He is likely to get a lengthy standing ovation when he walks off the turf on his final regular season coaching assignment on November 3rd, but fans of the BC Lions will also be treated to an encore of Wally Buono’s farewell tour. Just how long will it be? That is the question.
Three days after his squad locked up a spot in the 2018 Grey Cup playoffs, the CFL’s all-time leader in victories wasn’t popping any champagne or cleaning up any confetti. But after beginning the second half of his final odyssey with a 3-6-0 record, you’d forgive him for taking a moment to acknowledge how proud he is for the franchise.
“My biggest fear at 3-6 was that these last two or three games weren’t going to mean anything,” he said.
“That would have been very tough to deal with, very tough to handle and not the way to end what has been an outstanding stay in Vancouver for me and my family. I’m proud of our coaches and players for sucking it up and winning six out of the last seven games. It has put us in the hunt for a lot of things, but obviously making the playoffs was our first goal.”
And he’s 100 per cent correct when he says his resurgent Lions are still hunting. The math as simple: should they beat Saskatchewan by at least four points on Saturday, defeat Calgary in the regular season finale November 3rd and have the Winnipeg Blue Bombers drop either of their remaining two games (they are home to Calgary on Friday and in Edmonton November 30), then the Lions would finish second in the West Division and play host to the Riders in the division semi-final on November 11th.
Mathematically, they can still finish 3rd and head back to Regina for the semi-final or 4th and travel to either Ottawa or Hamilton as the crossover team. All this being said, Buono knows all he can control is how his own squad takes care of business.
“I’m not saying ‘win by four,’ I’m saying just winning,” says Buono of his message to the players.
“The other stuff takes care of itself. We can’t always determine anything other than we can go out, play physical, play hard and play smart. Other things have to take place, but the thing that I believe is going into Saskatchewan and a very hostile environment against a team that also has plenty at stake is also like a playoff game. That’s exactly what we’re going to be facing on Saturday night. If you wanted a dress rehearsal for a road playoff game you’re going to get it on Saturday.”
For the hometown Roughriders, the water is a little less muddy. All they need is a win to clinch their first home playoff game since 2013 and would still have an outside shot at first place if the Stampeders lost their last two and also ended up at 12-6. That’s by virtue of Saskatchewan winning the head to head tiebreaker two games to one.
As the coach stated above, the Lions will only worry about themselves. Another impressive piece to this puzzle has been the fact they have done it without key leaders such as Solomon Elimimian, Manny Arceneaux and Cody Husband. It speaks to the fine job GM Ed Hervey has done at adding key pieces to the roster.
“It’s a credit to Ed and the way we wanted to build our football team,” added Buono.
“We wanted to build a team that had depth, whether it was the guys on the injured reserve or the guys on the practice roster. We lost a running back and Rutley was very good, we lost a centre and Godber was really good. We lost Godber and Andrew Peirson has done a great job for us. We lost Manny Arceneaux and DeVier Posey has really stepped up. Solly was a great piece on our defence and both Jordan Herdman has stepped up, Micah Awe came back and it’s been that way across the board. We’re a better football team for it, even though you hate to lose players.”
For his part, Buono has tried his best to downplay the whole farewell tour thing. These games are way too crucial to think about that. But if they do find a way to take this run all the way until the final Sunday in November, it will prove to be the perfect final chapter to his already impressive career book.
After all, he has spent his fair share of Grey Cup weeks taking part in Board of Governors meetings and any other type of league obligation you can think of. You always want to spend that week preparing for what you know will be your last game of the season.
“I’m hoping I can go to Edmonton in November; I would prefer to go for real work,” said Buono.
“This was one of the reasons I came back. I felt committed to helping David (Braley) in the transition. Ed was very candid when he said he felt the best opportunity to win was with him and I working together and that it would help in his own transition. Would I like to be part of another championship team? Yes. Am I going to be given a lot more opportunities? No. I felt when I was going to be given one more, it was worth taking.”
Let’s hope the encore is his most memorable one yet.