Ed Willes: Passing the torch will be tough, but Buono’s playoff challenge tougher

Wally Buono’s nickname among the players is The Riddler and Manny Arceneaux once offered this epic line about the old Lion’s sometimes enigmatic ways.

“He asks you what day it is and you’ll say Monday,” Arceneaux says. “He says, no, it’s the day after Sunday.”

But it’s a funny thing. Those same players will tell you when it comes to the stuff that is important and real, Buono’s most prized trait is his honesty. You might not like it, they’ll say, but he’ll give it to you straight and he’s usually right with his assessment.

We raise this point because Buono was asked recently about the future of the Lions in the post-Wally world. Since he arrived in 2003, the 68-year-old CFL institution has run an autocracy in which every meaningful on- and off-field decision has run through his office.

From 2003 to 2011, that resulted in the most successful sustained run in Lions’ history. From 2011 to this season the triumphs have been fewer and farther in-between.

It all ends after this post-season, raising a number of pointed questions about the team’s future. But before we get into that, here’s Buono on the timing of his retirement:

“It’s time to make a change, period,” he says. “And it’s not just me. I’m hoping Mr. Braley (Lions owner David) sells the club to a local person.

“It’s time. We can’t do it anymore. This is our last hurrah but at least we have a chance. That’s all we can ask for.”

Then it will be general manager Ed Hervey’s job to re-invigorate the Lions and that’s going to make for some interesting viewing.

The 45-year-old Hervey is finishing up his first year in the Lions’ big office and you can say this for the man: He wasn’t exactly married to the status quo.

The former Esks’ GM brought in 12 new starters at the start of the year, then three more during the regular season. Throw in battlefield promotions for cornerback Winston Rose, linebacker Jordan Herdman and centre Andrew Pierson and, heading into Sunday’s playoff game in Hamilton, three-quarters of the Lions’ starters are in their first year with the team.

And more change is coming. The Lions, by CFL standards at least, have a lot of money invested in Arceneaux, linebacker Solomon Elimimian and quarterbacks Travis Lulay and Jonathon Jennings. Arceneaux and Elimimian have been injured this season, although there’s a good chance Elimimian will suit up for Sunday’s crossover game.

Lulay and Jennings, meanwhile, have both had indifferent campaigns. As it happens, Edmonton’s Mike Reilly, the quarterback Hervey traded for before the 2013 season, becomes a free agent this off-season and it doesn’t take a leap of faith to envision the Lions making a big play for the Eskimo.

Whatever the case, the quarterback position is going to look vastly different next season as will some other key spots on the roster.

Now, the timing of all this is notable because, as Buono said, the Lions need a “new vision” and a new energy at the top of the organization. A new owner would help there but Braley doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to sell.

That, in turn, leaves the responsibility of reinventing the Lions to Hervey and it might be reassuring to know the Leos’ GM has the full confidence of Buono.

“You just have to watch him work to understand how much this means to him,” Buono said. “He’s not here to go somewhere else. He’s here to build a team and an organization. He knows what he wants and he knows how to go and get it.

“You look at when (former Lions president) Bob Ackles came in (in 2002). He tried to bring back the tradition and I think that’s we’ve started.”

Hervey, in fact, played a huge role in turning the Lions’ season around after their dismal 3-6 start, signing receiver DeVier Posey and running back Tyrell Sutton to help spark a second-half surge. Rush end Shawn Lemon and linebacker Micah Awe were also brought in just before the Lions took off.

Buono was asked if he could have made those moves if he’d kept the GM’s title this season.

“No,” he said. “When I talked to (Braley) about coming back I said if I’m going to coach, we have to hire a GM. The GM’s role is way too demanding on your time.

“Ed spends a lot of time on the phone, cultivating things. I mean, he’s always on the phone. (Hervey famously keeps three cellphones on the go). I get a text sometimes and I look and it’s 5:30 in the morning. He’s talking to someone about something and he wants to run it by me.”

Hervey, for his part, isn’t keen to talk about his off-season plans but he did say his year with Buono has been rewarding and revealing. Buono is from Laval. Hervey is from Compton. Buono is also 23 years his senior but the two men share similar philosophies about the game.

“I grew up coached by guys like Wally,” Hervey said. “My generation was coached by hard-nosed, old-school guys. You adapt in certain ways but there are certain aspects of the game that are ingrained in us.

“You play through pain. You play physical, play tough. There’s a certain way the game is played.”

And will continue to be played with the Lions.

ewilles@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/willesonsports

Next Game

Sunday | East Semifinal

B.C. Lions at Hamilton Tiger-Cats

10 a.m., Tim Hortons Field, TSN, TSN 1040 AM

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