Lions vets have Buono’s back

KAMLOOPS — It wasn’t just the fact some of Run DMC’s greatest hits were being blasted out of the loudspeakers filling the air throughout the entire campus of Thompson Rivers University first thing Sunday morning that made it seem different.

It wasn’t just the fact the man back in charge of the B.C. Lions had a different approach to his players off the field, such as the fact muted cell phones are apparently now allowed in meeting rooms.

It was that and much more which made the first day back with Wally Buono genuinely feel like a fresh start. It was because that change in approach had been quickly noted by the players who know the boss best.

If any group had reason to be wary about the return of a coach who hadn’t been on the sidelines for four seasons it would be the veterans on the CFL club, who know full well what a dominating presence he commanded with the Lions, even when Mike Benevides or Jeff Tedford was in charge.

Yet it is the veterans who seem to welcome the return to the new normal most of all. Since the moment Buono returned in December the most vocal support on social media came from his most experienced players.

“He’s not vocal. He’s about business,” said tackle Jovan Olafioye, the lone offensive line holdover from Buono’s last year of coaching in 2011, who has repackaged his 325 pounds quite effectively in the off-season so as to play the left side of the formation this year.

“There’s no favorites on this team. When he was here we were successful. That’s why I know we’re going to win the Grey Cup.” Nothing like a bit of bravado on the first day of training camp.

“I don’t want to say guys played in fear (of Buono), but some guys take an opportunity for granted. That’s been a missing piece sometimes,” said Ryan Phillips, who started his 12th year with the Lions. “He’s made mental notes on how the game has changed and how the guys have learned.”

To that point, Buono says he’ll give his players and coaches roughly three days to get out the kinks then expects them to go full throttle, though they hardly looked at half speed Sunday. The Lions have several jobs up for grabs. Change is needed after a 7-11 run and first-round flameout last year. Nobody knows that better than the new/old coach.

“There’s urgency in everything we do,” Buono said.

It’s the kind of scenario that may not wear well on the legacy of the winningest coach in league history, but Buono says his reputation will not be tarnished regardless of what happens this season.

“If I go 0-18 are they going to take away my Order of Canada pin, my (Canadian Football) Hall of Fame jacket? Will I not be inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame (June 9)?” he wondered. “That’s not an issue. When I put on my jacket I’m proud. When I get inducted I’ll be proud.

“My legacy would be even though I didn’t have to (coach again) and it would be easy to sit on the sidelines, I came back because I said I would if I had to.”

So here he comes, ready to move past Don Matthews and set a league record as a head coach for a 23rd CFL season, and he has much more support from players who have the most to lose than you’d think.

LIONS TALES: As advertised, Jon Jennings got first-team quarterback reps ahead of Travis Lulay for starters with nearly an even split. The only early surprise on offence had Tim O’Neill, obtained from Hamilton to change the ratio, lined up with the second unit behind Hunter Steward at left guard, with Cody Husband, a day removed from being grand marshal at the Hyack Festival parade in his native New Westminster, starting at centre. Buono said the move was experimental as the Lions will need their non-import offensive line starters to play at more than one position. Late last week, the Lions cut centre/guard candidate Cam Thorn, which can only be good news for rookie draft pick Dillon Guy… Doing double duty as a guest coach: CIS scouting director Geroy Simon.


Day: 1

In camp: 81

Cut/failed physical: DE Pep Levingston

Hobbling: S Matt McDonnell, DB Willie Creear

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.