Buono, LaPolice, Reed up for CFL coach of year

B.C.'s Wally Buono, Winnipeg's Paul LaPolice and Edmonton's Kavis Reed are the finalists for CFL coach of the year, the league announced Thursday.
Wally Buono led the B.C. Lions to a Grey Cup title despite opening the season at 0-5. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

He's through patrolling the Canadian Football League sidelines but there's another coaching accolade for Wally Buono.

Buono was named a finalist for the CFL's coach of the year award Thursday in voting by the Football Reporters of Canada. Also nominated were Kavis Reed of the Edmonton Eskimos and Paul LaPolice of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

The winner will be announced March 2 in Toronto.

The 62-year-old Buono, a native of Potenza, Italy, who grew up in Montreal, is the overwhelming favourite after leading B.C. to an improbable 34-23 Grey Cup win over Winnipeg. The championship was Buono's record-tying fifth as a head coach and came despite the Lions' 0-5 start to the season and losses in six of their first seven games.

But with quarterback Travis Lulay, the CFL's outstanding player, coming of age, B.C. won 10 of its last 11 regular-season games to halt the calls in Vancouver for Buono's head and finish tied with Edmonton and Calgary atop the West Division. The Lions earned first based on a better head-to-head record against their two rivals.

B.C. beat Edmonton 40-23 in the West Division final and less than a week after its Grey Cup victory, Buono resigned after 22 seasons as a CFL head coach to concentrate fulltime on his duties as the Lions' GM.

Buono left the sidelines with the most coaching wins (254) and first-place finishes (13) in CFL history. He is also a three-time winner of the Annis Stukus Trophy, joining Jack Gotta (three) and Don Matthews (five) as the only ones to have claimed it three or more times.

"Wow, what an amazing run for him," Reed said of Buono. "A magnificent coaching job.

"A Wally Buono team is always well prepared, you know that, but to get on that kind of streak really showed his leadership and experience. He deserved this honour, he deserved to be a Grey Cup-winning coach."

LaPolice said Buono deserves to be considered the front-runner.

"When you win the thing we're all shooting for you would think that guy is the favourite," he said. "Certainly I'm happy for all three of us.

"It really doesn't matter. Just being nominated feels pretty good."

Buono wasn't immediately available for comment Thursday.

B.C. was also the first CFL team since the '94 Lions to win the Grey Cup on home soil. Buono's 11 regular-season wins boosted his career total to a club-record 101 over nine seasons with the Lions.

Edmonton general manager Eric Tillman raised eyebrows when he hired Reed on Dec. 10, 2010, to take over a team that had finished last in the West Division with a 7-11 record. The 38-year-old native of Georgetown, S.C., a former Eskimos defensive back before suffering a career-ending neck injury in '99, arrived in Alberta having never been a head coach before and spent the '09 season as the defensive co-ordinator with a Winnipeg team that posted a league-worst 4-14 record.

Reed led Edmonton to a 5-0 start to the 2011 season before it dropped its next three contests. Still, the Eskimos finished tied with B.C. and Calgary for the league's best record at 11-7 before being relegated to second in the West Division standings.

Edmonton beat Calgary 33-19 in the conference semifinal before ending its season losing to B.C. in the West final.

"It was truly a blessing to be part of a football team that wanted to pull in the same direction," Reed said. "The biggest thing was we understood we weren't going to go 18-0 and we had to improve and improvement can come even when you lose a football game.

"For us, we got on a three-game losing streak and we fought through it. I think that was more important than the five-game win streak ... we stuck together, we stuck to our philosophies, our schemes and it worked out well for us in the end."

Winnipeg underwent a resounding transformation under sophomore head coach LaPolice. After a disappointing 2010 campaign, the 41-year-old native of Lynchburg, Va., guided the Blue Bombers to a 10-8 record and first in the East Division.

But the biggest challenge LaPolice and the Bombers faced this season came from within. On July 26, the organization was stunned when Richard Harris, the club's amiable assistant head coach and defensive line coach, collapsed and died suddenly at Canad Inns Stadium. He was 63.

"The next morning as I prepared for a team meeting with the players to tell them what had happened so they could have closure in the process about how we lost coach (Harris), I remember distinctly going, 'This will be the hardest meeting of my entire life as the head coach,"' LaPolice said. "There's no manual because people ask 'How do you handle it,' and it's not like I can call a lot of people and ask, 'How did you go through this situation different from the schemes of football?'

"It was a really challenging thing for our staff and players but I really felt they honoured him throughout the course of the season by doing so well and trying to get to the Grey Cup and win it for him. It means a lot and that's another special part of this season."

The Bombers dedicated their season to Harris and advanced to their first Grey Cup since '07 by dispatching the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 19-3 in the East final.

"This award is more a team award than any other individual award," LaPolice said. "Certainly I will represent the Winnipeg Blue Bombers organization with the nomination but it has to go to the players, coaches and support staff because I'm kind of the guy who gets them on the bus.

"I'm proud of what the players did this year facing the adversity of losing coach Harris. It's a humbling thing to be put up there with Wally Buono, who is one of the best, and Kavis Reed, a good, young coach in the league."

Reed wasn't surprised to see the Bombers succeed under LaPolice. "I knew he was building a solid foundation in Winnipeg despite a 4-14 season," Reed said. "They did it the right way.

"Paul has an organization around him much like I do here that is really supportive of what he's about. He deserves the honour for what he has done for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers."