After 60 years, Lions know all about change


B.C. Lions general manager Wally Buono and Angus Reid pose for a photo at the annual state of the franchise luncheon in Vancouver on January 22, 2013.

B.C. Lions general manager Wally Buono and Angus Reid pose for a photo at the annual state of the franchise luncheon in Vancouver on January 22, 2013.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

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VANCOUVER - Sixty years ago Tuesday, the first board meeting was held among the men who would put the B.C. Lions on the field a year later.

At the time, as near as Wally Buono can figure it, he was a two-year-old toddler on the boat coming from Naples, Italy, to Halifax and a new life.

Sixty years ago, the Canadian Football League was routinely outbidding the National Football League for players. Yes, that happened.

Today, Buono has come and gone from the field of play, he’s on his way to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as the winningest coach in CFL history, and he has lived long enough -- and so have the Lions, and the CFL -- to see the day when once more they all have something with which to lord it over America’s sporting juggernaut.

These days, it’s the proverbial ant versus the elephant, economically, but after years of what sounded like envious claims by its die-hard supporters that the Canadian game was more wide-open, more adventurous, more fun than the form-fitted American brand, confirmation has arrived.

It has arrived in the form of imitation, the sincerest form of flattery.

It has arrived in the emergence of 5-foot-10 Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and Carolina’s Cam Newton before him, and the Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III, and the election of Texas A&M’s exciting Johnny Manziel as college football’s Heisman Trophy winner.

It has arrived in the proliferation of pass-to-set-up-the-run philosophies, and in the hiring of Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman by the Chicago Bears, and in the running threat of San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, which so pre-occupied the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game Sunday, they let the 49ers’ other ball carriers beat them out of a trip to the Super Bowl.

“There’s a transition going on in the NFL,” Lions president and CEO Dennis Skulsky said Tuesday, at an elaborate state-of-the-team news conference kicking off what will be the club’s 60th season.

“The game’s looking different, the athletes are a little different at some of the key positions, and the coaching -- Wally can speak to this, but we’ve had calls over the last little while from people wanting film from the CFL about defences and how to counter an attack that now has more of a flavour of the CFL than used to be the case.”

“What’s happened to college football is now happening to the NFL -- it’s almost like it’s evolving into the CFL,” Buono said. “This is what’s amazing. If Atlanta had called us, the defensive co-ordinator, they could have stopped San Francisco’s running game.

“You don’t put the defensive end up on the quarterback, because when you do, the running back is going to cut off that guy every time. He’s going to get big yardage. Right, Angus?” he said to the Lions’ 36-year-old, freshly re-signed centre, Angus Reid.

“We all know that. They don’t know that.

“These are all issues that in the 30-40 years that I’ve been involved with (the CFL), we’ve all had to deal with: the athletic quarterback that can put a lot of pressure on the defence,” said Buono, who called the typical NFL attitude “isolationist."

“The running quarterbacks, it’s like suddenly these [NFL] guys have found something nobody else had found. The 5-foot-10 running quarterback. The Heisman Trophy winner, did you see him? He looked like Doug Flutie, right?

“They’re using our technology, in a sense. The formations, the alignments, the things that have made this league exciting, wide open, have now moved into their world. And when you look at the kinds of athletes this philosophy is producing, I think it’s had a cultural effect on the whole of U.S. (football), colleges and pros. It’s all predicated on the change in the offence. When the offence changed, the defence changed. When the defence changed, the personnel changed.”

It was that kind of day at the Vancouver Club, ebullient, with so much upbeat news -- notwithstanding the sour ending to the Lions’ season -- that the speeches were all about attendance figures (32,000 on average since returning to renovated BC Place Stadium), record revenues and suite and merchandise sales, community initiatives, the ripple effect of the 100th Grey Cup, new stadiums going up in Winnipeg and Hamilton and Ottawa ...

And in the back of the room, the rosy-cheeked figure of Reid, whose signing -- he basically spilled the beans last month -- wouldn’t get Travis Lulay-type headlines, but is in some ways nearly as vital to the 60th season.

“An athlete sometimes has value that can’t be measured on the field only, and I think Angus is a great leader, a great mentor, a great pacifier to a lot of people -- because that position does calm the waters in a lot of respects,” said Buono, who also signed veteran defensive back Ryan Phillips.

Reid, entering his 13th season, will have been here for nearly a quarter of the franchise’s history, which is a little daunting for a guy who’s had more bone chips removed than most humans have bones.

But part of his deal for 2013 is to mentor someone to take his job, once he’s done, and just generally be a big brother and example to all the new faces on the Lions’ roster.

Because that was the rest of the story Tuesday. If the loss of the Western final didn’t already result in a hard examination of player personnel, the signing of Lulay to a $450,000 contract meant some painful decisions may have to be made on big earners elsewhere on the club.

One of those could involve a guy who might be the best player in franchise history, slotback Geroy Simon.

“[Lulay’s salary] is not going to prevent us from doing what we want to do. When you manage the cap, you have to manage it, it’s not like my wife’s chequing account where it’s endless, right?” said Buono. “There’s a bottom line here, and we’ve done a good job with it over the years.

“Change is inevitable. Sometimes you gotta change your attitude, sometimes you gotta change your methods, and sometimes you gotta change your people. That’s unfortunate, but in our business, if you don’t change, you don’t improve.”

As to Simon’s future, “We’ve talked about a lot of things,” the GM said, cautiously. “It’s a complex process. We want to make sure whatever happens is best for both parties. Both have to be comfortable with it.”

No one’s going to be comfortable if this is it for Geroy. There’s no way to break that bond without some heartache.

But that will be a topic for another kind of news conference.

B.C. Lions general manager Wally Buono and Angus Reid pose for a photo at the annual state of the franchise luncheon in Vancouver on January 22, 2013.

B.C. Lions general manager Wally Buono and Angus Reid pose for a photo at the annual state of the franchise luncheon in Vancouver on January 22, 2013.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

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