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Rookie head coach tasked with keeping Lions hungry

‘You’ve got to attack the opponent, and find ways to create explosive plays,” B.C. Lions head coach Mike Benevides turns to look during the team's CFL football game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Vancouver, British Columbia, June 13, 2012. This was Benevides first game as head coach since taking over from Wally Buono.


Mike Benevides prowls the sideline. Dressed in a grey B.C. Lions hoodie, the rookie CFL head coach covers 10 to 15 yards at a time, staking a wide territory between the 40-yard lines.

He's often on the field, a couple yards, just inside the sideline hash marks. After his team scores, he's out a dozen yards, a high-five and an arm around the shoulder of players coming off.

Across the B.C. Place Stadium field, up at the back of the first section of seats, Wally Buono sits in the Lions general manager's box with team president Dennis Skulsky, who sports a big, diamond-studded 2011 Grey Cup championship ring.

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Midway through the second quarter Wednesday night, with the Lions already well out in front of the visiting Roughriders in the teams' first preseason game of 2012, a Saskatchewan fan dressed in a bright green velour coat chats up Buono from the last row of seats, and gets a picture.

Benevides and Buono's story began a dozen years ago, when Benevides made the jump from a job as an assistant coach at York University in Toronto to a gig on Buono's Calgary Stampeders staff. A Grey Cup win came in 2001. Benevides followed Buono to Vancouver and, with Benevides in charge of special teams, another CFL title arrived in 2006. By 2008, Benevides was defensive co-ordinator.

Last November brought another Grey Cup, Buono's fifth as head coach, the acme of an unrivalled CFL career. Soon thereafter, the most-successful coach in league history – 254 regular-season wins – said he was finished on the sidelines, staying on as GM and adding a vice-president of football operations title.

Benevides got the nod and, for the first time at any level of football, was named head coach. He'd grown up in the Portuguese-Canadian community in Toronto, his father worked three jobs.

Suddenly, after two-plus decades of coaching, Benevides was in charge of a CFL team, one that just won the Grey Cup.

It could hardly be more ideal – except the debut came as a successor to a living legend, one who would still occupy an executive chair at the club.

The shadow couldn't be bigger – and Benevides appears decidedly not rattled by it. Ten days after it opened training camp in Kamloops, the team was on the mark from the first second on Wednesday.

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It was, technically speaking, not an important game, the first of two preseason matches, ahead of the 2012 regular season and its culmination in November in Toronto, the Grey Cup's centenary. But the Lions brought it at B.C. Place, the roof open on a cool evening, overwhelming Saskatchewan 44-10.

Benevides spent his coaching life on the defensive side of the ball or overseeing special teams. His first night at the helm, it was all offence. (The defence scored, too, a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown.)

He prowled the sidelines throughout.

"It's part of who I am," the 44-year-old said after the game. "I've always been someone's that's upbeat, very intense, very emotional. Passionate about the game. And I think it's important that the players know that, the players see that."

In the GM's box, the 62-year-old Buono is relaxed. The plan to step back from coaching had percolated several years, so it is not some wildly jarring transition. He's doing more executive work, like a recent afternoon at the office of a main team sponsor, and has more time for GM duties, quickly bringing in veteran offensive lineman Patrick Kabongo last week, when a whip of injuries hit the Lions.

It's still, after a life on the football sidelines, an adjustment.

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"It's sometimes trying to find your place," Buono said. "At training camp, where do you stand? How close can you get, how far should you be? That kind of the stuff.

"I used to be the coach and GM – so I never had to get the coach's opinion on stuff. But it's gone actually very well. Mike and I have a lot of the same mindset. I've enjoyed not having to deal with the football aspect. It's taken a lot of pressure off me."

Benevides has a bubbling intensity – and the coaching change may well be a crucial spark to propel the Lions towards a repeat championship, which was part of Buono's thinking. It would be only the third back-to-back CFL titles in the past three decades. And while the Lions ceded opponents a huge lead last season, when B.C. opened 0-5, Benevides makes clear a fast start is essential to his 2012 thinking.

Even if it's an exhibition game.

"You know," quarterback Travis Lulay said of Benevides's pregame strategy, "he talked to us about, regardless of it being Week 1 in the preseason, wanting to find a way to win the football game, and wanting to play fast."

On the first drive, Lulay passed seven out of nine plays. B.C. was quickly up three points on a field goal, and was Benevides well out on to the field to congratulate veteran kicker Paul McCallum.

"You've got to attack the opponent, and find ways to create explosive plays," said Benevides, a defensive mind who clearly relishes the opportunity to plan the total strategy. "But there's got to be a mixture of a physical attack and maintaining possession of the football."

The first outing went well: Controlled ball possession, no turnovers, 433 yards of passing and rushing offence compared to 239 surrendered.

Benevides is just getting going. And his energy is a long way yet from boiling over.

"I was expecting a real rousing pregame speech," Lulay said with a smile, postgame on the field. "Maybe there will be Week 1. He looked very confident. Very in control."

Asked about the missing fiery speech, Benevides had a hearty laugh, a big smile.

"There's no need to go with that right now," the rookie head coach said. "There'll be a time."

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About the Author
National correspondent, Vancouver bureau

David Ebner is a national correspondent based in Vancouver. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2000 and worked in Toronto and Calgary before moving to Vancouver in 2008. He has reported on a wide range of stories – business, politics, arts, crime – and has covered sports since 2012. More


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