It is a measure of what made Wally Buono a coaching legend that on the eve of another milestone he is still critiquing himself on a mistake he made on the sideline in his last game.
Yes, the man is not perfect. In fact on one front 23 years into his coaching career he still has much to learn.
Days after the B.C. Lions dropped another winnable home game last week the coach/GM of the resident CFL team is replaying his decision to challenge a first quarter no-yards non-call against Toronto he insisted he still had right.
Upon review, the league thought otherwise and the Lions as a result had one fewer challenge that game. Truth be told, and perhaps proof the new world order of coaching challenges remains uncharted territory, Buono is the only coach in the league through three weeks who hasn’t had a challenge ruled in his favour.
“Won’t do that again,” he said. “Was it smart? It was too early in the game and also because it wasn’t worth the 15 yards; we had the ball anyway.”
So 399 games into his CFL coaching career and the man is still willing to adjust.
Buono hits the 400-game mark Saturday against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and because he had no intention of being around again after moving to the front office five years ago, doesn’t think much of the pending accomplishment. To support his point, he is told George Halas (497) and Don Shula (490) coached more games in the NFL. Quickly, Buono suggested, those records are in no danger whatsoever of being surpassed.
“That number, now that you mention it, just shows the number of years,” he said. “I’ve had a tremendous ride and it’s been good to my family. We’ve had some success and failure but when you look at what you’ve accomplished in your life, it speaks about that.”
But the fact the winningest coach in three-down football is willing to look at himself and make changes reveals how he is able to achieve another milestone Saturday in the first place.
“We play these teams so much that sometimes you need a change,” said Shawn Gore, who himself began elsewhere in the Lions receiving alignment before he was moved at training camp. “They’ve watched us more than we’ve watched ourselves.”
And Buono appears to have watched himself operate in a new orbit better than ever.
A game against the Lions in the final year of his last coaching tenure, specifically before the team caught fire and roared to the 2011 Grey Cup, was not difficult for opponents who often knew what exactly they were getting. Buono teams were well-coached, but often predictable.
This year, Buono has challenged coordinators Khari Jones and Mark Washington to implement more of their practice work in games and the result to date is the fact the Lions have shown a number of different formational wrinkles; far more, at least, than the past.
Their play overall has not been on a level with the unbeaten Ottawa Redblacks, at least not on offence. But the fact Buono didn’t hesitate on pulling quarterback Jon Jennings and replacing him with Travis Lulay, something he says he’ll do again Saturday if needed, is reflective of a 66-year-old who knew he couldn’t approach his last Lions coaching life as he did before.
Players say that if Buono can discover music and allow cel phone breaks during training camp, anything is possible.
Nonetheless, a game against Saskatchewan, coming off another disappointing home loss, represents a potentially early, crucial juncture for the Lions, who would go up three games in the win column against a divisional opponent with a victory over the 0-2 Riders.
“You get somewhat of a perspective of what kind of team we’re trying to become, to try to bounce back and go into a hostile environment,” defensive back Ryan Phillips said. “It’s definitely a time where we define our character.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Buono sees it differently, which explains why he is 256 coaching wins ahead of those asking the questions about his team. He says the Lions have already shown him they have bounced back.
“I judge character by what happens in practice,” he said. “Last week we played (against Toronto) like we practiced. If I don’t get the result (against Saskatchewan) I’m not going to happy but this week the guys focused.” If his teams can adjust, the man calling the shots reckons he can do the same.