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‘Last Chance U’ finds a new home, and same challenges for season three

A former Florida State quarterback and a coach who’s an ex-gangbanger from Compton, California, join up in Kansas to take dysfunction to new levels

He was once the No. 17-ranked high school quarterback in the country, possessing a talent and football IQ so vast that he was expected to help Florida State maintain national football prominence. Yet, early in the first episode of the third season of Last Chance U, Malik Henry is captured walking down a dirt road lamenting his presence at Independence Community College in rural Kansas.

“I really don’t want to be here,” Henry, a Southern California teenager, says during his stroll in a town of fewer than 10,000 people. “I’m thinking in my head I’m better than this. … Sometimes you have to go with it and make bad things turn into a good situation for yourself.”

Getting to that good situation for players like Henry should be easy: You excel on the field, take care of business in the classroom and get out. But if you’ve seen Last Chance U, the brilliantly executed Netflix series, in season one and season two you come to understand that the journey is not as easy as it sounds.

The first two seasons of Last Chance U were widely successful in capturing the challenges faced by the players at East Mississippi Community College. The shift to Independence, Kansas — where we’re introduced to new coaches, new players and the same problems — has produced the best season of the Emmy-nominated series.

Why the change from a formula that has been successful?

“We had a creative itch to go somewhere else,” said Greg Whiteley, the creator, director and producer of the series. “We did two years at a school that was already successful. We felt it would be fun to experience the growing pains of a school trying to establish themselves as a new power.”

They found that at Independence, a school that hadn’t had a winning record in 20 years before going 5-4 in 2016.

The man responsible for turning the program around is Jason Brown, an F-bomb-dropping, Cadillac-driving, cigar-smoking, trash-talking coach trying to make a name for himself on the junior college level.

Brown is from Compton, California, and shares stories with his players about his days as a gangbanger.

Which must have been a sight to see: a white guy repping colors in the streets of one of the nation’s most notorious ’hoods.

There are many similarities between Brown and Buddy Stephens, the coach of EMCC in the first two seasons of Last Chance U. Both are brash and raw and approach coaching with tactics that might appear questionable.

It’s their upbringing that makes them worlds apart.

“Buddy is a Southern man through and through, while Jason grew up under difficult circumstances in Compton,” Whiteley said. “How Jason fits in the world of the college football landscape, I find it fascinating.”

The challenges both coaches faced: recruiting talented kids who, for whatever reason, have been rejected.

“The kids at Independence didn’t come here because they turned down Notre Dame,” Brown said after the screening of the first episode of the series at Netflix headquarters in Los Angeles. “Some kids are going to get kicked out of Florida State, and we have to be there to get them.”

If you thought the EMCC teams featured in the first two seasons of this series were dysfunctional, wait until you see the top-notch talent that’s gathered at Independence, including:

  • Henry, a headstrong kid who was an All-American quarterback in high school but had a mutually agreeable parting of the ways with Florida State — and you’ll quickly understand in the first episode why they couldn’t coexist.
  • Carlos Thompson, a speedy wide receiver who arrived at Independence after a brief stint at Texas Tech. Thompson was his own worst enemy because of his off-the-field “habits” that he breaks down to a teammate in a dorm interview.
  • Rakeem Boyd, a bruising running back attempting to get back to big-time college football after his journey to Texas A&M was derailed because of grades.
  • Bobby Bruce, who was a talented All-State linebacker in Florida but whose stint in Independence plays more like a last chance in life than a last chance in football.

Season three of Last Chance U offers a first: a strong African-American female figure in the lives of the players. She’s LaTonya Pinkard, known to the Independence players as “Ms. P,” whose interest in the players goes well beyond keeping them eligible.

“We identified 10 kids early that we wanted to follow, and when we asked them their favorite teacher, eight of them picked Ms. Pinkard,” Whiteley said. “Ms. Pinkard’s approach was to challenge the players to new ideas, and to make them grow in the process. We never had access to that type of teacher.”

What makes Last Chance U far more real than HBO’s Hard Knocks, or any other docuseries attempting to follow a team, is its unrestrained approach to capturing its subjects.

Nick Saban would not approve the Last Chance U crew at Alabama. And that’s because the cameras and microphones capture everything and show everything, with many of the subjects discovering things about themselves that are shocking and eye-opening after the episodes are released.

Brown, while watching the first episode, had no idea the level of scrutiny he was under from his players, mainly Henry, that could have been seen as a threat to undermine the coaches’ authority.

Questioning authority happens on all levels, from Jason Brown in Independence to Jason Garrett with the Dallas Cowboys. The difference with Last Chance U: The coaches get to see the player-to-coach criticism at eye-opening levels.

“We never had a quarterback who was comfortable criticizing the head coach, and when it comes from the guy on the field that’s leading the team, it’s amplified,” Whiteley said. “Malik is a guy who felt the freedom to disagree.”

Watching the conflict and chaos makes you wonder why it isn’t mandatory for every football team to have a full-time sports psychologist on staff to deal with the drama.

Watching it all come together in the end, despite all the drama, makes you appreciate the drive and desire of this Independence team. And Brown watching himself on the big screen made him reflect on his approach to coaching.

“It makes you look in the mirror,” Brown told The Undefeated. “It makes you reflect a little bit and ask am I crazy as I look.”

The answer after watching season three: Yes.

Crazy enough to be captured for a season four?

“We’re hopeful for a season four,” said Whiteley, who is still awaiting word from Netflix to greenlight another season. “And Independence would definitely be one of the schools in the running.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.