Montreal Alouettes

Wally Buono - Linebacker/Punter - 1972-81 - Idaho State University

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excerpt - Coaching Always in Buono's blood - By Herb Zurkowsky - Montreal Gazette - November 18, 2004

"He had the personality of a coach. He always thought he was right," said Tony Proudfoot, a former defensive back and teammate of Buono, a linebacker and punter, on some great Montreal Alouettes teams in the 1970s. "We'd have debates in the huddles lasting 10 or 20 seconds. He wanted to blitz. I wanted to play zone.

"He was very sure of himself, to the point of stubbornness. You knew back then he was going to be a coach."

Proudfoot stands to be corrected. Buono is not merely a coach, he's a great coach. General manager, too.

In 2002, after being told unceremoniously to get out of town by Calgary owner Michael Feterik after 13 seasons and six Grey Cup appearances with the Stampeders, Buono headed to Vancouver, taking over a franchise that was failing at the gate and only marginally better on the field.

The Lions went 11-7 in Buono's first season, a Dave Dickenson knee injury from launching a serious playoff run. They were 13-5 this year and have qualified for Sunday's Grey Cup game against Toronto. Lions season tickets were at 6,000 when Buono was hired. Last Sunday's West Division final drew more than 55,000 fans. The transformation, Ackles says, started with Buono's hiring.

"I didn't know him," said Ackles, the Lions' ball boy in a previous, and much younger, life. "But when I made the (coaching) change and he was available, I knew it was an ideal situation. He's credible and stable. What I saw is what he is: an honest guy who works hard."

Born 54 years ago in Potenza, Italy, Buono moved with his family to Montreal in 1953. He remained in the city until 1987, other than his college years at Idaho State University. Buono played 10 seasons with the Alouettes, originally backing up linebackers Mike Widger, Carl Crennel and Chuck Zapiec. He became the team's punter after Sonny Wade's retirement.

Buono, by his own admission, was never a great player, but he was a student of the game, one of the veterans on defence who took control of the unit after head coach Marv Levy's departure in 1977. He learned a lot from Levy, especially the coach's attention to detail.

"Wally was called 'Coach' from his first season. He was so knowledgeable and studious," said Alouettes president Larry Smith, a fullback on those Montreal teams. "You could tell he had his head on his shoulders and knew where he was going. Over time, you saw his character come out as he established himself."

Buono learned well from Levy, making the players accountable for their actions. Instilling pride in an organization. Delegating authority and never forgetting who sells the tickets and is responsible for the show. He wants players who can think and learn quickly, just as he did.

"A team is made up of a lot of personalities," he said. "You can't squelch them to fit your mold. A couple run off at the mouth, but I won't shut them up. That would be wrong. You need personalities. Our job is entertainment. The better the entertainment, the better you sell your product.

"I never had that swagger."

Perhaps not, but Buono has been a model of consistency and has a history of winning second only to the Alouettes' Don Matthews. The Stamps were 153-79-2 under his watch, won eight Western Division titles and three Grey Cups. Buono was named the CFL's coach of the year twice.

"I wasn't a great player and I'm not a great coach," he said. "What makes you great? I'm not playing or doing all the schemes. But I understand you must surround yourself with a good team, everyone from management, trainers and even media-relations people. That's why you're successful. I'm successful because of them.

"I'm a good people person. Do I have to be a great offence, defence or special-teams coach? Not necessarily. But I have to be great handling, dealing and leading people. If I have strengths in certain aspects of the game on top of that, that's great."

Buono has the final say in all field and personnel matters with the Lions, but isn't afraid to delegate authority to his assistants, who interact more closely with the players than he does. That doesn't matter, though. Buono's reputation has preceded him. That and his aura, for now, are enough.

"You're so confident as a player because he's been there," Lions centre Angus Reid said. "He knows what it takes to win because he has been there so many times. He's such a leader.

"He's an amazing organizer, extremely professional and leaves nothing to chance."