For sheer entertainment value, nothing matches Season 3 of “Last Chance U.,” a Netflix series that highlights – or at least sheds light upon – a junior college football program.
The subject of this season is Independence Community College, which in 2017 won its first Jayhawk Conference championship since 1977 under Jason Brown, the show’s central figure.
And what a figure Brown is. A self-described recruiter, Brown’s roster is full of Division I transfers who weren’t quite ready for the big time because of academic and behavior issues. Without the restraints of in-state roster restrictions, Brown filled his team with out-of-staters who mostly had never been to Kansas and were eager to depart.
Brown is a brazen, foul-mouthed coach with a tough background. His methods are mad, no two ways about it. He challenges players and coaches with a vocabulary straight outta Compton, which happens to be where he was raised. In the series, he said he has witnessed friends being shot and dying next to him and on the hood of his car. He confessed to spending some time in jail.
Give Brown credit, though, for finding his way. He made it out of Compton after two seasons at Compton Community College, setting quarterback passing records at Fort Hays State and receiving a degree in Kinesiology. But his roots obviously are deep within him.
Brown had a difficult upbringing and hasn’t seen his own daughter in many years. He comes across in Last Chance U. as angry, abrasive and profane. But also as driven, focused and sincere.
He often tells his players, many of whom also come from difficult childhoods, how much he loves them. And you want to believe that, despite all the foul-mouthed evidence to the contrary.
Brown’s success speaks for itself. Independence has long been a doormat in the Jayhawk, which for years has been dominated by the likes of Butler, Coffeyville and Garden City. Indy was the team those schools sought out for their Homecoming games. An easy mark.
That’s not the case now. The Pirates were 9-2 in 2017, ranked No. 5 in the NJCAA’s final poll. After the season, 21 Independence players signed with Division I schools.
All of that indicates Brown’s way is working.
Our impressions of Brown come from cameras being pointed toward him for this Netflix series. There’s more to the man, obviously, than what Last Chance U. is showing us. But there’s enough footage to draw some conclusions.
One is that Brown is a complex individual. And so are many of the players highlighted in the series. How much are they playing to the cameras? There’s always some of that, I presume.
But not so much that I feel as if Brown or anyone else in the series is playing a character. There is authenticity.
Brown enjoys a cigar and a Cadillac. He has an appetite for the finer things in life, which aren’t always readily available in a place like Independence. He does all of the necessary things that being a football coach in a small town require. There’s the radio show in a small sports bar, the participation in the Neewollah (Halloween spelled backward) parade.
There’s no indication, though, that Brown is developing meaningful relationships with townspeople or faculty members. Or even his own coaches, outside of his former coach from Compton who works on his staff. Brown appears to be a renegade, driven by winning.
But he also seems to have a legitimate concern for his players. The approach is iffy, but the importance Brown puts on academics is undeniable. He does appear devoted to helping players find a path to a better place.
That’s something Brown was able to do. He played at Fort Hays in 2000 and 2001 and still ranks sixth on the Tigers’ list for passing yards and seventh for touchdown passes.
In Last Chance U., he coaches players with checkered pasts and uncertain futures. Thus, the title of the show. But it also applies to his life and the lives of so many junior college athletes.
The Independence quarterback, Malik Henry, was one of the most sought-after high school QBs in the country. But he lasted just one season at Florida State and had an underwhelming season for the Pirates, a season filled with discontent.
Henry butted heads with Brown and showed frustration with teammates. Once regarded as a can’t miss college quarterback, Henry’s football future is unknown.
Indy, though, is regarded as one of the teams to beat in the Jayhawk in 2018. Brown continues to recruit like a beast, but with only a handful of Kansas players on the roster.
For that, he makes no apologies. He has brought players from all over the country to Independence, Kansas. For many, this is the place in which their futures will be decided.
Brown is the central figure in their lives. There’s a successful football program in Independence because of him. And that’s commendable. But how are these players going to turn out? Do Brown’s profane and hostile ways work in developing good men beyond football?
I have my doubts. But I hope so.