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Review of Netflix's JUCO football doc 'Last Chance U,' your preseason binge-watch

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If you know anything about East Mississippi Community College, it’s probably one of the following three things:

  • That’s where Ole Miss starting quarterbacks Bo Wallace and Chad Kelly came from.
  • That’s the school that’s won three of the last five JUCO national titles.
  • That’s one of the teams that got in that big brawl recently.

One thing you might not’ve known is that during last season — the year that led to that brawl, which ended a shot at a fourth championship — a crew was filming Netflix’s first sports documentary series on the sidelines and in the dorms, coach’s offices, and locker rooms. It's called Last Chance U, because that's what JUCO teams are for players who couldn't land or stay at Division I programs.

All six parts are available July 29. SB Nation has your first look at the trailer:

The show is a carefully crafted drama with personalities to care about.

But what will jump out even more at football fans (and media) will be the filmmakers’ level of access.

College teams control so much of what we see that it's jarring to hear coaches deliver actual rants on camera for a change. Here, players speak like humans whose goals have everything or nothing to do with football, sometimes at the same time.

In one scene, a coach cusses at a film crew to get out of his way. In another, he locks himself in an equipment closet to avoid cameras. A player takes a break from celebrating with teammates to speak directly into the camera on the sideline. Another grins as he tries to take a recruiting visit off-camera, but fails.

"We make that a prerequisite, that we get that kind of access," says Greg Whiteley, the Emmy-nominated director and executive producer whose previous docs include Mitt and Resolved. "There are a lot of shows that promise behind-the-scenes access, but not in the way that we’re used to delivering. One of the reasons that we chose EMCC was they said, "Yeah, we can’t think of anything where we’re not gonna allow you to be.’"

"You feel like you're a scrub on the sidelines" while watching the doc, he says.

Even in the moments before The Brawl arrives, the show does an excellent job of laying out the context, as it’s viewed from the EMCC Lions’ sideline.

The opponents, a weak team with nothing to lose, have punched an EMCC trainer and are delivering cheap shots. EMCC coaches have been imploring players to let the scoreboard do the talking. EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens has called a time out to run the score up just before halftime. And then his players see star teammate D.J. Law being stomped out on the Mississippi Delta sideline.

In the show’s light, the melee looks like decades of frustration pouring onto the field.

It’s followed by Stephens howling at his players about their "thug bullshit" and nearly getting arrested. Stephens is a hothead who was himself suspended earlier in the season for shoving an official, which his players immediately use as a retort. He’s completely lost the team, until he takes a closer look at the footage of what led to the fight.

"Anything that affects the season affects us. If we were in a pitch meeting and said, ‘Hey, we're gonna film a team that has a shot at its fourth national championship,’ you’d have execs saying, ‘Great, fantastic,’" Whiteley says. "If you say, ‘Before they get that chance, they’re gonna have this bench-clearing brawl.’ You’d have people saying, ‘Oh that's too bad.’ But for us, we were so invested in the individual characters, it could end any number of ways. It wouldn’t have been boring without the fight. The fact that you had this huge thing happen that was completely unplanned and unprecedented, this makes the doc that much more unique."

Stars like potential Auburn starting quarterback John Franklin III (presented as a player who'll be the first and last to mention he's a Power 5 talent) and Law (who once signed to both Ole Miss and Utah on the same day and is now off to UAB) capably carry slices of screen time off the field. The breakout among players is defensive lineman Ronald Ollie, a huggable ball of smiles with a devastating childhood story.

The show’s focus doesn’t land on violence, though JUCOs typically have several players with arrest records.

De’Andre Johnson, the QB booted by FSU for punching a woman, is now an EMCC student, but didn’t play in 2015.

Academic struggles provide the bulk of adversity in the doc, along with the burning desire by seemingly every player to make it out of EMCC and to Division I as quickly as possible.

"We filmed some very sensitive moments that were presented in authentic ways," Whiteley says. "Whether you’re a presidential candidate or a convicted felon, we treat all subjects the same. By virtue of the trust that they give us, we feel a heavy burden to tell their story fairly and give them every opportunity to have their voice heard. As filmmakers, we take a very agnostic view of their virtues and vices, and let audiences make their own conclusions."

Spending a coaching staff’s worth of time overseeing these players is academic advisor Brittany Wagner. Two players call her Mom.

Ollie naps on her office floor while mumbling about jumping straight from JUCO to the NFL. She makes this face at that moment:

She informs one player that garbage collectors don’t make $100,000 per year and impresses a pair by knowing which drug "purple" refers to in rap lyrics.

"The kinds of sacrifices that coaches and players and admins are asked to make in order to put on a successful football program are just way more than I would’ve anticipated," says Whiteley. "I’ve been around college sports enough to know the job is super demanding. I don’t think I fully appreciated just how much. These kids give so much. These coaches and academic advisors give so much."

I also asked Whiteley how often players lobbied for their highlights to be included.

"I was super pleased with how open they were. I love those discussions. I don’t remember specific music recommendations, but I do remember plenty of, ‘You’re gonna wanna get this shot. I’m about to score right here.’ Sometimes they were right."


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