Buddy Stephens has heard the Friday Night Lights comparisons.
Heck, just like Eric Taylor, the protagonist coach in the critically-acclaimed television series, the East Mississippi Community College coach listens to talk radio about his team while in his truck.
But Stephens, one of the main characters in the Netflix documentary “Last Chance U” chronicling his team’s 2015 season, hasn’t had a chance to watch any of FNL’s five seasons. He’s too busy living the experience and starring in a documentary of his own to watch a television series about a football team.
“I’m hoping it did humanize things a lot more,” Stephens said of the six-episode first season to Yahoo Sports. “Those NFL players, those big time college players, those guys that are playing Division II or Division III or community college, they all have the same problems. [Alabama coach] Nick Saban has the same problems that I have from time to time, he just has $7 million more a year.”
You may have noticed “season” in the paragraph above. Director Greg Whiteley and his crew will be back at East Mississippi Community College for the 2016 season. Netflix is renewing the series for a second season, which will be available in the summer of 2017.
The workings for Last Chance U began after Whiteley read an article in GQ of the same name by writer Drew Jubera (prominently featured in the show’s first episode). Entering the 2015 season, EMCC had won three of the four previous NJCAA football championships and players such as Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, former Alabama defensive tackle Jarran Reed and others have suited up for the Lions before moving on to other programs, and, in some cases, the NFL.
“From the moment I read Drew Jubera’s GQ article, I go ‘I know this is a series,’” Whiteley told Yahoo Sports.
While playing for SEC schools may be the ultimate non-NFL goal, the time spent at EMCC can’t end soon enough for many players. The kids at EMCC are there because of grades, discipline problems or other issues that are preventing them from playing at a four-year school.
“If you don’t cut pines or hunt, there’s no reason to be here,” former EMCC defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said in that 2014 GQ article. “Unless you play football. And need the grades.”
Like many people in Dillon, Texas, the fictional town where Friday Night Lights was set, the goal at EMCC for the young adults is simple. Get out of the 700+ person town of Scooba, Mississippi, and move on to better things.
The similarities weren’t lost on Whiteley, a huge fan of the series.
“There are so many parallels that even surprised me,” Whiteley said. “I thought ‘Gee, am I somehow subconsciously making all this happen?’ There’s a quarterback battle, you’ve got this running back – it was kind of eerie.”
Academic advisor Brittany Wagner is one of those parallels. A woman who bears a striking resemblance to FNL’s Tami Taylor in multiple ways, Wagner’s influence at EMCC steals the show, whether it’s making sure running back D.J. Law stays eligible or defensive lineman Ronald Ollie has a notebook for the first day of class.
According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Wagner has even gotten 30 marriage proposals from men who have seen the series.
She’ll undoubtedly be a central figure of the documentary’s second season which will be chronicling an incredibly rare set of circumstances to open the season.
EMCC was involved in a brawl with Mississippi Delta Community College at the end of the 2015 season. The entire team was given a two-game suspension after the fight, the first of which was a state playoff semifinal game.
The second game carries over to the first game of 2016, meaning EMCC can only field a team of freshmen coached by the head coach. All other coaches and returning players are suspended for the game against Northeast Mississippi Community College.
Stephens, who said he was involved in a fight with Mississippi Delta as a player back in 1987, was also suspended for two games in 2015 for an incident with an official that’s chronicled in season one.
“The referee is one that probably one that sticks out that I’ve never had to deal with anything like that before,” Stephens said. “I hope it never happens again — I’ll never let it happen again.”
Whiteley also said the second season will try to continue to focus on other main participants of season one like Law (UAB) and Ollie (Nicholls State), who have moved on to four-year schools. Quarterbacks Wyatt Roberts (Mississippi State) and John Franklin III (Auburn) will also be featured.
One of the players attempting to replace Franklin and Roberts is former Florida State quarterback De’Andre Johnson, who was dismissed from FSU in 2015 after punching a woman at a bar. Johnson signed with EMCC in the fall of 2015 but didn’t participate in any football activities while focusing on counseling and classwork.
Bringing a player in like Johnson (and potentially getting him ready to start a football game in a few weeks time) isn’t anything new for Stephens or many other junior college coaches. And while a documentary series can be a powerful recruiting tool for an already-stacked junior college powerhouse, the coach wants “Last Chance U” to be a window into all junior colleges and not just his.
“I hope that other institutions, other community colleges will use that to show people it’s not about football always, it’s getting about that diploma. It’s about doing things right off the field. It was an eye opening experience.
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