It’s a drizzly Thursday afternoon on the football practice field at Independence Community College, and coach Jason Brown berates his players with a profanity-laced speech about marijuana.
“Weed is getting ridiculous in the (expletive) dorm,” Brown thunders as his players kneel sheepishly in the end zone. “If you’re that (expletive) stupid to smoke in your official original dorm room, you’re a (expletive) retard, and you should be cut. So three guys were cut today and sent home immediately, so you know, before I had the police come.”
Meanwhile, Netflix cameras roll, gathering video of the coach. Next summer, the video will likely be seen by millions across America on the TV series “Last Chance U.”
Coach Brown is just getting warmed up.
“So there’s baggies rolled up, intent to sell, all kinds of (expletive),” he said. “If you’re that stupid on national TV to have (expletive) weed in your room and it smells like weed, you’re (expletive) stupid and you need to go to jail for all I give a (expletive).”
Brown tells the players he plans to call in a drug-sniffing dog and implement random drug testing. “I’m getting that done ASAP, and I’m gonna cut half of you (expletive).”
So it goes at Last Chance U.
The hit series exposes the grim and gritty world of high-stakes junior-college football.
It draws its name from the fact that the junior college circuit — far removed from glamour college football programs — offers a final opportunity for these players to prove themselves and achieve the success in football that has so far eluded them.
While talented enough to play in college, and in some cases professional football, most of these players have red flags in their records: academic, attitude or, in some cases, criminal issues.
For its first two seasons, the Netflix documentary crew followed the daily lives of the players, coaches, counselor and fans of East Mississippi Community College, a perennial football powerhouse in Scooba, Miss., population 697.
For Season 3, the cameras and action have moved to Independence, a town of about 9,000 in southeast Kansas where Brown has turned a downtrodden team into a budding national contender — ranked seventh in the nation this week.
A new Last Chance U
The blueprint for turning around a junior college football program is simple: recruit talented players bypassed by larger schools, get them to focus on football and classes, graduate them to a four-year school, repeat.
But as the great German strategist Carl von Clausewitz said of war, everything is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.
The marijuana incident involved three students Brown had recruited, two players he’d already had to cut from the team and the third, of all things, an equipment manager.
“Actually one of the kids is a white kid from Kansas,” Brown said later. “They come in all shapes, sizes and colors, man. And the bottom line is, a kid does something foolish, they’re gonna pay, and I’m not gonna tolerate it, and I’m gonna get rid of them. We had to get rid of three of them today, and it just is what it is.”
It’s that kind of honesty and drama — raw, unfiltered and uncensored — that has inspired millions of viewers to follow what has so far been 16 hours of documentary programming about junior college football.
Last Chance U director Greg Whiteley said the production team talked to about 20 schools and visited about five before choosing Independence.
Cold eye, warm heart
While East Mississippi is a dominating team now ranked No. 1 in the nation, Independence offers a different kind of story for Season 3, Whiteley said.
Independence has long been a doormat in the Jayhawk Conference, but is now on the rise with a 5-1 record and a statement win over the defending national champion, Garden City Community College.
“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if this is sort of the beginnings of something special?’” Whiteley said. “Rather than going to a school that already has entrenched success, let’s go somewhere where it’s a team that’s kind of trying to move out of this rut that they’ve been in for years.”
The clincher was cooperation from the school, including Brown, Athletic Director Tammie Geldenhuys and President Dan Barwick, who gave the producers almost complete access.
The production crew of about a dozen follows the players through practice, games, classes, counseling, meetings, mealtime and off-hours, gathering hundreds of hours of footage to be pared down into eight one-hour episodes.
The film crews are ubiquitous, with hand-held cameras and shotgun mics on long booms, a camera-equipped golf cart and a Segway scooter with a gyro-stabilized camera. Six games into the season, they’ve become a part of the background at the college.
“We learned that the novelty of having cameras film you wears off really fast, and people go back to their normal habits and their usual way of operating,” Whiteley said. “In our style of filmmaking, in order for it to be interesting, we have to get access, and those people have to exhibit a level of authenticity.
