Wally Buono kept his word.
When the legendary head coach stepped aside after leading the B.C. Lions to the 2011 Grey Cup, citing fatigue and a desire to focus on his front office duties, he promised owner David Braley that if it ever really came down to it, he would return to the sidelines.
“I never thought I would have to,” said Buono.
But with the franchise dipping significantly on the field, in the standings and, perhaps most importantly, in the Vancouver sports landscape over the past four seasons, the 66-year-old will once again lead the Lions in 2016.
“We made a decision in early December what the next step was going to be,” said Buono. “I felt that if I was going to be involved, it would probably be best to be totally involved as both the GM and the head coach.”
Mike Benevides, Buono’s protege, took over in 2012 and guided B.C. to a 13-5 record before losing the West Division Final at home. The club went 11-7 the following year before a 9-9 showing in 2014 that culminated in a beating at the hands of the Montreal Alouettes in the crossover East semifinal that Buono said left him “devastated.”
Benevides was fired soon after, with the reins being handed to Jeff Tedford last season. But that experiment only lasted 11 months after the highly touted U.S. college coach, who hadn’t been involved in three-down football since the early 1990s, compiled a 7-12 record that included the franchise’s fourth straight one-and-done playoff.
“Last year was a tough year, but one we can learn from,” said linebacker Solomon Elimimian, who is healthy after rupturing his Achilles tendon last August. “I feel like we have the ingredients with Wally coming back. You can tell the mood is definitely different.”
Buono, who surpassed Don Matthews’ 232 victories in 2009 to become the league’s all-time leader in coaching wins, has a record of 254-139-3 over his 22 seasons on the sidelines. The CFL’s eight other head coaches, including two rookies set to make their debuts in 2016, have a combined mark of 150-148-0.
“When I came into the league we were the dominant team,” said Lions defensive back Ryan Phillips, set to enter his 12th season. “To see that plummet a little bit these last four years has been disappointing.
“It’s refreshing having Wally back. I feel like the best is still yet to come for us.”
For that to truly be the case, the Lions know their task is twofold _ pick up some victories and look good doing it.
Apart from the mounting losses since capturing the franchise’s sixth title in 2011, the Lions have been criticized for not bringing enough excitement to B.C. Place Stadium.
“Winning is critical in sports,” said Buono. “But I think you also have to win with a little bit of pizzazz.”
The Lions attracted an average of just 21,290 fans to their home games in 2015, a drop of more than 9,000 per outing compared to 2012.
“If we just focus on doing our job the right way, that’s the most exciting football there is,” said quarterback Travis Lulay. “We don’t have to do extra stuff like jumping jacks and whirlybirds or whatever. If we’re throwing touchdowns and putting points on the board … that’s what’s exciting, that’s what people want to see.”
When the Lions host the Calgary Stampeders on Saturday to open their 2016 campaign, what B.C. fans will see is second-year QB Jonathon Jennings under centre, and not Lulay.
Jennings, 23, took advantage of his opportunity last September when veterans Lulay and backup John Beck both went down with injuries, playing well enough to earn a new contract and the No. 1 job.
Apart from a settled quarterback position _ Jennings and Lulay have a great relationship on and off the field _ the Lions feel like they upgraded the roster in a number of areas this off-season.
The offensive line looks stronger than it has in quite some time with the additions of veterans Tim O’Neill (trade) and Levy Adcock (free agency), as well as rookie Charles Vaillancourt (fifth overall draft pick).
“We’ve got a lot of size,” said Jennings. “It’s going to be nice to be protected by those guys.”
Running back Andrew Harris signed with his hometown Winnipeg Blue Bombers over the winter, but the Lions think veterans Jeremiah Johnson and Anthony Allen can more than pick up the slack.
Jennings also has a new target in wide receiver Nick Moore, who re-signed with B.C. after leaving for Winnipeg after the 2013 season.
Elimimian, the CFL’s most outstanding player in 2014, and fellow linebacker Adam Bighill remain the lynch pins on defence for a group that added physicality and skill to the secondary with free agents Brandon Stewart and Mike Edem.
“We want to be better than we’ve been the last couple years, there’s no question about it,” said Lulay. “We’ve under-performed our own expectations. For us this is a clean slate and it feels like a fresh start. The energy’s great around here, I think for good reason.
“I just don’t see a scenario where we’re not a better team than we were a year ago. We have to go earn wins and prove that right, but I feel really good about what we’ve got.”