Stam­ped­ers owe debt of grat­i­tude to Buono

Re­tir­ing B.C. Lions head coach won three Grey Cups in 10 sea­sons with Cal­gary

Calgary Herald - - SPORTS - TODD SAEL­HOF tsael­hof @post­media.com

Wally Buono knew what was best for foot­ball and the Cal­gary Stam­ped­ers.

And he knew how to ex­e­cute it. Sim­ply put, it was his way or no way, and it worked.

“There was one way, there was an­other way, and then there was Wally’s way,” said long­time Stam­ped­ers equip­ment man­ager Ge­orge Hop­kins.

For the two decades be­fore Buono be­came head coach in 1990, the CFL club strug­gled to be a con­tender in the league.

It was a tough go.

Af­ter the Stamps’ sec­ond Grey Cup vic­tory in 1971, they didn’t fin­ish in first place in the West Divi­sion un­til Buono’s first year as field boss, didn’t win the West ti­tle un­til his sec­ond year and didn’t win the Grey Cup un­til his third year in 1992.

“Wally’s time co­in­cided with when we started to get re­spectable again,” said Hop­kins, re­flect­ing on Buono’s ten­ure that be­gan in 1987 as an as­sis­tant coach with the Stamps. “When he took over, he changed our per­cep­tion within our locker-room and within our cul­ture. I don’t think there’s any ques­tion that Wally brought sta­bil­ity and a lot of pride to the or­ga­ni­za­tion that had been sorely lack­ing prior to that.”

All to­talled, it was 21 years be­tween CFL cham­pi­onships for the Stam­ped­ers.

And then came three in 10 sea­sons un­der Buono, who re­turns one last time — at least in the reg­u­lar sea­son — to McMa­hon Sta­dium on Satur­day night (6 p.m., TSN/770 CHQR) when his B.C. Lions face his for­mer squad, the Stam­ped­ers, late in his farewell tour.

At the end of this CFL cam­paign, the head coach plans to re­tire from a league that saw him play 10 sea­sons with the Mon­treal Alou­ettes, spend 29 years coach­ing in Mon­treal, Cal­gary and B.C. and work 26 sea­sons as GM of the Stamps and then the Lions.

“He brought sta­bil­ity to Cal­gary,” said Stam­ped­ers great Bruce Covern­ton, who en­joyed seven sea­sons as an of­fen­sive line­man with the team un­der Buono from 1992-98. “I don’t re­mem­ber los­ing too many home games. And mi­nus the (Michael) Fe­terik (own­er­ship) cir­cus, it’s been sta­ble since. Wally brought pro­fes­sion­al­ism and a higher stan­dard to the Stam­ped­ers.”

The 68-year-old na­tive of Italy had an eye for tal­ent and proved it when he took over from Normie Kwong as the Stam­ped­ers GM in 1992, opt­ing to dou­ble as head coach un­til his de­par­ture in 2002.

And like any good leader, Buono knew how to sur­round him­self with top-shelf as­sis­tants, in­clud­ing guys who went on to be­come high-pro­file CFL gu­rus them­selves in John Huf­nagel and Ge­orge Cortez.

“One thing I’ve al­ways said about Wally — and I think this is what good lead­ers do — is he had good staffs,” said Covern­ton’s fel­low for­mer of­fen­sive line­man Dave Heas­man, pres­i­dent of the Cal­gary Stam­peder Alumni As­so­ci­a­tion.

“And when we were in Cal­gary, we had a good staff. He was con­sis­tent with how he ran the staff. It was pretty easy to keep a win­ning en­vi­ron­ment in place when there were no sur­prises for the team.

“He was able to build a ros­ter of play­ers and a staff that you al­ways had a feel­ing like you had a shot of go­ing to the Grey Cup with the Stam­ped­ers,” Heas­man con­tin­ued. “For a long time as a player, you al­ways gave Wally the ben­e­fit of the doubt, be­cause you wanted to win and go to the Grey Cup, and they’d look around the league and see Cal­gary and Wally and say, ‘That’s the place we want to be.’”

But be­ing in Cal­gary meant do­ing it by Buono’s book.

The four-time CFL coach of the year was no-non­sense from the word go. He was 100 per cent busi­ness, which didn’t al­ways sit well with ev­ery­body sport­ing the Stam­ped­ers colours.

“He was a pretty straight­for­ward guy,” Covern­ton said. “He wasn’t a rah-rah guy. Some guys jived with him, and some guys didn’t.” Heas­man agreed.

“Wally had a ten­dency of com­ing in at half­time and re­ally let­ting you know what he felt, mainly if things weren’t go­ing well and you weren’t play­ing great,” said the alumni pres­i­dent. “There’s some sto­ries — he could be pretty tough on the guys. He wouldn’t come in and kick the garbage cans and scream and shout and get you fired up. He’d tell you that wasn’t his job to do that. It was, ‘You’re a pro­fes­sional — you need to get fired up on your own.’ He would de­liver his mes­sage — it was clear and to the point. You knew that he was cer­tainly not happy. And it would res­onate down the board. Then it would get the other coaches fired up. He just had a way of push­ing the but­tons with­out need­ing to get in your face.”

These days — as Hop­kins put it — the Lions have seen a milder,

He wouldn’t come in and kick the garbage cans and scream and shout and get you fired up. He’d tell you that wasn’t his job to do that.

softer Buono.

But he’s still all about get­ting the job done — and will be Satur­day with his Lions fight­ing for their post-sea­son lives.

“He’ll be very stoic about the whole retirement thing Satur­day — he might re­flect on it af­ter­wards,” Hop­kins said. “Know­ing Wally, he’ll be more wrapped up in the Lions bat­tling for a play­off spot then sen­ti­men­tal jour­ney stuff, so he’ll come in fired up and ready to go.”

And then it’s a hand­ful more games be­fore he’ll say so long.

“I think it’s time for him to hang ’em up,” added Covern­ton, a life­long friend of Buono’s. “He needs to go en­joy life.”

PE­TER POWER/ THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

B.C. Lions head coach Wally Buono has been a pop­u­lar fig­ure among fans all around the CFL in his fi­nal sea­son on the side­lines. Buono coached 10 sea­sons in Cal­gary be­fore tak­ing the Lions job in 2003.

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