Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of columns delving into Netflix’s docuseries ‘Last Chance U,’ which recently released season 4, featuring Independence Community College’s football team and its trials and tribulations through the 2018 season.
Has "Last Chance U" helped or hurt junior college football?
I’ve seen this being discussed quite a bit among junior college coaches, reporters and administrators on Twitter.
It’s an interesting question.
Exponentially more people know about East Mississippi Community College and Independence Community College than they did before the first four seasons of Netflix’s popular docuseries.
But is that attention good attention?
The truth is, the main figures of the shows have not really been the best representatives of the level of football and education. But the people on the periphery of the show maybe made up for some of that negative attention with their own brands of empathy and diligence.
The contentious center figures of the four seasons have been Buddy Stephens and Jason Brown. Let’s just say the two coaches could make a trucker blush. But besides the cussing — which can be found at every level of every football team, including your Johnny’s pee wee practice since Johnny has a coach who thinks he’s coaching the Packers next year — the two coaches were borderline abusive to players, at times. And I might be giving them too much benefit of the doubt.
And they are poor representatives of what some of the biggest defenders of junior college football claim the level is all about: giving players a second chance to get their lives on the right tracks.
For one, to be mature is to hold yourself accountable for your actions, and, as a head coach, a higher standard than you hold your players to.
As you’ll see in the recently released Season 4, Brown says the right things, apologizing for at least a couple of the bigger mistakes he made coaching a team that went 2-8, but he avoided really all of the actual consequences of those choices — at least until the end of the season, when he texted a German player, “I’m your Hitler.” Instead, Brown pushed blame off to others as if he were passing around an appetizer.
He cut players for what he claimed was “smelling weed” in their dorm rooms. He just wanted to kick players off the team, and that was his excuse.
He demoted his defensive coordinator midseason, despite the fact that it was Brown’s side of the ball — offense — that was really struggling. The Pirates were dead last in points per game a year ago and middle of the pack on defense.
Brown needed someone else to blame for the mess he created. He also fired that same coach — Jason Martin — and seemingly re-hired him the same day, the day after the season ended, according to the show? Yes, that seems like a stable CEO of a football program.
Stephens had his own issues, including calling his mostly black team a bunch of “thugs,” which is a racist dog whistle, after his team had gotten into a season-ending brawl during a blowout. The irony there was, Stephens had gotten into a fist fight of his own with a referee earlier that season. Oh, thugs gonna thug, I guess.
So, no, junior college football did not come off in a positive light. Was that a result of "Last Chance U" and its directors’ decision-making, or was it just coincidence that these two coaches were the ones in the spotlight?
Of course "Last Chance U" is going to want the bombastic personalities, and perhaps those personalities lend themselves to some of the more problematic aspects of coaching, as is the case for Brown and Stephens.
Are there similar coaching personalities who would shed a more positive light on junior college football? I believe so, but it might be hard to say, too.
I know several coaches in the Jayhawk Conference who would do wonders for the perception of junior college football, but they are not nearly as flamboyant as what "Last Chance U" producers need to help carry a show.
But there’s also an underlying facet of this discussion that is sometimes missed: the head coaches are not the only stars of the show.
Brittany Wagner, an adviser at East Mississippi during the first two seasons of the show, became a star herself, and showed how much people on the peripheral of football programs care about the students themselves.
Independence had its own such people, such as instructors Latonya Pinkard and Heather Mydosh and athletic trainer Raechel Martin. Those were the ones who showed the best side of community colleges — people who seem to genuinely care.
Every school has those people.
So while junior college football may have taken a hit, perhaps junior college in general has came out slightly ahead.
Sports reporter Levi Burnfin can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.