SURREY, B.C. — Wally Buono was asked to repeat his answer a second time, just so it was crystal clear.
While discussing his own future with the B.C. Lions following a miserable campaign that started with sky-high expectations, the legendary head coach and general manager offered a surprising and unsolicited detail — David Braley plans to continue owning the team for the entirety of next season.
“I’ll say it again,” Buono told reporters Monday at the Lions’ suburban practice facility as players cleaned out their lockers. “He’s going to own the club for 2018.”
The definitive news regarding Braley, who bought the bankrupt franchise in 1996, came as a surprise.
It’s no secret the 76-year-old has been looking to sell, even saying as much in an interview posted on the Lions’ website back in the spring.
The “for sale” sign remains in the window, but as it stands Braley will be in control until at least the end of next season for a club that has seen a sharp decline in attendance over the last few years.
“David’s very candid about the fact he will the owner in 2018,” said Buono. “That’s something that needs to be definite. We need to have definite direction.
“It applies with David, with the business part of the organization and the football part of the organization.”
Buono added his status will also be determined in the near future.
“We need to address that very quickly,” said the 67-year-old, who has been with the B.C. since 2003. “I need to sit down with the coaches to just give them some clarity on where we’re at.
“Then the process will start with David.”
The CFL’s all-time leader in coaching wins, Buono returned to the sidelines in 2016 at Braley’s request, leading the Lions to a 12-6 record and a playoff victory.
But things fell apart this season in a 7-11 campaign that saw B.C. miss the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
Buono said Monday he isn’t sure how things will play out, even if Braley does want him back in some capacity.
“I am conflicted, and I should be.”
Picked by many to contend at the top of the CFL’s West Division thanks in large part to what looked to be an explosive offence, the Lions instead stumbled badly following a 5-2 start.
B.C. won just two of its final 11 games as inconsistent play, crucial mistakes and a number of sub-par performances in all three phases crippled a talent-laden squad that couldn’t get out of its own way.
“I want to say it’s because we didn’t work hard enough or I want to say it’s because we didn’t have a good group of guys in the locker-room,” said quarterback Jonathon Jennings. “But all those things are not true. We had a good group of guys, I thought we had a good team, had the talent.
“It just didn’t come around for us.”
Coming off a breakout 2016 where he threw for more than 5,000 yards, Jennings hurt his throwing shoulder in July, and was forced to come back quicker than he wanted after backup Travis Lulay suffered a rib injury in August.
Jennings struggled from there and was replaced again by Lulay as the starter in September, but the veteran lasted just two plays before blowing out his right knee.
That forced Jennings back under centre, however the 25-year-old wasn’t able to rally a team that lost five straight games down the stretch to tumble out of the playoff picture.
“It’s been extremely difficult — one of the most trying things I’ve been through in my life,” said Jennings, who threw a CFL-high 19 interceptions. “I’ve never played to a standard like that. It was disappointing for myself, but it’s pure motivation. I know that it’s part of my growth.
“It’s something that’s going to encourage me and motivate me to be even better going forward.”
One of the few bright spots was linebacker Solomon Elimimian, who broke his own record for tackles in a season, and was again the pulse of the defence.
“We had high hopes, high expectations,” said Elimimian. “Things just didn’t come together.”
Asked how he would remember 2017, wide receiver Bryan Burnham, who finished fourth in the league with 1,202 yards, summed up a feeling that was almost palpable as players shook hands and shook their heads before parting ways for the winter.
“The season that could have been, that should have been,” said Burnham. “But wasn’t.”