Last Chance U
Watch on Netflix
Season 4 drops July 19
When Jason Sudeikis graduated from high school, all he wanted to do was play basketball. His grades were terrible, but he was able to get a scholarship to Fort Scott Community College. The two-year junior college, or "juco," was a short drive from his home in suburban Kansas City and belonged to a competitive Kansas juco athletic conference renowned for hoops. And he flunked out. “I can laugh about it now, but it drove my teachers and parents cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” he told me in 2005, after SNL had hired him. “I attended all the discussions. I just didn't read the material.”
A friend of mine taught at a Kansas community college, where her class was filled with scholarship athletes, mostly football players. If she gave them Fs, she was forced to deal with their coaches. She left after a couple of years.
A football team at a community college in Kansas is the subject of the current series of Last Chance U, now on Netflix. So far, I haven’t seen anything that surprises me, but it's one of the most compelling sports documentaries I’ve ever watched. Those “behind the scenes” football shows you see on Amazon and HBO are filmed inside elite college programs and the NFL, where everyone is good at controlling the message. On Last Chance U, people say how they feel out loud, with little regard for the consequences, because that’s how they were raised, and because message-shaping is a luxury item for “D-1” — the NCAA Division I schools they all aspire to attend some day.
And that, I suspect, is what appealed to Netflix executives when they greenlit Last Chance U, based on an article by Drew Jubera in GQ. Around the country, jucos within driving distance form little confederations full of “the discarded and dispossessed: lawbreakers, rule-benders, dropouts, dipshits, potheads, and assorted other screwups—almost all of whom can flat-out ball,” as Jubera put it.
Playing for jucos, undersized players can rack up impressive numbers and get second looks from the powerhouse schools. Lots of coaching talent got their start at jucos. Folks think of them as places where dreams of glory are kept alive, but given the likelihood of injuries, academic struggles, or character issues getting in the way, I'd say it's more realistic to think of jucos as the place where dreams go to die.
No matter where you stand on this issue, you'll enjoy Last Chance U, because it plays both sides. You meet kids you can’t help but root for, coached by grownups who are just as hungry for advancement — and oftentimes as immature and troubled as the kids they're supposed to be mentoring. Even if you don't enjoy or understand football, this unvarnished drama about sports and last chances is a window into the underprivileged America we rarely see on TV.
The first two seasons were filmed at East Mississippi Community College, the school featured in Jubera's article. For my money, the producers kicked things up a notch when they came to Kansas. Last Chance U’s third and fourth seasons (the latter of which drops July 19) are filmed at Independence Community College, or ICC, a town known for its Little House on the Prairie Museum (Pa Ingalls moved the family here in 1869). The broadcaster Bill Kurtis owns a ranch nearby. And that’s about it. Located in southeast Kansas, Independence has been dying a slow death over decades. For the young people, ICC is a lifeline to a better career; for the grownups, the football team is a source of entertainment.
That is, if the team weren’t so awful. When Dan Barwick took over as Indy's president in 2011, the Pirates were in the midst of a 21-game losing streak. Desperate to win support from the locals, Barwick went outside the box, and outside the state, for a most improbable hire: Jason Brown, a self-described “ghetto” kid from Compton, California, who became a star quarterback at the local juco, transferred to a four-year school in Kansas, and then bounced between the two states, building a reputation as an effective coach and even better recruiter.
In Compton, we see him getting a haircut and smoking cigars with his high school buddies. One of them points out that a lot of Europeans used to live in Compton, prior to white flight. “J.B. got left behind,” he says, and everybody laughs. Race was the last thing the white boy from a violent and broken home had to stress about. “You always had your head on a swivel,” Brown says.
But the street skills he learned there are what allowed him to relate to inner-city football players. One of his friends calls him the “Suge Knight of football,” and the roster he’s assembled bears this out. As Season 3 of Last Chance U begins, Indy has had its first winning season in 20 years under Brown, and is ranked No. 17 in a national preseason poll. And thanks to a rule change allowing an unlimited number of out-of-state transfers (Barwick says the quota was a holdover from the days when locals wanted to keep Kansas white), the team is loaded with talent.
