06/03/2012 09:04 EDT | Updated 08/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Lions' Mike Benevides relishing first opportunity as CFL head coach

KAMLOOPS, B.C. - After about 25 years of hard work and sacrifice, Mike Benevides finally got to run a CFL team's training camp as a head coach Sunday.

The opportunity was not lost on the new B.C. Lions coach as he put veterans and rookies through the first of two workouts.

"It means a lot," said Benevides at their Thompson Rivers University training camp following the first of two workouts. "It means all the vision, all the thoughts, all the process you've thought about … come to fruition. I have a tremendous sense of pride. I have a tremendous sense of responsibility, because the job at hand is to enable the staff to create a championship environment and (give them) the ability to teach players to get where we want to be and create that family atmosphere that we want to create."

The 45-year-old from Toronto was promoted to head coach from defensive co-ordinator after Wally Buono relinquished his coaching duties following the Lions' improbable Grey Cup triumph following a 0-5 start. Buono has retained his general manager duties and received a vice-president title.

Benevides has 24 years of coaching experience, but this marks the first time he is serving as a head coach at any level. He honed his craft first at his former Central Tech high school in inner city Toronto and the Canadian university ranks before spending 12 seasons as a CFL assistant.

Sunday's main camp opening culminated a CFL coaching journey that began in 2000 when Benevides was an assistant with the York Yeomen attending a Canadian university all-star game weekend in Edmonton. Buono, the CFL's all-time winningest coach who has won six Grey Cups, was the GM and coach of the Calgary Stampeders at the time. Benevides approached him and asked if he could serve as a guest coach at Calgary's training camp.

"It was the same year I got married," Benevides recalled fondly.

Benevides assisted at the camp and Buono hired him as a defensive assistant to help him with the linebackers the next season.

There was just one catch.

With the Stamps' ownership situation in disarray and the team struggling financially, Buono could not pay him a salary.

But Benevides took the job willingly and he and his understanding wife Judy lived off their savings, part of which were earned while he operated a construction company before getting into coaching full-time.

"I didn't even pay him a penny," said Buono.

Now, Benevides, a father of two, does not have to worry about finances. His most pressing concerns include searching among 81 training camp hopefuls to find a middle linebacker to replace Solomon Elimimian, who departed to the NFL.

He also fill openings on the defensive line following Brent Johnson's retirement and Aaron Hunt's departure to Montreal after signing with the Alouettes as a free agent.

There's also the question of who will backup Andrew Harris at tailback, although Canadian Stu Foord appears to have a lock on the job.

Benevides is also exploring for a new punt and kick returner.

But Buono is confident that his protege will be up for the task of trying to get the Lions back to the Grey Cup. Despite the importance of making sure camp gets off to a good start and the pending roster decisions, Buono was nowhere to be seen during the morning workout.

Later, he arrived at lunch carrying two boxes of newly-purchased small kitchen appliances.

"This is one time when you need a camera," said a Lions staffer.

You could call it a sign of the new era under Benevides, who has been dubbed Little Wally but is striving to create his own identity as a head coach.

"I want Mike to be Mike," said Buono.

While Buono believes Benevides will succeed because of the journey he has taken to get here, the GM also thinks his former assistant will thrive on his good relations with players.

"He relates very well to the players, and I think the players relate very well to him," said Buono, who stopped coaching after 22 seasons in part because he wanted players to hear a younger coach's voice.

Despite his rookie head coach status, Benevides exudes confidence. Most of his assistants are older and have more experience, but the new Lions coach, who stresses collaboration, indicated he will not think twice about overruling them if he feels it necessary to do so.

Benevides' excitement is also evident, according to Travis Lulay. The Lions No. 1 quarterback said players can see that Benevides appreciates the opportunity that he has been given with the defending CFL champions.

Benevides has the respect of veterans who have "gone to war with him" and rookies' rapt attention showed they believe in him, too.

It's obvious that Benevides has been thinking about his chance to be a head coach for years, the quarterback added. The proof is in the way he preaches the need to view the team as a family, challenge each other and practise hard while being smart in order to avoid injuries.

"You can tell he has thought about what he would do if he ever got this opportunity — and he has it," said Lulay.