Tears welled in Wally Buono’s eyes as he contemplated what it’s meant to be part of the CFL for nearly half a century. The 68-year-old, who’s seldom at a loss for words, took time to compose himself before answering.
“Why me?” the B.C. Lions’ longtime coach and vice-president of football operations said simply, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
“I’ve been blessed guys. God has been good to me. I keep asking him ‘Why me?’ And I still don’t know why.”
It was an emotional farewell for Buono on Thursday as he took questions in his last press conference as a CFL head coach. But he says he leaves the Lions in good hands under general manager Ed Hervey.
“I thought I was driven, I thought I was focused. But I think in a lot of ways, he surpasses even myself,” Buono said. ”He’s is going to work tirelessly to make this organization into a championship organization.”
The Lions’ season ended Sunday with a crushing 48-8 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East Division semifinal. The defeat marked the end of an era for the organization, as Buono is retiring from football after 46 years in the CFL as a player, coach, general manager and vice-president.
Scouring the league for Buono’s replacement as head coach will be just one task on Hervey’s to-do list this off season.
The general manager said he’s looking for someone who’s committed to winning and creating a championship environment. He’d also like the next coach to come from the CFL.
“I believe that we cut our teeth in this league for these opportunities,” Hervey said. “There are guys in this league that are committed to this league and deserve the opportunity to grow in this league.”
Despite Sunday’s loss, Hervey said the Lions beat expectations this year, coming back from a 3-6 start to clinch the crossover spot and secure a playoff position.
The ups and downs of the season will help the players who stay on to grow and develop an expectation to win, he added.
Hervey doesn’t expect a “massive overhaul” of the Lions roster, but said there are areas where the team needs to improve.
“Speaking candidly, we need to be more dynamic in some areas, we need more speed in some areas, and I’d like to be longer and more athletic in other areas,” he said.
Some empty spots will be filled during free agency, during which the club will be “extremely aggressive.”
“I’d like the B.C. Lions to be the first choice for ever free agent,” Hervey said.
The Lions will also keep a “core group” of players and build a foundation around them.
“At the end of the day, it’s the players that we feel can help us build a championship culture, which will eventually turn into championship-level play, and hopefully by the end of all of it, there will be championships won,” he said.
The general manager declined to say which players he’s looking at hold on to and whether that group could include current Lions quarterbacks Travis Lulay or Jonathon Jennings.
The pair will be free agents and both say they have not yet discussed their futures with the Lions’ front office.
Lulay, who battled injuries this season, said on Tuesday that he needs to sit down and think about whether he still wants to play football.
“It does take a toll, putting in all that extra time and energy and effort into just being on the field,” said the 35-year-old. “Right now, the energy levels are depleted. I mean, I really left it all out there and a lot of guys feel that way.”
Lulay threw for 2,494 yards, 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 12 games this season. Jennings put up 1,628 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions in 10 games.
The potential to upgrade at quarterback could be made in free agency, especially if stars Bo Levi Mitchell and Mike Reilly hit the market. Hervey has a connection to Reilly from the GM’s time in Edmonton.
The core of the roster knows what it takes to win, said wide receiver Bryan Burnham who led the Lions in receiving this season, with 67 catches for 1,029 yards and nine touchdowns.
The 28-year-old is headed to free agency and said he’s looking for an opportunity to win a championship.
“That’s why we all play the game,” he said. “I have faith that Ed (Hervey) is going to put together a championship team and it’s something I would love to be a part of, but things don’t always work out the way you want it to. So we’re going to see how this goes.”
Linebacker Solomon Elimimian still has a year left on his contract with the Lions, but noted that unexpected things can happen in the CFL off season.
“Regardless of who you are, it’s always a one year deal,” said Elimimian, who spent much of the season on the sidelines with a wrist injury. ”I don’t think anyone’s secure, regardless of what they may think.”
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press