Last Chance U, the new sports documentary series that premiered on Netflix on July 29, has become the channel’s latest success, garnering rave reviews and excellent word of mouth. Set in Scooba, Mississippi, this candid, warts-and-all portrait of the Lions — East Mississippi Community College’s football team — focuses on coach Buddy Stephens, his athletes and their preparation for a crucial game. Then the series shifts focus to the dramatically higher stakes for the players, many of them are talented but academically challenged misfits who face their last chance for recruitment by a college team and a shot at the NFL.
You don’t have to care or know anything about football to become completely engrossed by the vivid characters and unexpected twists at the core of the story, which is in the tradition of such landmark sports documentaries as Hoop Dreams. What most viewers might not realize is that the Netflix series, directed by Greg Whiteley, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the original article that inspired it; “Last Chance U” which appeared in GQ magazine in 2014.
Written by Atlanta-based journalist Drew Jubera, the article was a quirky, revelatory inside look at the little known world of JUCO football in Mississippi with other colorful characters besides the Scooba cast members such as Jeff Koonz, head coach at Holmes Community College, and his promising new recruit Lyndon Baines Johnson Jr.
Jubera, a five-time Pulitzer-nominated journalist, is the author of Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team and is currently working on expanding his GQ article into a book. In a recent interview with Jubera, he shared his thoughts on his original article, the Netflix series and other behind-the-scenes details.
ArtsATL: What was the origin of the “Last Chance U” article?
Drew Jubera: I was doing a book which became Must Win about a year I spent with a high school team in Valdosta. They had several kids who were nationally recruited kids and you had people like Nick Saban (head football coach at University of Alabama] and Mark Richt [then head football coach at the University of Georgia) coming in and giving their spiels to these kids. One day I was in the coach’s office and this guy [Brad Boyette] popped his head in and said, “I’m with Northeast Mississippi Community College. Sorry I didn’t call ahead.”
The high school coach, Rance Gillespie, said, “I know what you need.” He had a stack of folders on his desk and just handed it to Brad. They were all of the kids who weren’t going to qualify (for a major college). Later, Brad had a kid come in and I sat through his interview. It was a kid who months earlier had been recruited by LSU but his grades had fallen way off. I remember Brad’s pitch was basically, “I know you never dreamt of coming to Northeast Mississippi but here’s what we can do for you. We can get you to someplace you wanna be.” It was honest and unlike anything else I had heard before.
Fast forward a year or two later. I was doing a story for The New York Times about a kid from Atlanta [Josh Jarboe] who had been highly recruited, went to Oklahoma, got kicked out of there, went to Troy State, got kicked out of there and wound up at Northeast Mississippi where Brad had been. So I called Brad and we started talking about this league in Mississippi and when I heard some of the stories, I knew I was on to something.
ArtsATL: Did you have any trouble shopping the story around?
Jubera: I got an email out of the blue from an editor at GQ who’s a friend of mine, Nick Marino, who used to work at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was a pop music critic there years ago. He asked what I was up to and when I told him he said, “Pitch that to GQ.” It was the easiest sell I ever had. It went up the chain and was green-lit almost instantly. I spent another couple of weeks going around the leagues in Mississippi, doing what I needed to do to write that magazine story.
ArtsATL: The article really captures the physical details and day-to-day realities of a small rural town in the middle of nowhere. Does this come from personal experience?
Jubera: No, I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But when I was with the AJC, I worked on the national desk which essentially meant covering the South. I used to go all over the South for stories and thought I had been to every small backwater Southern town that there was. But I had never seen anything like Scooba. This is about as far off the beaten track as you can get. You pass these gas stations that are on this main state highway and then you go into the old town and it was literally abandoned buildings with one working Coke machine on the sidewalk. Then you drive a mile from there and you see this stadium. It literally just comes up out of the ground and it’s beautiful. All of it just feels kind of mind-blowing in its way, the contrasts with everything.
ArtsATL: One thing that your article touches on a little bit and which the Netflix series explores in more detail is the academic side of the football program. It made me wonder if any of the players actually excelled in some subject or even had a positive classroom experience that encouraged their interest in something other than football.
Jubera: When you talk to Buddy he’s quick to say, “We have guys who have 31 ACT scores.” There are guys there who didn’t get anything in high school and they still want to play and they are good students. But the overwhelming number are at-risk kids. They’re there because they didn’t take care of academics in high school to a large degree. It was conflicting to watch that because there are kids who do get interested in things and actually straighten up and go on to four-year schools where they do well. But, as you see in the series, a lot of them don’t. And it really is just trying to get eligible and that’s Brittany Wagner’s job [Wagner is the school’s athletic instructional advisor].
ArtsATL: Watching Last Chance U made me think back on the cinéma vérité documentaries of the Maysles brothers as well as some of the criticisms about how the presence of camera crews affect and influence the behavior of their subjects in an unnatural way. What is your opinion?
Jubera: When Condé Nast originally called me about this and wanted to do something since I was the original liaison in Mississippi, one thing was clear: Condé Nast really didn’t want a reality TV series where there is this layer of artificiality. They really wanted no part of that. And Greg Whiteley and his crew didn’t want any part of that either.
I remember when I first met Greg, he said, “It’s weird to me every time I do this. You show up somewhere with all of these cameras and everybody’s completely aware of them being here and within a week or two, it’s gone. No one’s aware of them at all.” And I found that on my own to be true. It’s also kind of intimidating. I was there interviewing people but they had two or three camera crews who were everywhere at once. They were all wired up so they could hear each other. It was like “you need to get over to DJ’s dorm right now.” And someone would go over there while someone was in Buddy’s office and someone was in Brittany’s office. It really had this omnipotence that as a one guy print journalist, there’s no way I could do that.
ArtsATL: It must be frustrating for the coaches to see so many talented and potential NFL candidates fall by the wayside each season because they fail on the academic side.
Jubera: I will tell you one thing regarding coach Jeff Koonz from the original article. He had a defensive end named Lyndon Baines Johnson Jr. [who was struggling academically]. A year later after the GQ article came out, I got a call from Koonz and he said, “Drew, I just wanted you to know that in about half an hour Lyndon Baines Johnson Jr. is going to walk across the stage and get his diploma.” (Johnson is currently playing for the University of Cincinnati.) My point is it’s always difficult to tell if the coaches really care about these kids. It’s their job to care about them, of course, and they have their own agendas. But when you get a call like that, it’s so genuine. And Koonz knew I’d get such a bang out of it.