Buono emotional walking away from Lions, CFL

Fourty-seven seasons

Two hundred eighty-two wins.

Five Grey Cups.

One Order of Canada ceremony.

And on the final day, something never before produced by Wally Buono during his time in public eye as the winning head coach in CFL history.


Tears upon the realization that when he walked away from the cameras after his final news gathering as coach of the B.C. Lions Tuesday, it was over for Buono, give or take an exit meeting or radio hit.

It may have not hit the coaching legend what he was about to leave behind when he walked off following the humiliating 48-8 defeat at the hands of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Sunday.

It didn’t hit home when he spent considerable time with general manager Ed Hervey and owner David Braley in Hamilton on the weekend to complete the transition, or when the two met with players as a group for close to 40 minutes Tuesday, a departure from years past when the session generally was perfunctory.

But it hit hard (see below) when he was asked to summarize his legacy and what the CFL has meant to him. Buono started with a nervous laugh that was often present when responding to questions he didn’t like, then needed a full minute to compose himself and deliver a response.

“The answer you won’t expect to hear is ‘why me?’ It’s really all I can say. I’ve been blessed. God’s been good to me….” It was as raw and emotional as any watershed moment connected to the organization since Braley took ownership.

Looking forward to retirement?

“I don’t know,” Buono responded. “Hopefully retiring is being able to pass on to your children and grandchildren more of your time. What else could there be? Golf? I’m not sure I could do that. Fishing?

“It’s what legacy are you leaving on other than what you’ve accomplished in (the) business world. I do believe down the road I can help other people but I don’t know what that is today.”

Just as Hervey or anyone else knows what the Lions will look like next season after the thoroughness of the thrashing Sunday continued to take hold on the organization.

Buono has shown emotion before, the last time in a private moment coming after helping the Lions win the 2006 Grey Cup in Winnipeg when he talked about the health of an ailing family member.

But that was still controlled Wally. This was emotional Wally; a never-before seen side of an administrator whose iron-fisted approach to personnel and scheme enabled him to build competitive teams that did not always have the inertia to get to the top, which will be part of his legacy as well.

He’d said all he wanted to say in the days leading up to the final regular season game, in hindsight a point past where the Lions had peaked when they briefly contemplated a home playoff game with a 9-7 record.

He was asked to develop remarks he made public for the first time last week when he told The Province he thinks it is time Braley sold the Lions for the greater good of the franchise.

But when asked about how the Lions should approach the off-season or anything looking forward, Buono declined, other than to suggest he might eventually take the call of Randy Ambrosie if the commissioner wanted to pick his brain for ideas to help the league.

He’ll attend charity events on behalf of the Lions but his days on the football operations side of the club are all but over, which may come as a surprise to those who felt the man was incapable of stepping away from full control.

“I got to be careful today that I don’t say too much and I don’t say too little, “ Buono said. “There’s going to be a transition for everybody and there’s going to be for me too. I wise man said ‘don’t plan anything in your first year (in retirement).’

“It comes to an end for everybody. If people who can retire like Marv Levy or (the late) Rod Rust, who were great mentors, and I know they were older but they were crazier than I was, then I can do the same.”

But it won’t be easy. At least, for a minute Tuesday, the strain and joy of a life in football was there for all to see.

LIONS TALES: Hervey  indicated he would be extremely aggressive in free agency as a means to reshape the roster but as for hiring Buono’s replacement gave only one specific as to the type of coach he would seek. “It’s going to be a CFL guy. There’s guys who have committed to this league that deserve the opportunity to grow. I’m an example of getting an opportunity,” said Hervey, who was also non-committal when asked if the Lions had adequate quarterbacking. As for player turnover he said: “I don’t think we’re going to have a massive overhaul of the roster but we need to be more dynamic in some areas. We need more speed in some areas and I like to be longer in other areas…. But I can look you in the eye and say I didn’t sleep the last two nights (after losing to Hamilton).”

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.