Hey, coach, can you spare a dime?
Developing coaching talent in CFL still a work in progress
Imagine going home to your spouse with this piece of news:
"Honey, I've just been offered a great opportunity. It means I'll have to travel a lot and work 14 hours a day, seven days a week for about eight months."
"Wonderful. How much does it pay?"
That was pretty much what Mike Benevides said to his wife, Judy, in the summer of 2000 when Wally Buono offered him the chance to work as a coaching assistant on the staff of the Calgary Stampeders.
The pay was zero. Do well, and next year, you'll maybe get $25,000.
Nine seasons later, things have worked out pretty well for the former Toronto high school star who went on to play at California's Bakersfield College (and win a national championship in 1988) and York University. Benevides then worked as an assistant with Tom Arnott and later Tom Gretes with the York Lions in the CIS through 1999.
Benevides is the second-year defensive co-ordinator of the B.C. Lions and a man whose reputation is such that the Toronto Argonauts offered him their head coaching job (he turned it down to stay in Vancouver) before they went to Bart Andrus.
Some local scribes out west believe if Buono, now B.C.'s head coach and general manager, decides to leave the sidelines, the job will go to Benevides.
But if Judy Benevides, who has an MBA from Calgary, hadn't been OK with the whole thing nine years ago, a future key coach in the Canadian Football League might still be running a small construction company, painting lines on roads and runways.
"It was the combination of her having a good job and myself having some funds from the [construction] business in Toronto that gave me the opportunity," says Benevides. "But she was the one who opened the door for me."
Coach internship program needed
Opening doors is something Buono believes is key to retaining good young assistants, especially young Canadians, coming into the league.
What he'd like to see is a proper internship program where college coaches, former CFL players and even top-level high school bench bosses can get the experience and make the contacts needed to move up in the ranks.
An eye for talent
Chuck Wakefield had an inkling right from high school that Benevides would be a good coach.
The former CFL quarterback, who has 30 years as a senior football coach at Toronto's Central Technical School under his belt, remembers in the mid-1980s when the now defensive co-ordinator of the B.C. Lions was an extra set of eyes and ears on the field.
"He just understood," says Wakefield, who saw that Benevides had a knack for the concepts of football and for how the game is properly played.
The fact that Wakefield was Benevides's coach had to have helped as well, but don't tell Wakefield that, because he deflects praise from himself whenever it's offered.
More than 15 young men have gone from Central Tech to the CFL, including current players Adriano Belli (defensive line, Toronto), Tristan Black (linebacker, Calgary), O'Neill Wilson (receiver, B.C.) and Nautyn McKay-Loescher (lineman, B.C.).
He's proud of all of them, but sending a coach along works on another level.
"I know how hard it is for Canadian coaches to make it in the Canadian Football League, and the fact he was able to go as far as he has is amazing," Wakefield says. "You never expect anything like that. It's special, for sure."
"It's time for the league to develop young coaches," said Buono, in an interview about six weeks ago. "We need to have a program where we can develop [them], because other than our players, the most important thing we have is our coaches."
Once he got a toe in the pro coaching door, Benevides broke it right down. Over four seasons from 2000 to 2003, he looked after special teams and linebackers and worked as director of Canadian scouting with the Stamps, picking up a Grey Cup ring along the way.
When Buono moved to the west coast, Benevides went along and is now a lead assistant and one of the CFL's most respected evaluators of Canadian talent.
"There's probably a lot of men … [with potential to be assistants], and it's the opportunity, the situation, whatever it may be … finances, spouses, maybe not a team in their city or their province [that keeps them away]," Benevides said.
Pay is key
Some individual clubs are trying to do their part to groom good coaches.
Buono has made a habit of bringing in guest coaches to training camp over the years and then helping them from there — men such as Dino Geramia out of Simon Fraser, former Lion Michael Gray, now at Oregon State, and Hall of Famer James Parker.
Hamilton general manager Bob O'Billovich, a long-time proponent of developing local coaches and players, has two positions on his team's staff this year for developmental assistants — which have been filled by Joe Hagins and Travis Moore.
They're paid assistants, which is key, according to Benevides.
He'd like to see a multi-pronged system set up by the league that requires every organization to put aside a role for a "quality-control coach" for the offence and defence, so that each season, 16 men, especially local ones, could get an opportunity to fill those positions.
The job would include such things as helping the co-ordinator, inputting data, doing advanced scouting and focusing on particular areas of strength.
"Even if there was $20,000 [in salary] for six months, I think it's imperative," said Benevides.
Assistantships a chance to try pro game
Buono points out that just learning to do office tasks such as typing and filing is important for new assistants.
The CFL coaching staff isn't large. The Buffalo Bills of the NFL have 17 coaches while the Lions have eight. So, any help is appreciated.
The inexperienced assistants would also get a chance to find out whether the pro game, or coaching at a high college level, really is for them.
"They might not be cut out for it; they might not be willing to put in the time, or whatever," Benevides said.
Teams tend to hire who they know and trust, and the only way to gain that familiarity and trust is to work with the teams.
Benevides said he got something else out of that first year working as an unpaid assistant with the Stampeders — other than the chance to build what's turned into a great career.
"We got a lot of T-shirts," he said. "A lot of T-shirts for the family."