Last Chance U Part Deux: Buddy Stephens Revisited

When the first season of Netflix's football series "Last Chance U" ended we saw the JUCO program of Eastern Mississippi exiting the Mississippi state playoffs after getting into a brawl. Coach Buddy Stephens was berating his players as "thugs," much to the dismay of many of them.

The new season of the series promised more football and more drama. What I didn't count on was Stephens announcing that he was embarrassed watching the first season of the show and that he was going to be nicer to his players. Call me skeptical but I didn't buy it at the time and as the show went on, I was right.

The first couple of games he preached change, positivity and how he was a new man. His use of swear words in practice led to him having to drop down to crank out push-ups in front of the team. I was more stunned than impressed, he almost seemed to be embarrassing himself in front of the team.

As the wins mounted, so too did the immense pressure lofted onto Stephens' shoulders. Injuries hit star running back Isiah Wright. The defense struggled to stop anyone who ran right at them. When Coach would attempt to talk to a player it felt as if he was begging that person to say anything at all. One word and Stephens would snap.

I lost count the number of times he kicked Wright out of practice. As the defense struggled to find an identity he berated the Defensive Coordinator for not doing enough. When the refs asked Stephens to back up from the sidelines he freaked out on them.

"Don't touch me. I don't touch you." Stephens screamed at them. So much for the kinder, gentler coach.

Near the end of the season as the team played for the Mississippi state championship Stephens sent his offensive coordinator up to the press box. The same offensive coordinator that had been there for years. I thought that Stephens wanted to turn over a new leaf, but no.

Even though the team won the game and the state championship, Stephens had damaged his team in the process.

Team mother Brittany Wagner left Eastern Mississippi to form her own company to help students.

Offensive coordinator Marcus Wood stepped down from his duties after his interactions on the sidelines of that championship game.

Quarterbacks coach Clint Trickett left the program to work at Florida Atlantic University.

Defensive coordinator Ed Holly left to coach high school football in Florida.

Who else?

To paraphrase Isiah Wright, he said "I can tell when someone cares for me and when they want something from me." The former running back of Eastern Mississippi couldn't have been more painfully clear about the situation in Scooba, MS. It also becomes obvious less than halfway through the season that the head coach's driving factor is to win football games.

The series visits former players and examines their current situation. My favorite is Ronald Ollie who looked happy to have left Eastern Mississippi for Nicholls State. Even former quarterback John Franklin III smiles for the camera while explaining his situation as a backup quarterback at Auburn University. Their lives are drastic comparisons to what the athletes are experiencing back at the junior college.

Eastern Mississippi's defense shows a disconnect because of the malaise that starts at the top. The offense runs well only because former offensive coordinator Wood cares about his kids and sheltered them from Stephens' negativity.

By the end of the season even he can't keep away the drama and is swallowed up by it. I believe Stephens' lack of self control is ultimately going to be his downfall. Even if he wins football games, his lack of compassion guarantees he will never grow as a person. I feel bad that he never gets to understand the kids the way Wagner and Wood did but one day he'll realize that humanity is more important than wins.

A League Full Of Losers

In the NFL, 31 teams go home at the end of the season as losers.  If you think about it that’s 97 percent of the league that doesn’t accomplish the ultimate goal every single year.  It doesn’t matter if your favorite team won their division if they didn’t win the Super Bowl, they still came up short.

As previously stated in earlier blogs, football is a business and owners do whatever it takes to make their product earn.  Unfortunately there are times when the monster eats itself or some teams just don’t have the structure in place internally.  Many times what’s seen on the field reflects that lack of planning by General Managers or Owners but at the end of the year when the results are in, the coach takes the fall.  

The coach may not be able to win with the lack of depth they were given or maybe the GM didn’t give them players that fit their system.  Too bad, the coach is the one to go.  Think about all the different parts of a football team and the number of players that have to do their job.  If one player doesn’t perform their assignment the whole chain will snap.  Many times the players don’t realize that the average career of an NFL player is less than 4 years.  Players see guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning that have longevity in a rough and tumble league.  However, because of the violent collisions injuries are common and career threatening.  

When these players drop their end of the rope, coaches have to scramble to find someone else to pick it up.  It’s what many refer to as a “next man up” mentality.  The problem is there are guys who aren’t able to deal with the pressure or the pace and they too fall.  Even though most players in the NFL are close to the same skill set in most areas, it’s the mental aspect that makes guys great.  It’s up to coaches to push men to find that.

