy him or anyone else. Not the complete restoration of a fan base that is only slightly bigger than when he became B.C.’s gift from former Stamps owner Michael Feterik.

Success is measured not just by champagne celebrations, however, but by the people you reach and whether the community is better off for your involvement. On that front, the winningest coach in three-down history will soon leave a greater winner in the things that matter regardless of what the Lions do in the playoffs.

Add his time as a player and coach and there is no one on either side of the border who has been involved in more games (665) than anyone in the CFL or NFL, according to TSN research, more than Ron Lancaster, George Halas, Don Shula, Bud Grant and Tom Landry.

Tributes? Where do you start? Pull up a chair.

“More than anything I’m going to think about a resilient man who is very committed to winning. That’s the trait that has given Wally sustained success,” said Travis Lulay, one of 20 quarterbacks to get a chance to start from Buono and one who might be thinking about his own memories playing at home for the Lions Saturday.

“Hearing his old coaches talk about him as an undersized player and not as gifted as others; the same type of things that gave him an opportunity to play for so long are the things that gave him a chance to win for so long.

“He cares about tough guys. Guys that can respond. Guys that don’t get caught up in the distraction. This game (Saturday) is a perfect example. You want to pay honour to our head coach? You play hard regardless of anything else.”

Buono moulded teams with structure and commitment. He also moulded lives. Some 610 players have at least put on a uniform once in the regular season, many with different roles. Rolly Lumbala’s job description during his 11 seasons is to act as interpreter for Buono with players who didn’t understand the message.

“I’ve had a chance to be around hall of famers. They’ve all looked up to Wally and they all told me how he likes things to be run,” said Lumbala, the team’s most tenured player, drafted in 2008 and reporting to the Lions’ facility in the Whalley area of Surrey thinking they’d already named the place after his new boss. “I love to rally guys; get them on board.”

There are stories throughout the locker room about Buono’s legendary dismissive nature regarding injuries, and it will probably please him to no end to learn at least one player who has fought through more health setbacks than most appreciated his roughhouse bedside manner.

Lulay flashed back to a night in 2014 in Ottawa when he was devastated after suffering his first shoulder injury when following the game Buono physically picked up him, sensing the quarterback needed a lift in more ways than one.

“We’ve never spoken about it,” Lulay said. “It wasn’t ‘get your butt up’. Guys kinda joke that Wally doesn’t think injuries are real. He kinda knew I needed a lift at that moment. Sometimes it helps to have somebody pushing you.”

Personal Wally moments? Oh, there’s been a few doozies.

Certainly the longest moment was the four-hour phone call we had once when he tried vainly to extract a mea culpa from a lowly morning tabloid scribe after a story appeared citing a source critical of former offensive coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine.

Buono would surely identify other moments. He still doesn’t hesitate to recall the time in 2007 he was fined $1,000 by former commissioner Mark Cohon for published comments critical of officiating, claiming the remarks were off the record.

The coach also wasn’t none too pleased to read another tabloid piece after the 2005 season when Barrin Simpson effectively voiced his exit from the Lions in print before getting a chance to talk to the all-star linebacker himself first.

He gave remarkable access, a peak inside the tent as former president Dennis Skulsky used to say, that surely rankled subordinates. He spent countless hours reviewing games with outsiders on an office computer that clearly got the better of him at times. It allowed him to get his point across, but also gave insight as to the attention to detail that went into his personnel evaluation and football intellect.

He was condescending. He was combative. He was also caring. Only when he knew he was on the way out a year ago did he ever apologize for anything he had said. He made it clear more than once he didn’t trust you, that nothing was ever off the record, yet often had hardly taken another breath before giving his take on matters outside football that would have readers blushing had they left the room.

Buono freely admitted he was willing to use the media to make a point with his players. At training camp in Kamloops and on the road, there were numerous times when a reporter was summoned by Buono for a walk around the field to talk shop like a professor calling up a student to the front of the class, even if the coach was probably only trying to avoid boredom.

His best skill was to respond to a question by getting a reporter to finish his sentences, thus omitting the most contentious part of the remark, which therefore became unusable for attribution.

Yet at no point was his sense of loyalty or his dedication to his faith not evident, nor for a second was there ever a drop in his professionalism during the 16 years he has been hounded for daily crumbs. The relationship was unique, and complicated, in 46 years in the news gathering game. But there was always respect.

Buono’s ability to deal with issues in times of high emotion ranked above all. This was never more apparent than in the immediate moments after his first Grey Cup win in 2006 guiding the Lions.

With the celebration well underway at Winnipeg Stadium, Buono summoned a lowly tabloid reporter to an adjacent empty room that was almost pitch dark and without prompting proceeded to outline the turmoil he had experienced during the year for the first time helping care for an ailing family member.

Those even closer to him at work saw a father figure whose coaching acumen provided tips on becoming better fathers at home.

“I almost heard Wally sometimes when talking to my kids,” said Jamie Cartmell, who has worked alongside Buono for most of his run as the CFL’s longest tenured communications director.

“I can see how his philosophy on football translated to his philosophy on life. Not to aim for the middle. Not to settle. Wally is very centered and grounded but he’s also willing to admit he was in it for Wally and his family. I loved the relationship of trust we developed.

“I remember him saying ‘you don’t think I didn’t have to step on a few necks to get where I am?’ He’d say ‘never be afraid to hire people that are smarter than you; that’s what you should be doing.’ He didn’t always see eye to eye with people but always saw their value.”

Buono brought an element that was in short supply when joining the Lions in 2003 in addition to the side people saw most.

“He brought another level of professionalism to our organization,” said director of football operations Neil McEvoy, who was here when Buono arrived and one of the first front office staffers to be mentored.

“He’s very patient but he’s also a very loving individual even though he plays the hard-ass role which is what that position is.”

Another part of the position, Buono said, is that of community ambassador, which will allow him to be associated with the club in a limited capacity when he’s not enjoying his grandkids or taking a summer vacation. And if the Lions haven’t been an on-field success at all times he says there’s more to consider when assessing legacy.

“We had a mission. I think we’ve accomplished the mission,” he said. “Though the stands aren’t as full as we’d like I think we’ve had a lot of great years. I think we’ve helped our communities. I think we’ve brought a certain expectation, professionalism and credibility to the organization.

A lot of little victories worth celebrating Saturday. Lots and lots of little victories, with the Lions, the CFL and throughout the three-down world.


Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.