VANCOUVER - Wally Buono, the former coach, is looking over his successor’s shoulder.
Literally, he is. From high up on a lift overlooking the B.C. Lions’ practice field, the general manager has an eagle’s view of what Mike Benevides is surveying from field level.
Does Benevides feel those eyes peering down? Do the players?
How can they not?
This is not Buono’s intention. He doesn’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable. But everything out there on that field -- the coach he hand-picked when he gave up that half of the job, the players he signed -- all of it is his responsibility. And right now, it’s not going well.
“I’m a dangerous individual,” Buono said Wednesday, an hour after practice. “Why are you laughing? I am. No different than Bill Parcells was, no different than Mike Holmgren was. Think about coaches who became administrators. They’re more dangerous than a normal GM.
“I’m not up there overseeing Mike, I’m up there overseeing the organization, that’s my job. My observation is not singular, it’s not even plural. I’m watching the player personnel side, the execution, and the strategies.”
What he sees from up there, what he has seen from similar perches in press boxes during games this season, is not terribly pleasing. He sees a dead-in-the-water running game, and a veteran-laden defence that’s playing sporadically despite generally excellent personnel.
He sees mistakes at every level, including coaching, and he is trying very hard to choose his words carefully on the latter point, because he has never forgotten what it feels like to lose.
“It doesn’t shut off, being a coach. It’s who you are,” said the man who retired as the winningest coach in Canadian Football League history. “But you have to understand that now, someone else is coaching the team, and the best you can do is advise him, help him if you can -- and sometimes maybe you think you’re helping him and you’re hurting him. Sometimes you think you’re hurting him and actually you’re helping him.
“But at least he can walk through that door and know that whatever he’s going through, I’ve gone through. It’s like after (last Friday’s disspiriting loss in Calgary) I said, ‘Mike, come up to the room and we can talk.’ Why? Because I didn’t want him to be by himself, because I know what that feeling is. All you want to do is go hide in a closet. It’s just a game, it’s just a loss, but I know how he takes it.”
Buono is so personally invested in the coaching career of Mike Benevides, his longtime assistant, that he sometimes has to pull himself back and be tougher than he wants to be.
Benevides knew he was signing up for a nearly impossible task, coming in on the heels of a coaching legend. Not many have succeeded in such circumstances.
“Look at Mike’s record. He’s 22-11, that’s not all bad,” Buono said. “Today, it seems worse because we lost our last two games and we don’t have a chance for first place. But there’s a learning curve for everything, and Mike’s learning curve ... we can’t expect him to coach like he’s done it for 22 years, because he hasn’t done that.
“Mike has dealt with a very difficult situation very well, and I’m not sure if it was the other way around, I’d have dealt with it that well. He’s had some very, very good success. And I still believe that he’s going to grow and he’s going to get better, just like we all do.
“Is it easy? Nothing worthwhile is. But my greatest accomplishment when I leave is if I’ve helped him to be successful. If I can do that, then I’ll be happy to leave and feel good about it. If he doesn’t succeed, then I’m going to feel like I was a failure, too.”
Benevides said from the day he was hired that he was counting on Buono’s guidance to help him through the growing pains, and he’s had it. But it’s been tough love, like an allowance grudgingly given.
“I understand that the critical thing is the product on the field. But a lot of times, coaches are young people who are given opportunities and we give them maybe too much status or power. That’s earned, it’s not given,” said Buono.
“See, a guy that took over (legendary Edmonton coach) Hugh Campbell’s position got Hugh Campbell status, as far as whatever he says is law. Well, he’s not earned that yet. Hugh Campbell earned it, because he won five Grey Cups. When he said boo, hey, you should flinch. He’s earned that. What happens sometimes is you get people who hire a coach and they give him a status that’s not earned. And this is why organizations tumble.
“So this is why I think mentoring, cultivating, patience, encouragement are so important. Because you’re putting your organization in this man’s hands. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to back off and put it all on him.’ That’s not fair to him. That’s why these guys fail. You’ve got to support them, give them what they need, and they’re going to go through tough times. Right now, this is a tough time.”
By most standards, not so very tough. The Lions are 9-6, despite losing their No. 1 quarterback Travis Lulay four games ago to a shoulder injury that’s nowhere near healed, and their starting centre, Angus Reid -- possibly the second-most important player on the team, next to the quarterback -- who hasn’t played a down all season.
They are 2-2 with Thomas DeMarco in Lulay’s place.
But a loss in Regina on Saturday, and the Lions will not have a home playoff date, and Buono has never been happy with anything less than first place.
“I’ve said to Mike and I’ll say to you: I’m expecting to be 12-6. I have a high expectation about that, as I sit here right now,” said Buono.
That means running the table these last three weeks of the regular season -- at Saskatchewan, then at home to Edmonton and Calgary.
“The point is, this team can do that. But we can’t piss away opportunities, we’ve gotta line up and play good football. There’s no team in this league today that I believe is that much superior to everybody. But you gotta go out and make plays.”
It didn’t sound like a request.
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