“I don’t care if you hate me now. Love me at the end, when you get a scholarship.” When the trailer for Season 3 of Last Chance U was released, one thing became clear: producers had found quite the character in Independence Community College head coach Jason Brown.
The Compton, California, product is a JUCO lifer. He was an All-American quarterback at Compton Community College before finishing at Fort Hays State. Four years after completing his degree, he became the head coach at Compton. After a stint as a high school coach and an assistant at Garden City CC, he took over moribund Independence.
In his first year, Brown engineered a turnaround from 2-8 to 5-4, with the Pirates winning their last four games and drawing LCU’s attention as the show moved on from East Mississippi CC.
[Spoiler alert, since the season captured by the show has already happened in real life.]
In year two, with LCU cameras everywhere, they went 9-2, winning a rugged Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference (perhaps the deepest conference in JUCO) and beating Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in the Midwest Bowl Classic.
The season began as poorly as possible, with Independence welcoming powerful Iowa Western and falling behind 42-7 at halftime in a loss.
They rebounded, winning seven in a row, often in dramatic fashion. They beat Garden City, Brown’s former employer, 27-23. They survived a trip to Dodge City. They beat Ellsworth CC in overtime. And after a 31-27 loss at Butler, they secured the conference title with a 27-22 home win over Coffeyville.
I recently spoke with Coach Brown. This conversation is edited for clarity and brevity.
BC: First things first: What was the process for Independence getting selected?
JB: They called me, and we were in our December exit meetings with my staff. I say, I got a call from Last Chance U, and I was like, no way in the hell that I’m taking it. I don’t want cameras on me.
My staff didn’t say nothing. They looked crazy, though, and I said, “Does anyone disagree?” I think [they thought] the college’s history, not being very good over a span of time at least until I got here, was a reason I should listen to ‘em.
So we called them back, and for whatever reason, they had heard about me and wanted to see my crazy ass, I don’t know.
BC: What was the biggest surprise in having to deal with those cameras?
JB: You know, we got our butts kicked game one because of the cameras. That’s truly my gut instinct.
Doesn’t matter who we played — we played a great team — but I think we coulda played a high school team and woulda got beat the same way. We just thought that that was supposed to be our night, and everybody was gonna stop what they were doing and bow down to the Indy Pirates.
We played a team that just took it to us and outclassed us, as I told their head coach after the game. I didn’t even get pissed off about it like I usually do. It was just so unbecoming, and it wasn’t our team.
The next morning I had ‘em at practice, and I told ‘em, hey, we’re gonna hit the reset button and start this thing over.
My shoulders got even heavier, with more weight on ‘em, and the pressure became greater because, OK now we’re gonna look like crap on a national TV show, get blown out every game? I knew we were probably as talented or more talented than anyone in the country, but I knew I had to get ‘em gelled together.
BC: Then the rest of the year was like a made-for-TV thing: tons of close wins, a long winning streak, a bowl win.
JB: That was who we were supposed to be.
There’s so much to do here. It was just a place that was down, and we had to revive it and try to create a new standard, create a culture that kinda permeates through the entire student body, and kinda what we’ve done. But this is a five-, six-year process that we’ve done in 24 months. And we shoulda been 8-2, 9-1 in year one, to be honest. We were very close.
And then the rules changed and it became completely unlimited [scholarships and signings], and now it’s kinda fallen into my hands because that’s what I live for — recruiting kids.
So we brought in some great guys, and shoot, we signed 40 guys. Those guys did great all spring, and we’ll have another class like that this year. We’ve got the No. 1 player in the country here, Jermaine Johnson [a four-star DE among the highest-rated 2019 JUCO recruits], and you got a lotta guys like him, too.
We’ve grown faster than I think the town of Independence or the school can go, and it’s kinda took them by shock. I’ve probably ruffled feathers along the way — I can be primitive at times. But it’s a results-oriented business, and last time I checked, they keep score, and you usually either get the kid or you don’t, or you win the game or you don’t, and you either graduate the player or you don’t.
BC: Just from the moment people found out you were going to be on Last Chance, was there a bump in recruiting and awareness?
JB: To be honest, no. We beat East Mississippi for some kids when they had the show, and I told our staff, this is not gonna get you kids here. It’s not gonna graduate your players either. Cameras don’t do any of that.
Next year’s when we may see something. I don’t know if East did or not. But when the show comes out, maybe everybody’ll say, “Shoot, I want to go there.”
I don’t think kids care about a lot of that stuff — not the good ones, to be honest. I’m from Compton, California, man. We had a dirt track and people pushing strollers across the field during the game, and I had guys go to the NFL off my team in ‘08.
It’s about the trust factor with the coach and knowing that he’s not selling you a used car. And there’s a character evaluation. Most of these kids come from homes where you’ve been lied to by male figures, and I think I do a good job of explaining our values and wearing my heart on my sleeve and telling them how it’s gonna be.
Then, when they get here, shoot, I got ‘em, man. I tell ‘em when I stop yelling at you, I don’t care anymore.
