“Last Chance U” is advertised as an in-depth look at the final destination for college football players that are just hanging on to their college careers or beginning them. A Netflix documentary following a small 2 year Mississippi junior college football team, East Mississippi Community College, through their 9 game season.
Along the way we meet head coach Buddy Stephens, academic advisor and unofficial team-mother Brittany Wagner, assistant coach Marcus Wood, ex-Florida State quarterback John Franklin III, running back D.J. Law, defensive lineman Ronald Ollie and quarterback Wyatt Roberts among the host of other EMCC Lions who ply their trade at the school. (Look out for C.J. Revis you can’t miss him – Go Hokies)!
Each player is searching for the right mix of football and classwork with most choosing the field simply because that’s what they’ve always known. Most haven’t been taught that they can do the classwork. Because of their talent they’ve been praised and passed through a southern high school football system that has printed cash off the back of young athletes for schools that don’t take the time to properly educate them.
Unfortunately EMCC for all its belief that it is doing what is best for the student athlete finds itself continuing the cycle (with the exception of the overworked and one would imagine underpaid Wagner). The school and coaching staff preach constantly to these kids about how they are football stars that need constant training but the only one who takes care of their emotional and academic needs is Wagner.
Imagine the weight put on this advisor who is trying to help these young men attain a 2.5 Grade Point Average so that they may go on to a 4 year college to play football and possibly professionally. Keep in mind that in high school, according to the NFL Players Association these players had a 0.2 percent chance of making it to the NFL.
Wagner is always around for the players to hang out with or talk to. She opens her door and her heart to these young men to become a true support system for their emotional needs when the pressure of the gridiron becomes too much. She is very much like the mother hen of the group keeping them on the right path but it seems that she takes it as her life’s mission to make these young men better. Players come in and sit on the recliners in her office or sleep on her floor because her office is a comfort zone. They are free to be themselves there. I can’t remember a scene where a player was lounging in the coach’s office or having a comfortable chat with the coach.
What “Last Chance U” shows is what happens when winning becomes bigger than the team for the head coach and it’s not about the collective for him. Stephens preaches one game at a time to the players but is quick to correct a reporter on a phone call when he says the team are going for their 24th win. It’s 25 of course, Stephens can’t help but correct him as the EMCC Lions went undefeated through 2013 and 2014.
When things go wrong he’s cursing at opposing coaches and even manages to take swings at a ref on the sidelines of a game – earning a 2-game suspension. During that absence, assistant coach Wood fills in and is calm in demeanor and successful on the scoreboard. In one series of plays a lineman makes a mistake and the coach screams at him from the field to the bench before pushing him. The player asks why the coach pushed him to which the coach responds by benching him for the game.
There are three defining moments that show Stephens character above all others.
One is in the final game of the season after a massive brawl against Mississippi Delta that causes the game to be abandoned. The coach goes on a rant about the players being “thugs and rednecks.” He declares he’s not going to deal with the “thug bullshit.” This from a coach who is hotheaded and has already fought a ref? These comments resonate loudly in a racially charged and divided state like Mississippi where civil rights are still being fought for.
The next example is the fact that you barely see the coach show any sort of involvement with the players other than to yell at them. Yelling is mandatory for Stephens. When kids aren’t going to class he’s not involved or seemingly interested. In fact, when defensive lineman Ronald Ollie gets a concussion Stephens brushes it off and jokes that he’s making it up. He tells one college recruiter that he’s never heard of having a concussion without a headache.
The young man tells his academic advisor he saw stars in the collision that led to the concussion but the coach isn’t convinced. Stephens finds similar ways to demean players throughout practice and the games. He calls it tough love but many times he’s flat-out being cruel.
Finally, the sequence of events focus on Stephens recruiting techniques. “It’s not about football,” he calmly tells the kids and their parent(s), “it’s about family. It’s about academics.” Meanwhile the screen is barely visible from the bling of his championship ring he’s wearing to show off. Not about football? It’s “about academics.”
It doesn’t seem that way. It appears Wagner is the one who cares about both family and academics. The Buddy Stephens who is approaching the recruits and players could be confused with Beaver Cleaver. You’d think he found the ultimate peace of the Dalai Lama – who he quotes after being suspended for fighting the ref. This is all an act for Stephens, the act of a man who wants one thing and one thing only – to win.
In 1994 Nick Nolte (who I often confuse with Gary Busey) played college basketball coach Pete Bell in one of my favorite movies, “Blue Chips.” Coach Bell is a successful coach whose career has hit the skids. The rafters of his Western University basketball arena are filled with the successes of the past but he knows he can’t recruit like the Kentucky and Indiana programs can. Coach Bell knows he is headed for a .500 season and possibly a firing at the end of the season. But he cares about his players’ lives and their grades. In fact, one of his players, down-on-his-luck Tony, is failing TV.
“Get a tutor for Tony for TV, all right” Coach Bell yells in practice.
As the frustration mounts, Bell turns to a slimy Western booster, Happy, and asks how the process would work if he wanted to “buy” a player or two. Bell has never bought a player and swore he never would but the urge to put another championship banner up alongside the others is just too much. Bell is assured that it will all be taken care of and no one will ever know that Happy and the “friends of the program” were involved. In come Shaq, Penny and Matt Nover (hilarity ensues).
Not to ruin the movie if you’ve never seen it however Bell eventually melts down after a win against #1 ranked Indiana using “bought” players Shaq, Penny and Nover.
Bell reveals everything at a press conference much to the chagrin of Happy and the “friends of the program” who assure him that he’ll never coach again. Bell walks away from the arena alone in the night and finds school children playing basketball. Joyfully he shows a young prodigy how to make a jump shot. With that, a coach is reborn.
Bell realizes something that Stephens hasn’t – it isn’t about the winning, it’s about the kids. Even at the college level, it’s about the players. Yes, you are getting paid to win but if you treat your players like something you must manipulate to win and you have to yell, kick, punch and scream they are not going to respect you. How can anyone respect you? How can you respect yourself?
It took coach Wood’s calmness on multiple occasions to tamper down the tempers of players who were so fired up by Stephens rants. Wood along with advisor Wagner, realize that the players need emotional love not “tough love.” These two realize that these kids have their lives ahead of them and that many of them come from a background of poverty, violence and uncertainty. Unfortunately Stephens can’t see past 40 times and TD passes to find the young men within the uniform who crave the stability that Wood and Wagner provide.
If the goal was to examine how these kids tried to get scholarships to play football one last time, then they accomplished that and then some. They also shined a light on a coach who cares too much about winning and not enough about the players who can get him there. The aggressive, obnoxious and insensitive behavior show his true goal, not just to win a National Championship but to be better than everyone else – whether he has to run up the score, punch you in the face or curse you until you can’t take anymore. Once he attains that height you might find him reaching for a Bible verse to describe his conquest. It’s a shame he missed the greatest lesson – treat others like you wish to be treated.