But what happens when guys tune that out?  Or what happens when some guys don’t have the ability to push through that final wall?  Scouting players isn’t a science, as is evident by the many busts in the NFL draft.  These players can become what is known as “coach killers” contributing to the average length of a coaching career being less than 5 years.  Think about that player who was drafted and fizzled out within his first 4 years in the league even though the first year coach relied so heavy on him.  Now the coach might have one more year to prove himself, but more than likely that coach is already out the door.

When we watch football very few of us think of those guys that walk up and down the sidelines.  Not just the main guys like Bill Belichick or Mike Tomlin.  There are those men behind them, the ones that give their all to coach the wide receivers or the defensive backs that rarely have their names in the paper or the news.  When a defense plays lights out it’s normally the defensive coordinator who gets the credit even though that defensive backs coach gave up his free time and his life to be there researching and preparing too.  When the coach gets fired guess who is going to go too?  All those coaches.  Maybe some of them will never get another job in football even though they were great at what they did.  The problem is no one knew them except for that coach and now he can’t find another job.  But the players who let go of the rope, they might get another shot.  That General Manager who didn’t bring in enough players that were good enough to cover for injuries?  You can bet he’s still there.  

I understand that coaches watch film and prepare a game plan.  They call the plays and try to put the players in the right position to win however sometimes it isn’t the coach’s fault that a team loses.  Sometimes there truly are bad teams based upon the roster they’ve been given. Sure it’s up to them to make the best of hands they are dealt but I think many times fans, executives and the media expect way too much of coaches instead of realizing that players have to be held accountable too.  Coaches aren’t miracle workers, they are human and can only do so much- it’s time to stop blaming them for everything and start praising them.

Football Isn’t A Game

I refuse to say the word “gamechanger,” I hate when it is used in everyday context.  I’ve seen it used on car commercials or in ads for other products.  Those things aren’t games.  However, I don’t even like it when it is used in the football sense either – football isn’t a game.

A perfect example is the Los Angeles Rams.  In 2016, the Rams moved from St. Louis, Missouri to L.A. because the owner wasn’t making enough money and he wanted the city to help finance a new stadium.  No go on that, so he pulled the plug and decided to take his show to L.A. where the Rams came from and the place where he owned a large piece of land.  A perfect piece of property to put up a megalithic stadium that will make all the other NFL owner and fans jealous.   Why not right?

In the meantime, the Rams were coming off picking first overall in the NFL draft after going 7-9 the season before.  They had previously traded picks with Tennessee in order to allow the Titans to get Marcus Mariota in the 2015 draft.  All that being said, the Rams also traded their starting Quarterback from 2016 Sam Bradford to Philadelphia, leaving them with a lifetime backup in Case Keenum to open the year.  Let it be said that a good starting Quarterback in the NFL is hard to find.

For all the humor that was made of Jeff Fisher, I think he’s a good human being as is evident in the two video series produced about the 2016 Rams season.  Unfortunately, he was handed a young team with a less than stellar Quarterback in Keenum and then was forced to start the Rookie in the 10th game of the season after many failures.  Fisher was replaced after going 4-9 in 2016, a result of not being able to get the defense off the field or get the run game going.  Both of these things I believe come back to the decision to trade Bradford and start Keenum.

As is the case, the coach takes the axe when it comes to these decisions and it was Fisher whose head rolled.  It’s not about how he coached the game or how much he cared about the game it was about wins.  Plain and simple it was about how much money the owner could make, how good he could make the product look in order to keep the fans.  Football isn’t about the game or the people, it’s about the score and the result.  Owners don’t care about the coach or the players as long as they get the W.  The only “gamechanger” is money, it rules the world.

Volunteering For Basketball Practice

Let me start by saying I’m all about getting paid for doing a job.  Whether you are a bricklayer or a courier or whatever it is that you do, you should get paid to do your 9 to 5.  Or whatever your hours may be.  If your boss says you are to work 6 days a week for 8 hours a day, then that is the job you’ve signed up for and you should get paid for them.

However, when it comes to volunteering, as soon as you agree to help, you can’t back up and say “Hey wait a minute I need to get paid.”

It doesn’t work that way.

Especially when it comes to kids.

If you are a basketball coach and you volunteer to help teach the sport to elementary age kids on Saturday, your off day, you go into that day knowing you aren’t going to get paid.