Early on we meet Bobby Bruce, an African-American standout from Florida, whose mother and brother both served time in prison while he was growing up. When Coach Brown called him on the phone, Bruce says, “I thought it was a black guy.” He agreed to come to Kansas. At Indy he quickly becomes a project of LaTonya Pickard, the school’s dedicated professor of English. Pickard, a young black woman from the South, is invested in her charges, and is both demanding and encouraging toward them. She is the show’s most positive force, even as she privately admits most of these young men won’t make it in the classroom or on the field.
The Heisenberg Effect is in full force on Last Chance U — that is, everyone knows there are cameras filming every second. A magazine reporter, visiting Kansas to write about the Indy program, asks coach Brown who his academic advisor is. “Me, man,” he says. “I’m Brittany Wagner,” a reference to the woman who kept the football players’ grades up in the first two seasons of Last Chance U.
As the season progresses I expected the storytelling to shift to some of Brown’s players, but there is just way too much drama surrounding the coach for the camera to turn away. Here, in its entirety, is how he deals at a team meeting with the news that many of his stars are failing in class.
“If you go to class, stay off your f-––in’ phone, sit in the front, turn in your homework, you’ll get a C. I didn’t learn one thing in high school or college. One f-––in’ thing. I couldn’t tell you what a f-––in’ atom is. I couldn’t tell you what a f-––in’ microbe is, I couldn't tell you what the f-–– any of that shit is. But I’m a cold hustler, so I figured it out. … The entire program is failing right now at 3 and 1. You’re going to be on Netflix beating Dodge City. Whoopie f-––in’ doo.” And then he storms out.
Late one night, relaxing alone in a hot tub, he brags, “I believe I’m the best recruiter in America.” But recruiting is one thing. Coaching — exhibiting leadership, serving as a role model — that’s a whole different thing. And with each new episode Last Chance U, you can feel the pressure cooker getting hotter and hotter, and Brown responds poorly. He gets into fights — with opposing coaches and boosters, with referees, with his own assistants, including one, Lawann Latson, who throws his headset at Brown during a game. Brown tells Latson he’s fired, only to sheepishly recant the next day (after they win the game).
“It’s junior college, man,” Latson reflects later. “A lot of single-parent homes, a lot of generational curses, it’s just so deep coming out of these intercity neighborhoods. And Coach Brown — I see it in him more than anybody.”
You start to feel for the kids, wondering what real-life lessons they’re taking from Brown’s tirades and threats. I especially admired the team’s quarterback Malik Henry, who came to Indy via D-1 power Florida State, where he was a blue-chip recruit before burning through “second, third, and fourth chances,” as one radio analyst put it. (One thing that makes Last Chance U so riveting is the wealth of audio and video archival material to draw on, though it's unsettling how much media attention gets showered on these kids virtually from the moment they pick up a football.)
Henry is soft-spoken, prone to depression, and very bright. “I am not down for the way the NCAA treats us, damn near like slaves,” he offers at one point. He’d like to be calling plays from the huddle instead of taking them from his coach. After a while, you start wishing he’d take the clipboard away from Brown completely.
Season 4 of Last Chance U promises to be even more surreal, based on real-life events (spoiler alert) involving the coach. (And there is sad news about Bobby Bruce as well.) All in all, my view of college sports, which pretty much agrees with Malik Henry’s take, is sadly reinforced by Last Chance U. As the team’s radio announcer Jeff Carpenter puts it, “Nothing changes a person’s mind more than winning. Americans love a winner and even more than that, they love an underdog.”
Pressed for time? Watch the first two episodes, then episode five, which uses the timeline of a game at midseason to fill in some stories about the other characters. And, of course, watch the season-ending episode ten. And make sure you have Audio Description turned on (it’s under Audio and Subtitles) so you don't miss a detail in this fast-paced program.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.