The Netflix series “Last Chance U” is a documentary that has followed Head Coach Buddy Stephen’s JUCO football team at East Mississippi Community College football for the last two seasons. The series takes place in the small town of Scooba, Mississippi. This is a town that has less than 700 residents but has a football stadium that would be the envy of most Division II football programs. Coach Stephens led EMCC to a 2017 National Title, marking their fourth championship since 2011.
These JUCO teams are typically comprised of players from different and often tough backgrounds. There are many Division I players who don’t qualify academically to initially attend these Universities. JUCOs
give these players a chance to attend a small college to get their grades to an acceptable level while still playing football. They then have the opportunity to transfer to a larger four year institution where they can continue to play football and finish their education. This Netflix series allowed college football fans a window into the life of these JUCO athletes.
The program was able to highlight the academic struggles of the students and the dedication that it takes to balance school and sports. Some of the players are there because they were forced to leave their original school because of poor grades or bad decisions, leading them to be dismissed from their team. While these players typically get the most headlines due to their mistakes at their original school they also make up a small portion of the team.
Sometimes players decide to transfer to a JUCO because their current school isn’t the right fit. Other players go to a JUCO because they didn’t get the opportunity they desired coming out of high school. More often than not the players at these schools are simply looking for a second chance because of
tough situations, lack of support at home or poor decisions they’ve made.
Going to these JUCOs gives these players a way to reinvent themselves and change the direction of their football career and life. The critical job of ensuring academic success fell upon one of the most popular figures of the program, academic counselor, Ms. Brittany Wagner. Her role with the program was to support the players through their tough schedules and school requirements. It often rested upon her to make sure that players stayed eligible but also were able to graduate, so that they can transfer to other schools.
Ms. Wagner was beloved by fans for her personality, hard work and also the deep love that she exhibited for her students. As a single mother excelling at her career despite a tough schedule and the extreme demands of a football program, she embodied one of the bright spots of the program.
The documentary allowed fans to see the tough academic situations players have to overcome and the relationships she created while supporting them. This softer side of college football was one that fans don’t typically get
to see but became one of the most popular elements of the program.
West Virginia over the last few years has had strong ties to the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC).
Clint Trickett who started at quarterback at West Virginia during the 2013
and 2014 seasons, had a big role in the first two seasons of the show “Last Chance U.” He served as the quarterbacks coach at EMCC for the 2015 and 2016 seasons before moving on to coach tight ends at Florida Atlantic University.
The previous three seasons, the Mountaineers have heavily recruited the fourteen JUCO colleges in Mississippi to fill their roster. WVU does this for multiple reasons, the primary one being these teams have a lot of talent. Every year these schools produce talented players such as Nick Fairley, LeGarrette Blount and Deion Branch.
Another reason Coach Dana Holgorsen and his staff recruit JUCOs is because the players are more experienced after two additional seasons of football. The extra playing time also gives coaches more film to evaluate to make sure they’re making the right recruiting decisions. These players have also proven that they can academically succeed in college and can survive away from home. All these factors often make JUCO signees more likely to be successful on a four year campus than an 18 year old recruit coming from high school.
Another incentive of using so many JUCO players is the ability to fill positions of need with more developed recruits. When West Virginia has positions that are inexperienced, lack depth or need better talent they can recruit JUCO players to that position. Coaches can fill talent gaps with players that have two years of additional playing time on their resume instead of using freshman.
Take for instance two years ago when Wendell Smallwood decided to leave early for the NFL. West Virginia had concerns about depth so they went out and signed Justin Crawford from Northwest Mississippi Community
College. With Crawford contributing 2,244 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns while earning 2nd team All-Big 12 in 2017, it is easy to say that he filled that gap well.
Players on the 2017 roster from the Mississippi JUCOs include Jalen Harvey, Ezekiel Rose, Quondarius Qualls and the aforementioned Justin Crawford. The Mountaineers already have a verbal commitment for the 2018 class from Joshua Norwood, a defensive back from Northwest Mississippi Community
With West Virginia having so much success with other JUCO players over the years, from the White brothers to Bruce Irvin it makes it easy for WVU to recruit in Mississippi. The strong athletic and academic departments in Morgantown give these students the chance to continue their academic and
athletic progress. It is a mutually beneficial relationship where the Mountaineers add quality players at positions of need while giving student athletes a second chance of living out their dream.