There’s something about saying, “Yes I know I’m not getting paid but I’m doing it so that these children can learn the game and appreciate the game.”

Maybe it’s because I grew up in Tennessee, the Volunteer State, that I appreciate volunteerism so much.  That’s a sad joke.  However, I have a real big problem with this.

Let’s go back to the beginning.  Let’s say, Coach Smith is the head of the high school boys’ basketball team and the local town comes to him asking for help at the start of the school year.

“Coach Smith we want to have elementary basketball on Saturday mornings in December through February.  Would you be willing to volunteer your time?”

Coach Smith decides that he is going to get his team to come in and help him – therefore this is considered a practice and he is getting paid for his time by the school.

Halfway through December Coach Smith decides that he wants to get paid by the town because volunteering his time is just not good enough – even though he’s getting paid by the school.

I’ve got a huge problem with that.

As a parent who volunteered for three months for six straight years to coach and ref soccer I’m disgusted by this attitude.  Not only did I have to work but I also tried to live a life outside of my commitments as well.  I didn’t ask the soccer organization for money to coach or ref.

I wanted those children to care about the game, I wanted those children to know the rules, I wanted those children to be proud of themselves and I wanted to do it because I could.

I know you might be thinking, “that sounds like you are trying to sound holy.”

It’s simply not the case.

Volunteering to help the soccer organization was the only way for me to give back my knowledge of the game.  It was the only way for me to try and further the sport.  There’s not a lot of opportunities for children to be taught by someone who has studied the rules and I want them to understand as much as I can teach them.

I’ve been saying for a while that people continue to do things for the benefit of themselves.  Whether that is in the form of money or recognition or some gift that they can receive.  I’m tired of the nonsense.  I hate how we’ve become as a culture and a society.  I want the children I’ve taught to be willing to help others because they have seen me do it out of care for other individuals.

To me that’s what it is all about: caring for others.  I am afraid we aren’t taking care of others the way we should.  There’s too much fighting and looking out for one’s self only.  I thought that we had come a long way as humans but the more I look around the more I wonder about us.  The more I wonder about our motives.  I see people that try to do for others get put down while those that are out for themselves climb over them.

This isn’t a zoo and we aren’t in the wild.  We are civilized creatures and it’s time to act like it.  I’m sick and tired of the drama and the petty bullshit.  If you can’t be bothered to help others, then you need to re-examine your priorities.  The only way we are going to go forward is together, no one is bigger or better than the other and some need more help than others and that’s why we have to be there for one another.

