(From Vancouver Sun)
The hardest thing about training camp for Wally Buono has been an unpadded bench and injuries on the offensive line.
That and questions about the former field general’s choice some days to wear jeans to practice.
“If you’re going to talk about my apparel, that’s unfair,” Buono said Tuesday before B.C. Lion players returned to Vancouver. “People say: ‘You’re wearing jeans?’ I’ve always worn jeans.”
Just not to practice because Buono has been busy on the field, not beside it, coaching and playing in the Canadian Football League the last 39 seasons.
After surrendering coaching duties to Mike Benevides following the Lions’ Grey Cup win last fall, Buono is on the sideline at a CFL training camp for the first time in 40 years.
And, honestly, the 62-year-old general manager is fine with that.
Buono seems as comfortable and at ease as he has looked, hanging out beyond the white lines at Hillside Stadium along with the media riff-raff while his hand-picked successor, Benevides, commands the team from midfield.
But these are just practices. Maybe games will be different. When the Lions open the pre-season tonight at BC Place against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, surely Buono will hear again the siren call of coaching and suffer at least a little heartache and seller’s remorse about giving up his gig as the winningest coach in CFL history.
“I might not like watching the game from the press box or the suites because I’m so used to being on the sideline,” Buono said. “But it’s not because I want to be down there coaching.
“Honestly, I know I’m no longer the coach. I knew that when I did the press conference in December and I left the front of the table. Mike has done a great job. I believe the football club will be better prepared [because] Mike’s whole focus is on preparing the football club and when I had the dual roles I had to focus on two things.
“I really enjoy what I’ve been doing. I get the best of everything. I watch practice and love to see the guys compete. Then I get the tapes and go back to my room and all I do is evaluate personnel. I don’t have the aggravation of it’s raining or it’s cold, the players are hurt, this guy’s being an ---hole, this guy’s not paying attention. I’ve got none of those concerns.”
Buono’s biggest challenge so far, besides working the phones after offensive linemen Dean Valli, Jesse Newman and Jon Hameister-Ries suffered knee injuries last week, is getting close enough to see but staying far enough away from Benevides that there is no confusion about who’s in charge.
“It’s not only Mike,” Buono said. “I don’t want to be too close to the assistant coaches. But … I’ve got to be able to see. The big thing with Mike is I’m not behind him or right next to him because I just don’t believe that’s where I should be.
“During the game, you’re not going to see me on the sideline. That, I think, puts me in the way and compromises Mike’s ability to run the club. It’s about perception.
“I don’t want to put any undo pressure on Mike and the coaches. I don’t want to put any undo speculation on Mike and coaches. I’ve urged Mike over and over again: do what you need to do, be who you want to be. The past has no relevance. Whether I agree or disagree, that isn’t a question.”
Which is good because it’s a safe conclusion that coach and general manager disagreed over the level of physical intensity and contact Benevides demanded from players when training camp began.
“Where did that come from?” Benevides laughed when that premise was put to him.
“Let’s say we’ve had certain conversations about things and he’s extremely pleased about how things are going. And that’s as far as I’ll go.”
With largely the same experienced core group, Buono paced the Lions through training camp last year, gradually increasing the intensity as players adjusted to the workload.
Benevides said he wanted to establish the team’s physical identity from the start of camp and, as more evidence that there’s a new sheriff in town, will play all his starters against the Roughriders. No one is getting the night off.
Unlike Buono, Benevides will wear a headset and, possibly, his trademark hoodie. He certainly has the players’ attention already. The former defensive coordinator, who followed Buono to the Lions from the Calgary Stampeders in 2002 and was groomed for the head coaching job, looks confident.
Benevides isn’t “Little Wally” any more.
“He looks like a head coach because Mike, in my mind, is starting to show his personality,” Buono said. “Mike is a very intense, hard-working, detail-oriented kind of person. And you can see that in the team.
“Command, to me, means there’s a time the coach has to put a stop to practice and get his point across. I’ve seen that. There’s a time to bring everyone together and give encouragement. I’ve seen that. There’s time you have to adjust on the run to deal with issues. And I’ve seen that. If I didn’t have confidence in him, I wouldn’t have hired him.”
Apparently, without regret.