BC: Right — part of the trailer was you saying something like, “Hate me now, but love me when you get a scholarship.”
JB: Hate me now, love me later.
It’s true, though, man. I gotta teach these kids a lot more than just football. The real world’s gonna hit ‘em in the mouth in 18 months when they leave my place. And if they’re late, they’re gonna end up at McDonald’s and being late there and getting fired.
My job is to get ‘em to the next level. I’ve sent 190 guys to Division I in 17 years, and I’ve never had a kid get kicked out of a four-year. Not one. That’s what I’m most prideful about.
Hopefully I’m harder on them here than they will be at their four-year, and when they get there, they’ve already gone through football jail, so to speak.
That’s what I call this place. I call JUCO “football jail,” and you’ve gotta get out of it.
BC: Have you seen any Last Chance U screenings yet, besides the trailer?
JB: I’ve seen a few clips of a few episodes, and to be honest, I haven’t had time. But the clips I saw ... you know, I’ll either be at Independence next year, I’ll be at Alabama, or I’ll be fired. It’s probably gonna get ratings, I guess.
Hopefully the kids can get something good out of it, and I think our kids really portrayed themselves and represented their families and us well.
BC: As this show gains popularity, do live JUCO football games ever become attractive for television?
Especially in our league, I think that a Fox affiliate or someone could take it on and not lose revenue. I think it would help ‘em, and it would help junior colleges.
Junior colleges are kind of in a bad time right now. Half the schools in Arizona folded. Mississippi has 16 schools in a very poor state. They do a great job of managing that many schools, in my opinion.
TV would be great, but I don’t know if it behooves any of those people in that world to air junior college football. And I mean, what day do you do it on?
BC: I was just curious because viewers start to recognize not only East Mississippi but also Co-Lin and some of the other teams they were playing. And if there’s name recognition, you’re more likely to tune in. But yeah, you’d have to have games on Friday, probably.
JB: And you’re competing against high school on Friday, and college football kicks in on Thursday.
Nowadays, there’s football every damn day of the week. All them MAC schools, seems like Toledo or Akron plays on every Tuesday or some crap. But who knows, man, maybe you just live-stream everything and put it on YouTube TV.
BC: A lot of people are getting to know how the JUCO process works, but most viewers are fans of four-year schools. So we’re used to the four-year recruiting cycle, where it starts in February and ends in February. For you, when does a recruiting year start and end?
JB: Football recruiting in junior college never ends. That’s our blood-life. When a tackle gets kicked out of Florida State on July 30, we need to go pick him up. We have to show we are the go-getters that have their ear to the ground and turn over rocks.
You always want to bring in the best players, and you want to bring ‘em in 30 deep, if you can. I believe competition breeds winning cultures.
It eliminates a lot of kids doing foolish things, too, because now you can cut Player A, and Player B’s just as good. That’s why we bring in so many numbers, and that’s why we recruit the nation.
We recruit until Day 1 of the season. And we recruit all season long for the next year’s class.
It’s an 18-month school. We don’t have an alma mater, don’t have a fight song. This is not a four-year institution. I don’t get to build these kids for a year, so we don’t teach a lot of Xs and Os. We had 27 Division I transfers last year — 15 Power 5 transfers. I’m not teaching them nothin’, and neither are my 22-year-old coaches. So we teach ‘em how to go to class on time, how to be on time, how to be respectful to a woman, how to be accountable.
And then we run the hell out of ‘em and lift ‘em hard, and we structure a program that’s militant almost. But we love on them and give them our all, and I truly believe if you get 22 of those guys going in the same direction at the same time, they’ll run through a wall for you.
A lot of the guys I have are here for four to six months! They’re transfers, and they just come in, play one season, graduate, and go right back to Division I.
BC: That was leading to my next question — from an X-and-O standpoint, how do you build a system, when you know the pieces are going to be changing so much? What are the tenets of your offense from year to year?
JB: You’ve heard of the KISS method (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Well, I keep it stupid-simple. I’ve done that forever, and it’s all about keeping it simple as possible with our formations, our verbiage, our lingo.
It’s word-oriented. You get a lot of [academic] non-qualifiers here, so you have to realize that numbers aren’t their best strong suit, and we try to stay from numbers. I try to stay away from long verbiage.
Plus, shoot, I’ve probably gone through over 40 coaches or more, and we’ve gotten 11 of them Division I jobs, a couple of guys got Division II jobs, so the turnover rates for coaches are high. My tight ends coach just got a job at Liberty two weeks ago. He’d been here since January, but now he’s gone, so why coach him up on everything?
I’m about as JUCO as JUCO can get. I believe that it’s a rewarding deal, man. I think I can affect more kids’ lives here than anyone at the four-year level can do. I’m turning boys into men, and I’m giving guys a second chance.
We all make mistakes, I don’t think we should be thrown in the fire for making one mistake or two, but you know, you make mistake three and four and haven’t learned from one and two, then I have a problem.
BC: Good luck to you. A lot of people are gonna know your name here pretty shortly.
JB: No doubt! [laughs] Good, bad, or indifferent!