“We came out here and shot some test footage, and we just saw no deviation, nothing that we could discern, between how they were off camera versus how they were on.”
Whiteley said the crew tries to film “with a cold eye but a warm heart.”
“Our goal is to capture truth,” Whiteley said. “I happen to believe you can get at that truth faster and better by empathizing with your subjects, really trying to understand who they are and what it is that they want.”
Doing that makes it personal.
“Over the last three years, I’ve had my heart broken on a few occasions as I’ve seen dreams for people that I care about not come to fruition,” Whiteley said. “And my heart has soared when it’s worked out.”
So why junior college instead of a more popular level of football?
“It’s a world you heard of but you don’t know a lot about,” Whiteley explained. “I don’t know of any other documentaries that are done about junior college football. There are dozens that are being made about (major) college and professional football, so going somewhere that was relatively uncharted territory we thought would be good.”
So far, that small-is-beautiful approach has worked.
“I believe that we make a show that runs circles around other shows that do Division I college football and NFL football,” Whiteley said. “And it’s all based on me being an artistic genius and the access that we get.
“I’m kidding about the artistic genius part.”
Foul mouth, warm heart
If cussing out football players is a form of art, Coach Brown is its da Vinci.
It wasn’t just marijuana stupidity that had him in a lather that week.
There was also a matter of pillows, 19 of which disappeared from the Pirates’ team hotel on a road trip to play Dodge City.
“We had 19 cats steal pillows from the hotel,” Brown barked at his players. “If you (expletive) want to be criminals, get the (expletive) out and go do that (expletive) at Coffeyville, man.”
What really made him angry was if the players had simply asked, he’d have gotten them new pillows.
While Brown has his calmer moments, his tirades aren’t an act, but an expression of his passion for the game and his players, said Geldenhuys. She’s the only female athletic director in the Jayhawk conference and a former Kansas State University basketball star whose No. 33 jersey hangs retired at Bramlage Coliseum.
“He’s very intense and urgent, like all great coaches are,” Geldenhuys said. “It is kind of unfiltered. When you get to know him, what you really appreciate is, he doesn’t change. Whether it’s Monday or Sunday or noon or 2 a.m. or 7 p.m. or in the practice or whatever, he’s consistently the same guy.”
Brown acknowledges there are those who disagree with his rough language and coaching style.
He’s OK with that. In a lot of ways, his players’ stories are his story.
He grew up in Compton, Calif., ground zero of the Los Angeles ’hood and famous as a hotbed of gangs, drugs, crime and street violence.
“I went to Compton (Community) College. I later became the head coach at Compton College,” he said. “I was the only white guy when I played there. I was the only white guy when I coached there.
“So if you saw how I talked to our players, it’s passionate and it’s from the heart and it’s ’cause I relate and I know where these guys come from and how to talk to them.”
Whiteley said he was surprised that some players didn’t just leave after being on the receiving end of one of Brown’s tirades.
“I’ve seen him say things to kids that I’ve thought ‘Oh no, this relationship is forever severed,’” he said. “And when they would show up the next day, I would ask them, why are you still here? How do you feel about coach? And they’d say, ‘I know he loves me. I know he cares about me.’
“He feels every single play and every single grade as if it was his own. It’s really fun to film somebody that effusive, where he wears his emotions on his sleeve.”
A ticket out
Football was Brown’s ticket out of Compton, and he wants to lead his players out of whatever adversity they come from. He’s as tough on them about academics as he is about on-field performance.
“I try to preach to these guys: ‘Let football pay for your education,’” he said. “A lot of people don’t have that luxury. The general population student doesn’t have that luxury.”
A quarterback, Brown transferred from Compton to Fort Hays State University, where he set school records. That led to a short run in the pros with the Kansas City Chiefs.
His playing days over, he worked his way up through the high school and junior college coaching ranks in Southern California before returning to Kansas as an assistant coach at Garden City. He took over head coaching duties at Independence last year.
