HAMILTON — With temperatures hovering around freezing and an angry wind blowing off Lake Ontario, the B.C. Lions are going through their final walk-through in preparation for Sunday’s playoff encounter with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Most of the players, the sane ones at least, are dressed for the weather which means layers and gloves. The exceptions are giant offensive tackle Joel Figueroa, who has guns the size of ham hocks, and defensive back Garry Peters, who played two seasons in Edmonton and believes going bare armed gives him a psychological advantage.
“When I come out and see guys wearing long sleeves and stuff on their head, I know they’re already defeated,” Peters explains.
Taking all this in is coach Wally Buono, who seems energized by the frigid environment in Steeltown. This is the CFL playoffs, he’ll say later. Games are supposed to be played in the elements and if he had to pick a day when he could go out on his shield, he’d pick a day like this: A day when football is reduced to its most primitive aspects, a day that will identify the toughest team mentally and physically.
These have been Buono’s bedrock principles in his five decades in the CFL and he believes the 2018 Lions have come to embrace the tao of Wally. Maybe he only saw it sporadically in the 9-9 regular season but he did see it and he believes there is greatness in this team, his last team.
Wouldn’t it be something if they showed that greatness in his final act?
“Wally’s pretty steadfast in the face of adversity,” quarterback Travis Lulay answered when asked what Buono did to help turn around a team that was stuck in a 3-6 hole at mid-season.
“It wasn’t like he was blowing up the room and doing crazy things. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned from Wally. If you believe in who you are and what you’re doing, then stick to it and power through whatever tough moment you’re going through.
“That was the case this year and I truly believe a lot of that comes from the leadership and Wally. The team takes the temperament of its head coach.
“Wally’s kind of a tough, gritty guy who’s overcome a lot of things. That’s his whole life story and I think that’s this team’s mindset.”
OK, maybe we’re guilty of trying to fit this storyline into Buono’s last go-round as a CFL coach. But even if you think the Lions’ turnaround had more to do with personnel changes made by GM Ed Hervey than Buono’s coaching, something happened to the Lions a couple of months ago that enabled them to salvage this season.
Buono says it’s simple. When the Lions were 3-6 they were discovering new and innovative ways to lose. When they went on their 6-1 run, they found ways to win and there’s something to that.
But along the way, they created an identity that they believe reflects this team at its best and that team will show up Sunday. It’s built around a physicality on both lines of scrimmage and special teams, a power running game with Tyrell Sutton, a balanced passing game with Lulay and a defence that creates turnovers.
Sexy it isn’t but when the Lions are at their best, that’s who they are.
“We have a recipe for success and it’s being fast, being physical and being smart,” said linebacker Solomon Elimimian, who returns to the lineup Sunday after missing 14 games with a chronic wrist injury.
“We’re a resilient team,” said receiver Bryan Burnham. “We’re going to take some punches but we’re going to punch back. We’re not going to roll over. That’s not us.”
But it is Buono.
The Lions, in complete candour, haven’t had the look of a well-coached team for stretches of this season. A lot of that has to do with below-average play from the quarterback position but there have been issues with team discipline, with consistency, with stretches when they appear to go brain dead.
Buono said a lot of those problems were created by a lineup that features 16 new starters.
“Coaching most of the time is about finding out who your players are,” he explained. “Because we brought in a lot of veteran players, a lot of the guys were set in their ways. It’s a little more difficult to mould them into what you want them to be.”
He now believes there’s a unanimity of purpose with this team. That might not explain their performances in the last two games of the season — lopsided losses to Saskatchewan and Calgary. But Buono is sticking to the party line the ‘Riders and Stampeders had something to play for and the Lions didn’t.
Besides, he said, when his team reduced its margin of error to a microdot, it responded. It’s one of the things he likes about this group.
“These guys have been gritty and mentally tough,” he said. “When they’ve been in the right state, they’ve been a very physical team.
“Is that a reflection of me? I’d like our teams to be physical every game.”
And that’s how Sunday’s game will be determined. Unless something goes completely off the rails, there won’t be a lot of offensive fireworks in the cold and the wind. There will, however, be two teams slugging it out in the elements — which is the way Buono likes it.
“If it’s my last game, so be it,” he said.
But he’ll take his chances with his guys.
Sunday | East Semifinal
B.C. Lions at Hamilton Tiger-Cats
10 a.m., Tim Hortons Field, TSN, TSN 1040 AM
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