VANCOUVER - In every successful general manager, regardless of the sport, there are elements of ruthless flesh-peddler, snake-oil salesman, bottom-line businessman and big-league juggler.
A very few have, with apologies to Bruce Willis, The Fifth Element.
In Wally Buono’s case, that element is compassion.
He just tries not to let it get in the way.
So as the B.C. Lions’ boss of all things football sat in his office Monday, 30 feet away from where the Canadian Football League club would welcome 2010 outstanding rookie Solomon Elimimian back to the fold, he readily admitted that certain hard decisions had had to be made to clear the decks sufficiently to make the explosive linebacker choose B.C. over “several” other options.
Put another way: Buono had to trade Geroy Simon and cut Arland Bruce III, or all the goodwill in the world wouldn’t have allowed him to make pretty much a clean sweep of every priority he set for CFL free agency season: quarterback Travis Lulay, star offensive tackle Jovan Olafioye, budding Canadian star slotback Shawn Gore, and Elimimian.
Yup, all he had to do was let two future Hall of Fame receivers go.
Oh, and then -- right after trading arguably the greatest player in B.C. Lions history to Saskatchewan rather than pay him more than the organization felt he was worth -- he had to convince the free agents he hoped to sign that B.C. was a good and caring environment.
OK, a sixth element: masterly spin-doctor.
“When it comes to certain things, you do have to draw that line in the sand,” said the CFL’s resident sage and all-time winningest coach.
“If they come with numbers that are not feasible, you can’t do it. It’s like with Yuri (linebacker James Yurichuk) right now. We told him this was our best offer. If you can get better somewhere else, go. He went. (To the Toronto Argos). Which is fine. I’m good with it.
“There is a point in time when it is simply business.”
Business, though, is never simple. Buono can think of two days in his life that were particularly complicated.
“The day I got out of bed knowing we’d done the (Simon) trade, and I had to come in and sign the papers, that wasn’t a joyous time for me,” he said.
“But if you’re not willing to make the tough choice, eventually someone will make the tough choice about you. Firing you is a tough choice. The easy thing would have been not to make the hard choice on Geroy. You wouldn’t have had the public outcry.”
Has it really been so bad?
“It’s bad enough,” he said. “Still, today, when I was running, someone yells: ‘Why’d you trade Geroy?’ I say, ‘Because I wanted to make Saskatchewan better, guys, that’s why. Because I want to lose and get fired.’ I hear it all the time.
“But if you’re afraid of getting that reaction ...”
For 20 years -- 11 in Calgary, nine in Vancouver -- Buono held the dual roles of coach and GM. Some might says it’s ideal to be your own boss, but it’s only ideal if you don’t mind the hours it takes to do two jobs.
Now that he’s given up the coaching to Mike Benevides -- more than year ago, still not quite enough time to completely let go of the reins -- he is even one half-step further away from the coach-player attachment that might have influenced the odd decision in the past.
Even so, he said, “I never felt as empty, when I got up in the morning, as I did for Geroy, though I didn’t cut him.
“The hardest one to pick up the phone and cut was Allen Pitts,” he said of the great Stampeders slotback. “Because Allen wasn’t in Calgary. So I had to do it on the phone. You’d like to do it face-to-face.
“Otis (Floyd) was tough, because Otis was a favourite. Not just a great player, but a chemistry guy, my family loved him, my wife liked him. They’re all tough, but Allen Pitts was the hardest.”
The players -- God bless ’em, he said -- rarely grasp the waning of their own skills.
“And I was a player, too. The life that you know is taken away from you, and a lot of us can’t give it up. And you can rationalize it: ‘I’m going to train harder, I’m going to be better, I’m going to be healthier’ ... but at the end of it, Father Time doesn’t stop for anybody.
“Geroy took it tough, but he is adamant that he’s going to do something about it. And maybe he can. But the research I did shows that injuries occur, the ability to reverse that is pretty hard.”
Buono’s job, at such times, is harsh but perfectly clear to him.
“I try to invest in guys that will make a difference. I’m thinking: Travis is going to be a difference maker. Shawn Gore is going to be a difference maker. Solomon. Biggie (middle linebacker Adam Bighill). Jovan.
“If you closed your eyes and I asked you who the difference makers on our team were last year, I bet you’d have a hard time coming up with 10 or 12 guys. The other guys are just ... good players.
“So once you find out who your difference-makers are, you’ve got to take care of them. And then once they become less and less of a difference-maker, you’ve got to start finding the next guys. It’s a flowing cycle, right?” he said. “Geroy in his prime, I would never have traded to Saskatchewan.”
Simon’s cycle, in Buono’s estimation, was nearing low ebb. Maybe not there yet, but closing in on it. Ergo, he was as dispensible as Pitts, or Floyd, or any other player whose actual ability to contribute was, in the boss’s estimation, at odds with the image that persisted in the player’s own mind, or in the minds of fans.
“The guy who ‘was’ is what people see in their heads,” Buono said.
Buono sees the guy who is.
More clearly, sometimes, than is good for his fifth element.
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