Ullrich: Wally on the hot seat to rebuild the Lions

Wally Buono

The scene inside the boardroom of the B.C. Lions was the same. So was the man behind the podium and the words being spoken by Wally Buono were just as they were a couple of weeks ago, and for that matter, the last four years.

Blame me, he said, he can take the heat. Then he proceeded to explain why he was the only alternative the Lions considered when they began talking about a new coach Wednesday for the third time in as many seasons.

The announcement by the club was that Jeff Tedford had resigned but the unmistakable vibe generated by Buono was that he was pushed to rediscover his love for NCAA coaching, nudged by the only person who is capable of working with the Lions legend.

That would be Buono himself. Now the responsibility of resurrecting the CFL team rests on him. All of it. And despite pending contractual evidence to the contrary, he has run out of second chances.

It’s an odd scenario to be sure and one where it is also uncertain how it will play out with the paying customer in the Lower Mainland, a group which diminished last season in greater numbers than at any point in the last 20 seasons.

A year ago, three seasons removed from Buono’s departure from coaching after the 2011 season, he had talked about his responsibility to the franchise when he fired Mike Benevides.

A succession plan had been devised, in which Tedford would take over for a season or two, then assume the job of general manager. But Buono’s shadow remained over everything the two coaches tried to do. The team appeared to run completely off the rails at the end of the 2014 season and Tedford had two fewer wins last year than Benevides.

Buono didn’t have any other choice, even if the Lions at this point appear to have no succession plan in place anymore, other than possibly giving Geroy Simon another season to attend general manager school himself in a manner similar to Ed Hervey.

Buono is genuinely not returning out of a need to feed his ego or cement his coaching legacy. It is his belief that by returning he will provide some stability for a franchise which has been in short supply the last few years, but it is a belief that is about to again be put to the test.

No longer, judging by the track record of late at least, is B.C. a free agent destination of choice, and the CFL landscape is littered with potential upgrades with two months before the onset of the next signing period.

It also remains to be seen whether Buono still has the proper coaching marbles in an era of player entitlement, cited by the man himself as one of the reasons he left the sideline in the first place.

It’s an odd set of circumstances, made even more strange in one sense that the reward for such mediocrity will be some form of contract extension to be announced prior to the start of next season, though there will be requisite escape clauses to be inserted in this deal so that the Lions or Buono can withdraw when appropriate.

Club president Dennis Skulsky made it clear the club wants the winningest coach in league history to remain and that Buono will be here “until 2018.”

The good news for some is that Buono will not be saddled by the exact same coaching staff, as with Tedford’s exit also comes the departure of offensive coordinator George Cortez, whose Lions offence in 2015 wasn’t a great deal more productive than during his final days in Saskatchewan. There would seem almost no chance special teams coordinator Chuck McMann, who had to be coaxed into staying last year rather than retire, is back. Same for receivers coach Khari Jones, who is drawing predictable interest in Winnipeg.

But Buono admitted among his first jobs as the born-again king is to find a coaching successor if it is correctly assumed that Simon is already in place to eventually inherit his other job.

And no sooner had the cameras been turned off Wednesday, a few hours removed from a Grey Cup party in Edmonton, when speculation began to surface about a possible return of one Jarious Jackson, who had a subordinate role in the offensive coaching staff of Chris Jones and might be convinced to work for Wally again if Jones doesn’t take him to Saskatchewan.

It’s a lot to process, especially if it is true the Lions only came to conclude that Buono would return to coaching when Tedford became eligible to resign Dec. 1, which may have become a significantly greater alternative when Buono, Skulsky and owner David Braley met in Winnipeg to talk about him last week.

Tedford gave the Lions an enhanced infrastructure when he insisted the Lions make significant upgrades and boosted the team’s use of technology. What he couldn’t give them was a coach who could work within the ways things have always been done with the Lions for well over a decade. The TV screens installed by Tedford in the hallways of the facility that outlined the daily practice schedule? They were appropriately dark Wednesday.

No, there’s only one coach capable of surviving in the environment that has been in place with the Lions since 2003, someone Buono sees in the mirror every morning.

“I’m a little scared, but also a little excited,” he said, in another podium moment that again cemented his place as of the most quotable figures in three-down football of all time. “The only person to blame for the last four years is me.”

In one strange sense, typical of what the Lions have often been over the years, stability has returned. What remains to be see if whether wins will follow.

– Lowell Ullrich is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame who covers the Lions for TSN1040 radio in Vancouver. He can be reached at lullrich@telus.net.

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.