He’s yet to coach a game for the B.C. Lions, but DeVone Claybrooks isn’t worried about having to fill the shoes of legendary head coach Wally Buono.
Buono retired at season’s end, culminating an illustrious 46-year tenure as a CFL player, coach and executive. Buono, 68, won seven Grey Cups (two as a player, record-tying five as a head coach), four coach-of-the-year honours, 13 West Division titles and the most games (282) in league history.
Enter Claybrooks, a six-foot-three, 300-pound former defensive lineman who earned a Super Bowl ring as a player with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in ‘02 and two Grey Cups (2014, ‘18) as a coach with the Calgary Stampeders.
“It (replacing Buono) has got to be in my head considering I get asked about it every five minutes,” Claybrooks said with a chuckle from Mont. Tremblant, Que., where CFL GMs, presidents and coaches are meeting this week. “The funny thing is everyone asks me, ‘How are you going to fill Wally’s shoes?’
“I’m like, ‘I’m not. Wally wears a 10 1/2 or 11 and I wear a 14.’ At the end of the day he had his journey and steered his car the way he wanted to. I’m driving this car now. I just got an oil change and tuneup and he gave me the keys. I’m going to drive it in the direction I see fit.”
That’s not to say Claybrooks won’t have Buono’s number on speed dial.
“The best part about it is I do have him to lean on if I have questions,” Claybrooks said. “He’s a great man, a great counsellor, a great mentor.
“He’s been very helpful and open. I can’t ask for more.”
Claybrooks, 41, didn’t really celebrate Calgary’s 27-16 Grey Cup win over Ottawa on Nov. 25 in Edmonton. Shortly afterwards, the Stampeders’ defensive co-ordinator interviewed with both Toronto and B.C. before being named Lions head coach Dec. 11.
“My mom was like, ‘Baby, you’ve got to enjoy this for a day or two,’” Claybrooks said. “We had a few drinks and went out for a nice dinner but I think if you get caught looking at the last one you’re not going to win the next one.”
Claybrooks spent seven seasons in Calgary, the last three as defensive co-ordinator. The Stampeders (CFL-best 13-5 record in 2018) have boasted the league’s top defence during Claybrooks’ tenure, last year finishing first in 10 of the league’s 20 defensive categories.
B.C. (9-9) finished fourth in the West Division before losing 48-8 to Hamilton in the East Division semifinal. The Lions’ defence finished tied for the CFL lead in interceptions (21) and sacks (45) and was ranked second against the pass (247.2 yards per game) but was seventh in points (26.3) and rushing yards (113.8) allowed.
Hamilton accumulated 450 offensive yards in its playoff win and registered four sacks, three more than B.C.
“I’ve always believed you start with building a defence,” Lions GM Ed Hervey said. “When you look at teams in the West Division, you have explosive offences in Edmonton and Calgary and you’ve got to be able to stop them before you have an opportunity to play with them.
“It starts there.”
Hervey knew early in his search that Claybrooks was the Lions’ best head-coaching candidate.
“Watching him over the last several years and the success he’s had co-ordinating his defence, that’s the first thing that gets you noticed,” Hervey said. “But it’s also how he handles players, his ability to interact and communicate with them.
“That’s extremely important and sometimes understated in our business. The communication a coach must have with players isn’t primarily Xs and Os but being able to relate on issues outside of football and keep the focus of the room and players.”
Claybrooks had other coaching options — most notably an offer to coach the defensive line of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys — but felt the Lions presented him the best fit.
“What I’ve learned through this journey and in the coaching profession, fit is 99.99 per cent of it,” he said. “I see things the same way Ed and Rick (Lions president Rick LeLacheur) do.
“We understand this is how we want to build our team and put this product on the field. We all see it the same way.”
Claybrooks said being a former player has helped him as a coach.
“When a player tells me on the second day of training camp he might need a vet day, I can be like, ‘Well, I’m 300 pounds and it took me seven days to get a vet day so therefore I know you’re over here trying to play this game with me.’” he said. “I’ve still got grass on my cleats. It might be brown and a little dead but it’s still grass.
“Players don’t do grey, they do black and white. If they ask you something, they might not like the answer but they’ll respect you more when you’re honest with them. And their buy-in will be even more and you’ve got to understand that as a coach.”
Make no mistake, Claybrooks is honest — sometimes brutally — with players.
“Don’t ask me a question if you don’t want to know the true answer,” he said. “Don’t ask me, ‘How am I playing?’ because you wouldn’t do that if you were playing great, right?
“So when I say, ‘You’re playing badly and need to pick it up,’ you can look at me and know, ‘At least he’s being honest because I know I was playing bad.’”
Claybrooks won’t have to wait long to face Calgary. The Lions visit McMahon Stadium on June 19.
“It won’t be tough or awkward at all because they (president/GM John Hufnagel, head coach Dave Dickenson) are like my mentors and best friends,” Claybrooks said. “It wasn’t like I snuck out or left on bad terms.
“I had Huf’s blessing, I had Dave’s blessing, they were very helpful throughout the process. It’s actually going to be exciting to match wits with guys you’ve co-ordinated and gameplanned with over the years while testing and understanding yourself as well.”