Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Benevides got offer he almost couldn't refuse

Lions coach had chance to take same job in hometown of Toronto

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VANCOUVER -- For many young coaches, the offer of the top job on the team you grew up watching as a kid would be too good to pass up.

But Mike Benevides rejected an offer to become the head coach of the Toronto Argonauts in 2008, instead remaining an assistant coach with the B.C. Lions.

The "difficult decision" is starting to pay off. In his first year as Lions head coach, Benevides guided the team to a CFL-best 13-5 record and first place in the West Division.

Things would have been different had the 44-year-old son of Portuguese immigrants returned home -- a move he seriously considered.

"Everything was there in front of me in terms of getting back home to where Mom and Dad were," said Benevides after a Lions practice in preparation for the Western Final at BC Place Stadium. "We had a young family, which we could use the help for. And, I was an Argonaut fan as a kid growing up, and being a head coach in this league would have been a dream come true.

"So it was a very tough decision, one on which I had the entire support of my wife Judy. At the time, I just felt, after coming back from that (second interview in Toronto) and really sitting on it and praying on it, that it wasn't the right time to do that."

It seems to be the right time for him to be a head coach now in Vancouver. The Lions are one win away from a chance to defend their 2011 Grey Cup title and will meet either Calgary or Saskatchewan in the West final next Sunday.

B.C. has an opportunity to become the first repeat champion since the Argos in 1996 and 1997, and only the second team to do so since the Edmonton Eskimos won straight titles between 1978 and 1982.

Benevides has reached this point despite facing the pressure of having to replace the CFL leader in career coaching wins. Wally Buono won six Grey Cups in a 22-year coaching career with the Lions and Calgary Stampeders before stepping down while retaining his general manager post last December.

"He's made it look easy," Buono said with a coy smile in an interview in his office at the team's Surrey, B.C., practice facility this week.

But, as Buono himself knows, it has been far from easy. Benevides faced adversity from the first day of a training camp in which offensive linemen Jon Hameister Ries, Dean Valli and Jesse Newman went down with knee injuries that have bothered them all season and limited their availability.

Several other players, including top receivers Geroy Simon (hamstring) and Arland Bruce (concussion), quarterback Travis Lulay (shoulder) and defensive linemen Eric Taylor (back, ankle) and Khalif Mitchell (hamstring) were also sidelined at critical times.

Benevides also had to deal with Mitchell's well-publicized disciplinary issues for injuring Edmonton offensive lineman Simeon Rottier after a play, making throat-slashing gestures towards the Eskimos in another game, and posting a racial slur against Chinese people on Twitter.

And, the coach quietly handled a less-publicized disciplinary issue in which former Lions defensive lineman Brandon Peguese became hostile towards teammates and coaches, resulting in a trade to Hamilton.

However, Buono feels such matters are just part of the game. The real challenges come in building a team and making players, coaches, media and fans feel confident that you can succeed. According to the GM, it's more difficult to join a successful program than take over a struggling club, where new coaches often receive the benefit of the doubt.

"You don't inherit a Grey Cup championship," Buono said. "You inherit the team that won the Grey Cup, and you've got to build it again. You don't inherit a team that won 13 games. You inherit a team that has learned how to win, so you have to -- again -- go through the whole process.

"It's like a farmer who, every year, has got to go plant. He's got to go cultivate, he's got to go water, he's got to go till, and then he's got to hope for some sun, he's got to hope for some warm nights, and then guess what happens? There's going to be storms, and when the storms come, he's going to have to be able to protect his investment. He's going to have to be able to deal with anything possible. If you look at Mike's task during the year, he was really good at doing that."

A successful coach, Buono said, does not let players, coaches and media see all of his storms. He also has to be able to wear a lot of hats while dealing with coaches, players, media and fans and delivering a positive message.

Benevides did his team-building by stressing a family-like approach and attention to detail. He kept all but one of Buono's assistants. Veteran players, who could have tested free-agent waters, also chose to stay. While Benevides is ultimately responsible, he still gives much of the credit to Buono.

"It's his football team," Benevides said. "He's the one that's empowering me. He's the one that's had to go through the transition -- just like me. He deserves all the credit."

Benevides, a devout Christian whose pre-game rituals include riding his motorcycle and smoking a cigar, is not letting the promotion inflate his ego.

"For me, growing up, when I got into coaching, in my wildest dreams, I didn't think that the possibility (of being a head coach) would be there," he said. "So when I was able to get into the league in 2000, I was just thrilled with that. The head coaching thing is a wonderful thing and a tremendous opportunity, and I'm blessed to be that guy, but I'm just fortunate to be in football, to be honest with you."

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 C2

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