Our beloved Lions are struggling, and as happens every time a team takes a dip, the search for the guilty parties begins in earnest. Inevitably, the blame lands on the desk of the head coach and his staff. In no other sport are coaches as prominent as they are in football – in a somewhat military like environment, they are the commanders who draw up the battle plans, and choose the platoon leaders and men who will carry them out. The emotional, physical nature of the game means that there is a great deal of myth making surrounding football coaches.
I will lay my biases on the table for all to see – I have been an amateur football coach for 19 seasons now. Before that, I played for 11 years at the youth, high school and junior levels. At the risk of sounding a rather predictable note in defending my fellow members of the coaching profession, I have one clear observation about the Lions’ current swoon – it’s not about the coaches.
Every season, I attend coaching clinics, and I have been privileged to be part of clinics with many current CFL, NFL and NCAA coaches. I have no particular relationship with any of the Lions’ current coaches, but do know their backgrounds. Wally Buono’s record speaks for itself, and requires no further elaboration. You don’t stand on the edge of becoming the league’s winning head coach of all time without knowing what you are doing. The assistant coaches, however, who are also under attack, are also incredibly talented football minds. It was only a few short months ago that Mike Benevides was the flavour of the week amongst the CFL coaching fraternity. He was on the short list for the Argos head coaching job, and is widely considered to be Wally’s heir in BC. Mike Benevides has spent his entire adult life in the coaching world. This is his life – he works ridiculous hours, in season and off season, studying film, reading books, going to clinics, and turning himself inside and out trying to find an edge and become a better coach. Is someone seriously trying to suggest that Mike Benevides doesn’t know the game, or has forgotten how to coach?
Ditto for Jacques Chapdelaine. Jacques has either been a player or a coach his entire life. He is an intense student of the game, and has forgotten more about putting together a passing attack than I will ever know. His cool, somewhat detached demeanor makes him a target for fan ire, especially when the offense appears to be “too conservative”. (I should say at this stage that being an offensive coordinator is the most thankless job in football. Fans and media second guess you all day, and head coaches routinely throw you under the bus in order to buy themselves another season.) There wasn’t one fan in that building Friday night who could hold a candle to Jacques Chapdelaine in terms of his knowledge of the game of football, or the CFL in general.
I have been to coaching clinics at two NCAA schools, Washington and Syracuse, put on by coaching staffs who, a year or so later, all got the axe for the crime of not winning enough. In both instances, I was blown away at how incredibly knowledgeable and professional all the coaches were. Again, as is the case with Lions coaches, these men were dedicated professionals who had sacrified everything, including their families, for the game of football.
No, this is about personnel. At both Washington and Syracuse, it was a failure to recruit enough talent that ultimately did in both coaching staffs. If you don’t have the horses to compete, it really doesn’t matter who the coach might be. You are out-manned, and at the college or pro level the odds of you being able to coach your way out of a significant personnel shortage are slim and none. The same thing has happened to the Lions. The club suffered too many key free agent departures in the off-season, and was unable to replace them with the kind of skill they needed to bridge the gap. Toss in a rash of injuries at quarterback, and the fact that the offense’s go-to guy is about to turn 34, and you have what you have — a team that is facing a rebuilding job. If you want to be angry at Wally Buono the GM, feel free, although every team has to go through a rebuilding process eventually, and one could argue that the Lions had gone as far as they could go with the core that took them through the last five seasons. Do not, however, be angry at Wally Buono the coach — he is still the same coach he has been for years, and his staff is full of smart, hardworking professionals who are swimming just as fast as they can. The process of bringing in the right players for them to coach, however, will be a slow and painful one for fans of the orange and black.