Stampeders owe debt of gratitude to Buono
Retiring B.C. Lions head coach won three Grey Cups in 10 seasons with Calgary
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.
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.”
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.