One of the most popular characters of the first two seasons of Last Chance U was Brittany Wagner, the kindly mother figure who patiently and understandingly counseled indifferent East Mississippi players through their classwork.
Wagner parlayed her fame from the show into a consulting business called 10 Thousand Pencils, a play on her constant reminders to the athletes that they needed to bring pencils to class.
To say Brown disagrees with that kind of approach is an understatement. In his view, coddling players might get them through junior college, but it doesn’t prepare them for life.
“The real world is going to hit them in the mouth in 18 months, 24 months, and they need to be prepared for it,” he said. “If you watch East Mississippi, how many of those guys have had issues since they left there?”
One of the stars of seasons 1 and 2 of Last Chance U, running back Isaiah Wright, was charged with murder last month in a stabbing death, along with his brother, Camion Patrick, who played at East Mississippi before him.
Brown said Independence doesn’t have a Brittany Wagner. Instead, each assistant coach must ensure that his unit of players attends class and makes the grades.
“We’re genuine, and we tell these kids exactly what they need to know,” he said.
Players chase dreams
Some players are within reach of the goal to leave Independence behind and move to a four-year football program.
Wide receiver Calvin Jackson was heavily recruited out of high school in south Florida, but his grades didn’t meet NCAA standards, and he has had to spend a year in junior college to improve his academics.
“I went to a small school, and I thought I was hot stuff, so I basically just said, ‘Forget school, I’m gonna get out of here either way ’cause I’m good at football,’” he said.
He said he’s learned from that mistake, his “grades are great right now,” and he has already signed to play for Washington State next year.
Malik Henry has been to Division I and appears poised to go back.
One of the nation’s top recruits at quarterback, he seemed destined for football stardom when he signed at Florida State last year.
But early on, he served a month-long suspension for what ESPN termed “violation of team rules” and although he was reinstated, he left the Seminoles in December.
Division I players have to sit out a year when they switch schools, so he wound up in Independence in the meantime.
He said having Netflix around doesn’t bother him because cameras have followed him and teams he’s been on since early in high school.
From the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, Henry said the bigger shock was “being way out here where you know, we only got a Wal-Mart or a couple stores. I’m not really used to that.”
So what’s he learned at Independence?
“It just taught me how to be humble and never take anything for granted and just learn from your mistakes and get past them and move on,” he said. “I’m just glad it happened sooner than later.”
He said he’s had interest from Oregon, Louisville, Virginia Tech and other major schools.
Henry shares snaps at quarterback with another bounce-back player, Brandon Bea.
Bea signed with Division I FCS Montana out of high school, but left after not getting playing time in a crowded backfield.
“It wasn’t anything I did wrong,” he said. “My grades are good. I just didn’t get an opportunity with the coaches and all that. I decided, ‘Hey, I can go play football still.’”
He has honed his skills and has heard from some smaller four-year colleges. He said it’s a long way from Division I, where “you get everything, you know, you’re treated like a king almost.”
Now, it’s practice before dawn and long bus rides to away games.
“This really tests if you love football,” he said. “There’s times where you’re just so exhausted. It’s just, I wouldn’t say rock bottom, per se, but it’s the bottom. You’re trying to build back up and that’s your goal.”
As juco as it gets
Brown said he’s been approached about Division I coaching jobs, but doesn’t strive for that because it’s not his mission.
“They (Division I players) don’t go through near the trials and tribulations these guys go through,” he said. “And I’ve seen it all, from having kids having babies and babies having babies and having babies lined up along the sideline during practice.
“And I come from that environment. I love coaching juco, and I think I can make a bigger impact on these kids than any four-year school can make with those kids.”
As for the coaches at glamour programs, “They can have all the high praise and accolades and big-dollar contracts and shoe deals and so forth. And I’ll be the little guy at the end that helps these guys go there.
“I’m a product of a juco environment. I’m as juco as juco can get.”