B.C. Lions practice at BC Place on Thursday. Pictured is a lone worker high above the field working on a laptop.
Photograph by: Jason Payne, PNG
VANCOUVER - Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not spying on you.
This has been the durable, time-tested philosophy of professional football coaches from time immemorial -- maybe football coaches in general -- who pretty much all suspect that the fellow lounging against the chain-link fence or sitting in the sea of empty seats, watching practice, is probably secretly taping the whole thing with a camera hidden in his lapel and sending the footage to the enemy.
(See attached photo of spy cleverly disguised as stadium worker.) Moles. They’re everywhere.
But that, the B.C. Lions wish to assure their fans and followers, is not why they closed the meaningful part of practice Thursday at B.C. Place, and will do so again today, and all of next week, too, if they can get away with it.
The media hound in me ought to be outraged.
But competitively speaking, looking at it from their point of view, it’s smart.
They have a star quarterback, Travis Lulay, with a wonky shoulder. Why would they want the Saskatchewan Roughriders -- who play here in the regular season finale Saturday evening -- to know precisely how well he’s throwing the football, or what his chances are of playing more than a few series?
“For us, it’s good to close practice once in a while, because we have too much access,” said Lions defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler, who’s worked for or been around some of the great conspiracy theorists of our time, including Don Matthews, Ron Lancaster, Hugh Campbell, Cal Murphy and, yes, Wally Buono.
“Especially coming into this portion of the season, especially with Travis being out ... I mean, everybody’s chasing us, and he’s the most valuable player. He’s a catalyst. They’re going to try and go after that one specific guy,” Stubler said.
“We need to play some things close to the vest.”
Buono says it’s simply a desire for a little privacy by a team that practises all season in a fishbowl -- or at least, a city-owned field in Surrey.
“Other teams can practice in a stadium and not let you in there. We can’t do that. The only time we ever get into this stadium is around playoffs,” Buono said.
“It’s not about having you not watch us practice. It’s that other teams can do it, and we can’t. Look, we know this is a two-way street. But I think we’re pretty good at giving access, now we’re asking you to give a little bit. Is that fair?
“The other part? Gamesmanship. When I was in Calgary I did it. We want to try to take advantage of every home edge we can. If we can put in a wrinkle nobody knows about, why not?”
Why not, indeed?
Still, it would be useful to know whether Lulay, who claims to be throwing almost normally again, actually, you know ... is.
“Would you mind airing one out for us, 40 yards or so, since we didn’t get to see you do it in practice?” a writer asked, tongue-in-cheek.
“Sure, anything for you guys,” Lulay said.
He chuckled when asked whether he thought closing practice was to keep his status classified information.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said, “but you’d have to ask Coach Benevides.”
If it’s supposed to be a secret, Lulay is either a terrific fibber -- and it doesn’t seem to fit his personality -- or he’s really starting Saturday and will go for as long as head coach Mike Benevides lets him go.
“That’s been the plan all along unless something changed that,” the quarterback said, “and it didn’t.”
It’s not exactly the kind of admission you get from a team trying to lock down all clues to their plans.
Stubler says every coach and GM is different.
“Pinball (Clemons) had absolutely no desire to close a practice, because he believed that you’re going to go out and play regardless of whether anybody saw you play or didn’t see you play, or who was going to play,” he said.
“Ron Meyer (at Southern Methodist University) closed practice every day. Lancaster? Ronnie was paranoid. Toward the end of the year he’d get real paranoid. I remember Don Matthews went up, attacking people in the stands because he thought they were taking pictures of what we were doing.
“That was a big thing for Don. He was so concerned who might be there, that we’d go to Calgary and we’d actually draw stuff up for a practice, some double-wing s--t we were never going to use in the game.”
Benevides said that on a scale of 1 to 10 on the paranoia scale, he’s roughly in the middle. He knows the folklore, though, and he knows the drill.
“There’s a million stories of how covert people will be. There’s stories of guys getting in a telephone service van and climbing up a power pole and filming practice,” he said. “We all know about [New England Patriots] Spygate and all that. Or people changing jersey numbers in practice.
“But if someone thinks we’re closing practice because we’re doing all kinds of secret stuff ... that’s okay.”
He said there’s really nothing to be suspicious about, concerning Lulay. There is, however, an ever-present cat-and-mouse game with how much the Lions will be willing to show the Roughriders on Saturday, just in case they end up seeing one another again in the West final.
And, no doubt, vice versa.
“There’s two schools of thought. Do you not show them much because you want to keep things in your back pocket, or do you show them all kinds of stuff, as a diversion, more than you ever would do, just so they have to prepare for it? I love the gamesmanship aspect of it,” Benevides said.
As for that fellow in the stands with the laptop, and the lame hardhat and neon orange vest disguise ...
“I’m not paranoid,” said the coach. “I’m not that guy.”
He sounded quite sincere. But it might have been misdirection.
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