The Re-Evaluation Of A Sports Fan

Imagine being a sports fan all your life – knowing who is playing on Saturday and Sunday. Knowing who is in the playoffs and knowing the rosters of every team.
Being a Virginia Tech Hokies football fan I talked about interviewing the legendary Coach Frank Beamer. I sat behind the bench of a Tech game when they played Rutgers and I saw the players up close. I was there during Marcus Vick’s (yes, the brother of one Mike Vick) rookie year when he threw 2 interceptions and was benched for playing like crap. I remember seeing him and questioning how someone like that could be so highly rated over his brother. He sure didn’t look great that day.
Little did we know all the things that he would be known for – the stomp, running from the cops, the weed and the underage drinking with girls. It turned into one of the worst examples of Coach Beamer believing in a player in his tenure at Virginia Tech. I almost believe it soured him for the rest of his career from then on out. He certainly never appeared to be the same Coach after that.
Since Coach has retired and I’ve gotten older, I don’t follow Tech football or many other sports for that matter like I used to. I do try to play hockey and ref soccer but that’s about as deep as I get. Maybe it’s the philosopher in me or the psychologist that does too much questioning. I’ve ruined it. I’m starting to wonder if I’ve even ruined playing these sports just by questioning.
Walking away from the games has made Saturday and Sunday different. I can remember fall Virginia days with the windows open, the leaves falling, watching football with a blanket on. It didn’t matter what games were being broadcast I was watching them. Now, you’ll be lucky to catch me watching football for an extended period of time. I don’t know the roster of Tech and all I know is that Coach Beamer shows up on the sidelines to talk to the players but not instruct them.
The opportunity came up to go to Syracuse to see the Hokies play a Saturday game – one that I always said I would take if I ever had the chance. I declined.
“It’s too much, I don’t know the players anymore and Beamer isn’t there.”
It’s just not the same for me. It’s a struggle and a painful one at that. Something that was the biggest part of my childhood is gone. Through the questioning of concussions, wondering about the mindset of athletes and the examination of profits in sports I’ve lost that love for the game. I do truly wonder if I think too much about things.
I find myself not enjoying skating or soccer as much anymore. I question my ability to skate. Why? Why should I? It feels like a cycle or a circle. Here I go again.
“I can only do so much,” I tell myself, “but I don’t do enough.”
My body gives out and I can’t push it like I used to. I know there are guys older than me playing but why not me? Am I just not built the right way? I question my genetic makeup.
“Maybe I wasn’t built for skating.”
I’m arguing with people when it comes to soccer – i’m too strict with the rules.
“Why,” I ask myself, “does it have to be this way?”
Should I really be forcing everything in soccer to be by the book? Do I have to look for all the details to be just right?
I know that I can’t step down from my position as a coach and ref. I can’t quit on the volunteer organization simply because I feel like I am not doing the job properly. Can I?
Ah self doubt you creep in again.
Self doubt my old friend.
Where would I be if I didn’t doubt myself?
Before I step on the field I’m confident but between the games I am ready to call it quits. I think back to each decision and each play wondering if I missed something. I know I had to have.
“No one is perfect,” I tell myself.
Did I call one game too leniant? Did I call one too strict? Why? Was I tired?
It breaks me to think about these things in between games. I want to hand in my whistle because I’m sure I’m letting someone down. I can’t be a good ref and doubt myself can I? Isn’t that the reason why I gave up on sports? Because I doubted the nature of it? I doubted everything about it. How pure it was supposed to be. Now I’m doubting how good a job I’m doing as a ref. How can I help a kid learn a game if I question what it is I’m seeing?
All these questions. Isn’t it supposed to be easier? Aren’t I supposed to be good at this? For all the talk I’ve made out of knowing the game, I should boast about my ability. But that’s not me. I spend more time questioning my ability than praising it.

The same person who can build a wall can tear it down. I can just as easily call a good game as I can a terrible one. How do you keep the human element from creeping in when you are supposed to be a robot? An emotionless machine that calls fouls. That can be a challenge as I tend to my feelings on my sleeve. Sometimes I think that’s the best place for them. The more I think about it there’s not enough room there for all of them.

Coaching- Is It Right For You?

Not too long after I learned to drive I took up my first coaching position. My friend and I volunteered to coach an 11 and 12 year old boys basketball team.  
At first, the organizers of the league refused our attempts at leading a group of young men. They were afraid that we would not take it seriously and the boys would be led astray. After some serious begging and pleading, we were handed the clipboards.
It’s amazing to think that a couple of teenagers drafted a team of kids that we had scouted. Prior to the draft we planned our strategy and who we would build around. We had seen this tall kid who we thought we could be our “5” and like Shaq, we believed he could dominate the paint. Another young man would play the role of Penny Hardaway and handle the ball up-court. From there we had others to fill in the roles.
All our plans and plots faded in the first practice . Our big man played more like Gheorghe Muresan and our point wanted to take three point shots every time he came down court. The role players weren’t happy being just side kicks in our experiment and even though we laughed and joked in practice it blew up on game day. We often wondered why that happened. We had planned so well, scouted and kept practice light but we did work them.
After years of coaching soccer I think about the first time I struggled with coaching defeat. How much it bothers me. I know no matter what happened we took it seriously and we wanted to win. However we had no idea that we were never going to be successful. In fact I’m not sure if I have the ability to be successful as a head coach.
The role of a head coach is to not just be a leader but to be a strong individual who dictates terms. Barking out orders or standing firm in the face of adversity- that’s what I think a head coach should do.

But when I think about myself I think of someone who wears his emotions on his sleeve and doesn’t yell much if at all. As a ref I let my whistle do the screaming for me. Sure I try to learn my players strengths and weaknesses but at the same time I want to give them the courage to grow. I don’t know that there’s a lot of fire in my belly. I’m certainly not going to scream at you for missing a pass. I will do my best to applaud you for your hard work – don’t think I don’t notice you because I do. Sadly I’m just naturally quiet. I don’t have a good voice. That hinders my development.
I do study your play and I can tell you what is going on. Maybe I’m just not suitable coaching material. No hall of fame directors will ever call me nor will any teams for that matter. I may be lucky to make it through this season much less this week. I can’t say I haven’t earned the right to wonder about my ability. I guess the mere fact I’m still out on the field means I’m not horrible but in a volunteer organization they always need coaches- hell some poor sap let me coach at 16, imagine the disappointment that was.

