TORONTO - Any other year, Paul LaPolice would be a solid choice for the CFL's coach of the year award.
LaPolice helped transform the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from the East Division's worst team into its best and lead the club to a Grey Cup berth in just his second season on the job.
Trouble is, also a finalist for the Annis Stukus Trophy is Wally Buono, who rallied the B.C. Lions from a dismal 0-5 start to top spot in the overall standings before capping a legendary coaching career with a record-tying fifth Grey Cup title.
The other finalist for the Annis Stukus Trophy is Kavis Reed of the Edmonton Eskimos. Here's a closer look at each candidate and how they stack up:
Paul LaPolice - Winnipeg Blue Bombers
The 41-year-old native of Lynchburg, Va., endured a miserable rookie season as Winnipeg's head coach in 2010, compiling a league-worst 4-14 record. With many of the same faces returning in 2011, LaPolice's club emerged as the East Division's best, finishing atop the standings with a 10-8 record.
It marked the first time Winnipeg finished first in its division since 2001 and the Grey Cup appearance was the club's first since 2007.
But the biggest challenge LaPolice faced this season came from within. On July 26, the entire Winnipeg organization was stunned when Richard Harris, the Bombers amiable assistant head coach and defensive line coach, collapsed and died suddenly at Canad Inns Stadium. He was 63.
It was LaPolice's unenviable job the day after to assemble his players for a team meeting and let them know what had happened. It was imperative the Bombers gain closure in how they lost their coach and somehow get on with the job of preparing for an upcoming game. What made the task so difficult was it had nothing to do with the regiment of football — which is so dominated with Xs and Os and daily routine.
But LaPolice and his coaching staff did an outstanding job of keeping Winnipeg's players together and united as they dealt with the tragedy. The Bombers dedicated their season to Harris and advanced to the Grey Cup with a hard-fought 19-3 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East final.
Kavis Reed — Edmonton Eskimos
There were more than just a few eyebrows raised on Dec. 10, 2010 when Edmonton Eskimos general manager Eric Tillman hired Reed. He had never been a head coach before and took 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 after spending the ‘09 season as the defensive co-ordinator with a Winnipeg team that posted a league-worst 4-14 record and was taking over for Ritchie Hall, who had joined the Eskimos two years prior also with no previous head coaching experience.
Edmonton surged to a 5-0 record to start the 2011 season under its rookie head coach, then promptly dropped its next three games. But with an effective mix of tough love and compassion, Reed managed to get his young team back on track as the Eskimos finished tied with B.C. and Calgary for the league’s best record at 11-7 but were relegated to second in the West Division standings — the result of head-to-head matchups with the Lions and Stampeders.
Edmonton beat Calgary 33-19 in the conference semifinal before ending its season losing to B.C. in the West final.
Wally Buono — B.C. Lions
The 2011 season was a roller-coaster ride for the62-year-old Buono, a native of Potenza, Italy, who grew up in Montreal. The Lions opened the campaign with five straight losses and just one win in their first seven contests.
That prompted numerous calls for Buono's head. But owner David Braley ignored the public sentiment and stayed the course with his longtime coach.
The move paid off as quarterback Travis Lulay, the CFL’s outstanding player, caught fire and led B.C. to victory in 10 of its last 11 regular-season games to finish atop the West Division standings.
B.C. beat Edmonton 40-23 in the West Division final before capping its most improbable championship run with a 34-23 Grey Cup win over Winnipeg. The Lions became the first team since '94 to capture the CFL title on home soil.
Less than a week later, 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 this award.
And the winner is — Wally Buono, and not just for sentimental reasons. There are many who believe this was the finest coaching job of Buono's illustrious CFL career. Many Lions players have said even when the club was at rock bottom they always believed they could succeed and climb out of the West Division basement. There was never any panic from Buono, hence it never seeped into the dressing room and into the players' psyche. Like LaPolice's situation, this was much more than simple Xs and Os, it was a coach establishing a solid belief system that his players confidently accepted to ultimately overcome their adversity.