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'The Godfather' Wally Buono back to lead B.C. Lions into 2017 season

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — Halfway through the first practice of B.C. Lions' training camp, Wally Buono is leaning up against one of the goalposts observing his offence.

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — Halfway through the first practice of B.C. Lions' training camp, Wally Buono is leaning up against one of the goalposts observing his offence. The club's head coach and general manager is down at the other end of the field later on as the defence goes through its paces.

As the light session without pads continues, he then takes a seat on the sidelines and chats quietly with a staff member.

It might not look like it sometimes, but Buono is in complete control.

"He's like 'The Godfather,'" wide receiver Bryan Burnham said with a grin Sunday. "He's the man around here. He walks into the room and without saying a word he gets that respect.

"He's earned it."

The CFL's all-time leader in coaching victories, Buono moved upstairs to focus on front office duties after winning the Grey Cup in 2011 — his second with team and fifth overall — but returned to the sidelines in 2016 as the Lions started to spiral into irrelevance.

With the help of a dynamic young quarterback in Jonathon Jennings, Buono inspired the team to a 12-6 campaign that saw B.C. win a playoff game for the first time in five years before falling to the Calgary Stampeders in the West Division final.

"We buy in because it's Wally. It's so easy to buy in," said Burnham. "Over the years we've had different coaches and sometimes it's hard to find that chemistry with them, but with Wally it's right there.

"He is the B.C. Lions."

Buono is committed to coach through this season, but beyond that is anyone's guess.

Friends and family have asked the 67-year-old if he plans on keeping a journal to document what could be his swan song as a CFL coach. It's an idea he scoffed at.

"That's not who I am. I struggle with all this," said Buono, who was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. "My thing is I approach this year as this year. I'm not even thinking forward."

After retiring as a player, Buono took part in his first training camp as an assistant coach in 1983 with the Montreal Concordes — before anyone on the current Lions roster was born.

What does he remember about that spring?

"Honestly, I don't," he said.

The four-time coach of the year does, however, smile when the conversation turns to what camps were like in the 1980s and 1990s.

"You were actually in pads twice in one day," said Buono, whose coaching record stands at 266-160-3. "Everything was totally different. Totally, totally different."

Times have changed and so has Buono, who made football fun again for the Lions, according to star linebacker Solomon Elimimian.

"He also made it simple," said the CFL's top defender last season. "It's clear cut, it's black and white. You know what to expect from him. He holds everybody accountable.

"With Wally you get more than just football. You get somebody who's going to teach you about the game of life. That's one thing a lot of guys appreciate.

"To have someone who cares about you in a business like this, it's rare."

On the field, Jennings looks poised to build on a breakout 2016 where he threw for more than 5,200 yards to go along with 27 touchdowns.

The Lions added former Ottawa Redblacks deep threat Chris Williams in free agency to an already fearsome offensive attack, but the biggest change will come on defence.

Linebacker Adam Bighill, the CFL's most outstanding defensive player in 2015, signed with the NFL's New Orleans Saints, while veteran defensive back Ryan Phillips was released before inking a deal with the Montreal Alouettes.

A number of other players from the unit also moved on, but Buono is convinced B.C. has the right pieces on both sides of the ball to hang with the Stampeders in the West.

"Part of what this team has to do is mature (and) understand when you play big games you have to rise up to that level," said Buono. "Not that we didn't do that last year, but I think there was a little bit of inconsistency.

"That's sometimes just part of growth."

Buono, who also won two Grey Cups as a player, doesn't like to talk about the future, but he's OK reflecting on the past and his place in the sport.

"I hope I've helped the CFL be better than it was before I came into it," he said. "I've helped a lot of people and I've probably hurt a lot of people. When you cut players, you hurt them.

"As good as the league has been for me, hopefully I've done the same because I do hold it in such high regard."


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press