Put aside Friday night's 41-21 loss to the Stampeders in what was a Keystone Kops performance at McMahon Stadium in Calgary. From the outside looking in, Mike Benevides appears to have enjoyed a pretty easy season in his rookie year as head coach of the B.C. Lions.
But why shouldn't he? Benevides was handed the keys to the defending Grey Cup champions. The team came fully equipped with quarterback Travis Lulay, last year's most valuable player, and slotback Geroy Simon, the CFL's all-time receiving leader.
By guiding the Lions to a league-leading 12-5 record Benevides has won more games than any other rookie coach in franchise history. But really, how good a coach do you have to be when you have running back Andrew Harris, just the ninth Canadian since 2000 to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season; a defence that has allowed the least points in the league; and a placekicker in Paul McCallum who misses about as often as Vision Coun. Geoff Meggs drives a Hummer to city hall meetings.
Looks can be deceiving. It takes someone who has walked in Benevides' shoes to put what the new coach has done in perspective. That's why Wally Buono believes Benevides should be named the CFL coach of the year.
"It looks easy, but I guarantee you it hasn't been easy,'' said Buono, the Lions general manager and vice-president of football operations who coached B.C. from 2003 to 2011. Benevides was on his coaching staff and for the last four years of his tenure, was the Lions defensive co-ordinator. "Sometimes when it's made to look easy, then you know how hard it really is.''
For most head coaches, the football is the easy part of the job. As an assistant coach you focus on designing plays and figuring out the best way to beat the other team's systems. What makes life as a head coach different is the additional demands on your time. There's media questions to be answered and public relations visits to be made on behalf of the franchise. You have personnel decisions to make and different personalities to deal with. It’s a lot to juggle.
Benevides has proven very capable of keeping all these balls in the air.
"You have to become a person that can't deal with just one thing,'' said Buono.
"That's why I believe some people who are good assistants, good co-ordinators, can't be good head coaches because they can't take the blinders off. Mike, I think, has done a great job not putting blinders on and always being able to see the whole picture, whether it’s organizational, whether it's team building or team discipline. He's got that ability I think you must have to be successful.''
Benevides faced adversity early when B.C. lost three Canadian offensive linemen to injury in training camp. He dealt with the distraction of defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell, who was twice suspended and fined by the league for his actions on the field and was benched for one game by the club for sending a racist Tweet. Benevides showed backbone by shipping defensive end Brandon Peguese to Hamilton following a series of transgressions. He also made the tough decision to release wide receiver Kierrie Johnson and keep newcomer Ernest Jackson.
When linebacker Solomon Elimimian returned from the NFL, Benevides managed to work him into the lineup without disrupting the play of Adam Bighill, who probably will be the Lions' nominee as top defensive player.
Over the last month, injuries have knocked Lulay, Simon and slotback Arland Bruce out of the lineup. Other teams might have stumbled, but the Lions hardly missed a step.
Benevides biggest achievement this year was refusing to let the defending Grey Cup champions become complacent. With him as coach, the Lions are a better team than last year.
"Mike had a great team when he took over but he's done an excellent job of growing and cultivating that team,'' said Buono.
"What Mike has done is keep consistency. He's met expectations and he also has created his own environment which has been very successful.''
There's no guarantee the Lions will repeat as Grey Cup champions but there's little question that Benevides deserves to be named coach of the year.
Jim Morris is a veteran reporter who has covered sports for 30 years. Reach him at email@example.com.