Wally Buono was a Montreal Alouettes linebacker in 1975 when he and his wife Sande attended a convention of the Christian ministry group Athletes in Action in Chicago.
The Buonos were in their mid-20s, and it was a demarcation point in their lives. They committed themselves to an evangelical Christian faith. "We were both searching for something," remembered Sande of the transformative experience.
In the four decades since, as Wally Buono became the coach with the most wins in CFL history, faith guided the Buonos through life, on and off the field. In 2011, when the B.C. Lions started the season with five successive losses and then went on to win the Grey Cup, faith underpinned Buono's decision to retire from coaching. And late last fall, faith led him back to the sidelines.
The 2011 Grey Cup was the last playoff game the Lions won. The team bottomed out last year at 7-11. Buono, at 66, has led a revival this season, the Lions going 12-6 and poised for a home playoff game this Sunday against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Carried by a tenacious defence and an offence that leads the league in rushing and big-play passing, the Lions are rejuvenated – as is their new/old coach.
When Buono retired he was worn out. He had done double duty for most of his 22 seasons in Calgary and Vancouver, as coach and general manager. He stayed in the game as Lions GM and four seasons away from the sidelines were a kind-of sabbatical, freed from the daily stresses of coaching. But as time passed, with less control than Buono had for so long, he realized it wasn't working.
"I came to a conclusion: if I was going to be doing this job [GM], I had to do both roles," Buono said in a recent interview in his office.
"But I didn't come back because I missed coaching. I felt God saying to me: 'Wally, this is what I want you to do. I believe you've been re-energized.'"
It shows. During games, Buono strides up and down the sideline, without a headset as always. In his office, he pointed to the Fitbit on his wrist. He logs 12,000 steps on a typical day. He hits 20,000 on game day. Speaking of his faith, he reached for a small well-thumbed Bible to cite a verse. Talking about leadership, he got up to draw up a diagram on his whiteboard, something akin to a running-back sweep.
"Your boss tells you something, you can go do it, but is your heart in it?" Buono said. "From Day 1, this is why I think we've improved so drastically. All I was, was an instrument."
Buono has softened, slightly. He delegates more. He's not compelled to be at work each morning before 5 a.m., arriving instead at 6, or even 6:30. "I'm smarter now," joked Buono, pouring a coffee in the staff kitchen. "And I'm much more benevolent – to a point."
He's changed – and is also the same, said Geroy Simon, who played for Buono for nine seasons and today works as the Lions' director of Canadian scouting.
"He's mellowed," Simon said. "But he still has that intensity. You feel the intensity when he walks into a room. You feel his presence."
Christian faith in football is common but it runs deep on the Lions, led by the team's key players: Jonathon Jennings, the 24-year-old quarterback who, in his first full season, threw for 5,000-plus yards; receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux, who at 29 has had his best season; left tackle Jovan Olafioye, among the CFL's best linemen; and linebacker Solomon Elimimian, who on Thursday was again chosen the most outstanding defensive player in the West.
One desire remains singular: a shot at another Grey Cup – a record-setting championship. The victory in 2011 was Buono's fifth as a coach, matching Frank Clair, Hugh Campbell and Don Matthews.
After Buono's previous championships, he played an integral role in the design of the teams' rings, a job he savoured.
"I'm hoping to be able to do it one more time," he said.
The Lions are three wins away. In the West semi-final they face Winnipeg, a team that edged B.C. twice in October. The powerhouse Calgary Stampeders are waiting in the West final.
Those closest to Buono see the renewed spark.
"He's definitely refreshed," said daughter Christie Buono, who works for the Lions in sales. "Being away has given him a new appreciation."
His wife feels the revival.
"You know Wally is the oldest person in the CFL? He is," said Sande, laughing. "He's the grandfather of the CFL."
She supported her husband's return, but worried at first.
"We've always felt that God has led us," Sande said. "He would close doors and open doors. We were surprised he opened the coaching door again. But Wally's where he should be right now."