B.C. LIONS

‘Losing is something I’ve never gotten used to’: coaching great Wally Buono

The 68-year-old has had an undeniable impact in his 490 appearances as B.C. Lions head coach

Wally Buono doesn’t want the B.C. Lions focused on winning for him in the CFL playoffs.

Instead, he’s consistently told his players to be internally motivated and pull for the team, not for a single individual — even if that individual is standing on retirement’s doorstep.

“Obviously he’s a guy that you respect. You want to see him go out in a special way,” said Lions quarterback Travis Lulay. “But that really isn’t the motivation.”

Buono is set to conclude his CFL career at the end of the season. He’s spent the past 46 years in the league, first as a player with the Montreal Alouettes, then as a coach and general manager for the Calgary Stampeders and then the B.C. Lions.

The 68-year-old has had an undeniable impact in his 490 appearances as head coach. He’s clinched five Grey Cups and has more wins than any other coach in the league’s history.

“Losing is something I’ve never gotten used to,” Buono told reporters last week. “I enjoy walking off the field and winning. I really don’t enjoy walking off the field and being a loser.”

Sunday could mark Buono’s last game, as the Lions (9-9) face off against the Hamilton Tiger-cats (8-10) in the East semifinal.

Despite the looming landmark, the coach doesn’t want to talk about what retirement may hold. He just wants to focus on football.

“This is why you play the game, this is why you coach the game. It’s an opportunity to win a championship,” he said.

Football may be his focus, but it’s leadership and mentorship that set him apart, his colleagues said.

READ MORE: B.C. Lions look to be first-ever crossover team to win Grey Cup

READ MORE: ‘Business as usual’ as BC Lions’ Wally Buono enters final CFL season

“He’s got a big heart. Wally likes people and he respects his players. He knows what it takes to win,” said Stampeders head coach Dave Dickenson.

Dickenson played quarterback for the Lions from 2003 to 2007, and said he only joined with the club because Buono had just become the head coach.

“That was the bottom line. If Wally hadn’t been here, I probably would have signed somewhere else,” Dickenson said. “I can trust Wally. Wally is a very trustworthy person and what you see is what you get. And I knew he was a winner, too, so I knew we could win when I got here. And we did.”

More than 600 players have suited up for Buono in at least one game over the years. Many credit him with launching their football careers.

“He was really the first guy in professional management that believed I could play,” said Lulay, who has spent all 10 years of his CFL career with the Lions.

“I had bounced around the NFL and had just a few brief opportunities here and there. But even then, I felt like if I could get on the field, I believed I could prove I could play. And Wally actually gave me that chance.”

The veteran quarterback won a Grey Cup with Buono in 2011 and vividly remembers his coach’s words before the championship game.

“The way he spoke to the team, it was as if the win had already happened,” Lulay said, noting that Buono told them how chaotic the post-game scene would be and gave them directions on where they should gather for a team photo.

His confidence in the moment was “really cool,” Lulay said.

“We’re going ‘Man, coach really believes we’re going to win this game.’ I just remember that feeling really permeate our locker-room. It was like there was no chance that we weren’t going to win that football game.”

Buono has been a role model and inspiration off the field, too.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson famously thanked Buono for cutting him from the Stampeders practice roster in 1995, saying the experience was a turning point in his life.

Lions fullback Rolly Lumbala said he’s been fortunate to have a front-row seat that allowed him to soak up some of “Wally’s wisdom” over the past 11 years.

“Sometimes you have to make the hard decisions. Sometimes the unpopular choices of releasing or trading people for the greater good. I’ve seen him do that and I’ve seen him handle it,” Lumbala said.

Buono is also known as a dedicated family man. His wife, Sande, four children and six grandchildren often attend Lions’ games, with some of the kids drawing motivational posters in marker and others waiting outside the locker room for “Papa” to bring out a Gatorade.

No matter the score, Buono greats them with hugs and smiles.

The behaviour isn’t lost on his players.

“I came in as a young man and now I have a family, I have a daughter,” Lumbala said. ”I see what he’s done, a leadership role, a mentorship, what type of family man he is. And that’s definitely somebody I look up to.”

Last week the Lions celebrated Buono’s accomplishments at the club’s final home game. Thousands of “Wally heads” — giant images of his face on sticks — were placed throughout the stadium and bobbleheads in his likeness were sold on the concourse.

His former players lined the field before kickoff, showering him with hugs and handshakes after he ran out of the tunnel.

Messages of thanks flashed on the big screen during stoppages in play.

“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to come and play up there,” Cameron Wake, now a defensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins, said in one. “I learned so much, had a tremendous time, still think about it every day when I’m playing.”

The Lions lost to the Calgary Stampeders, but chants of “Wally, Wally” still echoed through the crowd of more than 24,000.

In his post-game interview, Buono said he appreciated all that the club had done but he was visibly uncomfortable with being the centre of attention.

“It was great. It was nice to be acknowledged, it was nice to have all the tributes, it was nice of the organization,” he said. ”But in the midst of trying to coach and play a football game, I blame myself for the players maybe being a little bit distracted.”

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberni Valley fire departments hold car wash to raise funds for Wounded Warriors Run

Come out Feb. 22 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. to learn more about the run

67th year for Port Alberni’s men’s open bonspiel

Public is welcome to cheer on teams throughout the weekend

Alberni Valley residents vent anger over proposed Beaver Creek cannabis project

Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District grapples with limited authority to restrict operations

Paper Excellence, owner of Crofton mill, hit by malware

Paper production in Crofton, and other mills, impacted by incident

B.C. NDP’s throne speech speaks of benefits to B.C., says MLA Scott Fraser

Fraser agrees to meet with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs over pipeline

HIGHLIGHTS: Day one and two at the 2020 BC Winter Games

Athletes had sunny – but cold – weather to work with in Fort St. John

Zamboni driver, 42, earns NHL win over Maple Leafs

Emergency goalie called into action for Carolina Hurricanes

Governor general says multiple solutions needed for ‘complicated’ overdose issue

Julie Payette met at a fire hall with firefighters and police officers as well as politicians and health experts

Landlord ordered to pay $11K after harassing B.C. mom to move days after giving birth

Germaine Valdez was pressured to move just a few days after giving birth by C-section to her child

Heart attacks strike B.C. husband and wife just over one year apart

Courtenay couple share personal stories to bring awareness to heart month

‘Nothing surprises us anymore:’ U.S. border officials find brain in package

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents found the brain packed in a glass mason jar in a Canada Post shipment

B.C., Ottawa sign sweeping 30-year deal for northern caribou habitat

West Moberly, Saulteau co-manage new protection on two million acres

Eyes on police after Trudeau orders blockades torn down, injunctions enforced

The RCMP in B.C. have sent a letter to the traditional leaders of the Wet’suwet’en Nation

B.C. massage therapist suspended following allegations of sexual misconduct

While suspended, Leonard Krekic is not entitled to practice as an RMT in B.C.

Most Read