Youth Sports – Simply For The Kids?

When you sign your child up for a sport you expect them to be taught the rules and how to play the game properly. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a volunteer organization or the coaches are paid. Simply put, the people who oversee the game need to understand how it works.

You don’t want your child to go out onto the baseball field wearing shin guards that are meant for soccer games.  You don’t want them to step onto the basketball court with a baseball helmet on.  It sounds simple but these are the fundamentals.

It’s like driving a car.  When you get behind the wheel you expect that the other drivers have been taught to keep their cars to the right side of the yellow line.  That is why there is a driving violation known as failure to keep right.

Or wearing a seatbelt – this is to keep you safe.

We have laws and rules in games and in life that help to keep everyone safe.  Whether it’s our children or ourselves.
As a human, it’s only natural to criticize the ones who enforce these rules.  As a referee, it can be tough to take on the role of calling the game based upon the laws of the game. The problem is when organizations put people in charge of monitoring games that have not spent time with the rule book.

A town cannot put a building inspector on the job who does not know the laws and town code otherwise things are going to be missed.  It’s possible buildings are going to be put up improperly and lives are going to be put at risk.

The same can be said for a referee especially when judging youth contests.  Slide tackles can hurt young people and late challenges can harm a defenseless goalie.  As much as the game is supposed to be competitive there has to be an environment of safety.  Those who aren’t trained and focused, struggle to maintain that condition.

We all are aware that refs are going to get flak from everyone no matter whether you are right or wrong – paid or volunteer. This is the nature of being an official, and it is something that referees must learn to deflect. Those that cannot stand the heat have to get out of the kitchen, it’s as simple as that.  That’s not to say that parents, coaches and players can berate them over and over.

However, the referee does miss calls and the referee can be wrong.  Sometimes the referee is paying attention to two players that are going at each other on one side of the field while the ball goes out.  The ref may call the ball for one team while the coach and player for that team may say “no we kicked it out.”  The ref may change that call.  The coaches are allowed to question that call.  If the coaches have a question about why the ref called something then they can question that.  Sports are not run as a dictatorship.  The ref is not Stalin, nor should the ref act like that.

Maybe with all this “you aren’t supposed to talk to the ref” stuff we’ve gotten a little too unfair. You can’t say to the ref, “hey listen there’s two players in the box on a penalty shot. They can’t be there?”

However we are losing out to the finer points that need to be adhered to.  Keeping your feet planted and making a good throw in soccer.  The in-bounds play as well as dribbling in basketball.  Learning the fundamentals.  It is the fundamentals that form the basis of the game.  Maybe I’m a stickler but if you don’t frame the puzzle you can’t fill it in.
Unfortunately though not only are we letting down ourselves by not learning the rules but we are letting down the kids. They look to us to show them the proper way to play the game.
Imagine playing baseball and being able to hit a foul ball and running to first base because the umpire didn’t bother to learn the rules.
Imagine playing basketball and dribbling around defenders out-of-bounds because the referees didn’t learn the rule book.
Or they gave a free throw when the ball was kicked.

Wouldn’t you get furious as a coach?

Shouldn’t we expect those who volunteer to referee to understand the rules of the game?

If you are going to use the excuse that soccer is hard to learn, read the NBA rule book. I have. I can tell you that there is no reason that 10-12 year old children can’t be expected to be refereed by someone who knows the rules.

We have to take a look at ourselves. Are we ruining it for the children? I don’t know.  However, they are old enough to understand what’s going on behind the scenes. Are we ruining it for other adults? For the ones who care enough to know the rules and show up on time, give their and everything they have to care about…yeah we are killing them.  At the same point maybe some people need to ask themselves what they are doing it for?  Are they doing it for the kids?  Are they doing it to live through their kids?  Do they care about the game?  Or is it just about another ounce of power?  Who cares if we teach the kids the right rules so they can go on to play at higher level knowing the RIGHT way to play the game, “I just want to be able to say I have control and I can tell other adults what to do.”  Sad.

But this is the state of the world we live in.  Sadly you never see the cards until they play their hand – then it’s too late.  Call me crazy but this isn’t the game I signed up for.  I only wanted to show kids the right way to play soccer not argue over who has the best hand.