- LaTonya Pinkard was an important part of the third season of Last Chance U, serving in the mentor/counselor role. She spoke to SI about teaching in front of the cameras and the work she's done at Independence.
“I’m Brittany Wagner, man,” Independence Community College head coach Jason Brown tells a reporter midway through the first episode of Last Chance U’s third season. In that casual self-appointment, Brown gives the show’s longtime fans a friendly warning: Wagner, the beloved academic advisor who was the breakout star of the Netflix docuseries’s first two seasons at East Mississippi Community College, isn’t anywhere to be found around this fledgling southeastern Kansas Juco football power.
In her place, it’s on the Independence coaches to keep their players from falling behind in class and staying on track to transfer back to a higher level of college football. But they get plenty of help in season 3 from associate English professor LaTonya Pinkard, who holds down Wagner’s roles of academic compass, voice of reason and ad hoc therapist within a formal classroom setting, producing some of the season’s more memorable connections and quotes.
Pinkard, who has spent the last four years at Independence after stints at Georgia Perimeter College and Kennesaw State University, had not seen the first two seasons of the show before the camera crews showed up on campus but was extremely complimentary of the job they did in capturing the junior college experience. Earlier this week, while she was still working through the episodes for the first time (“There are some scenes I’ve had to relive, and it’s hard. So I’m slowly getting through it.”), she spoke with SI.com about the aspects of Juco life Last Chance U does and doesn’t spend time on, her role on the show and how she’d improve the support network for players whose mistakes and misfortunes take them to places like Independence.
Eric Single: How did you end up at Independence?
LaTonya Pinkard: One day I was sitting at home and I thought, you know, I need a change in my life. And so I began to pray, and I asked God, ‘Place me somewhere where I can be a benefit to others and professionally grow myself.’ And so I started searching, and Independence and I, we’ve come together. It’s been a beautiful blend ever since.
ES: Did you feel the effect of the absence of a non-coach academic advisor around the football program?
LP: I don’t see a difference without that athletic-academic coach because the coaches do such a wonderful job with monitoring their students, making sure that they are in class, and there are consequences if they are late for class, and so they really do a good job with assisting that role for students. And we also have advisors on campus that are designated for athletes, so I can say that we’re not really missing that element because we have so many people that are equipped to handle this.
ES: Given the context of the show, did you feel compelled to take on that mentor/counselor role?
LP: I’ve been doing this since I got there, so it’s nothing new. Matter of fact, what you see on the show is actually less than what I’ve been doing, so this is what I do.
I see myself as not only just an academic coach but as a cheerleader in the classroom and on the field, and I’ve told some students, ‘It’s hard for me to cheer for you on the field if you’re not doing well in the classroom.’ They have to be in concert.
ES: It sounds easy enough for every teacher to be like that, but what drove you to take on that classroom personality?
LP: It’s coming from the heart. I can’t say something that is not organic, it’s what I do. And because I have two young men, I understand what they’re going through, not only as a mother but as an educator. I see the struggles, I know the struggles, I’m in the struggles, so I’m very much aware of what’s going on in many of their lives, and any way that I can help my student or anyone else, I am right there. And I’ll tell them in the classroom, you’re gonna fight me on this, I’m gonna fight you right back and get you to another level. Just brace for it. Because I want to see your success.
ES: What was it like teaching with cameras around?
LP: After the first day, it became second nature. The Netflix crew, they were so professional, and they just weaved in and out, and you forgot that they were there.
But I will say, the first time they came to my home to interview me, I didn’t know they cut the air conditioner off. And I’m cooking, and I’m wondering, why am I so hot? Is this what they feel like on those cooking shows? That was the most challenging, not knowing the air conditioning was off and I’m sweating like a fool trying to figure out why.
ES: Linebacker Bobby Bruce is arguably the most powerful storyline of Season 3. In your experience, are guys like Bobby that go through that much adversity the exception to the rule, or is everyone going through a degree of the struggles he faced?
LP: I would say he was a bit of an exception to the rule a little bit, but everyone goes through stuff, and because he reached out to me and because I knew him from previous classes, we migrated more toward each other. Because he did open up to me, he allowed me to come in to assist, to help, to talk, to mentor, just to be that person.
Actually, the first day of class, I was surprised to see him come through because I hadn’t checked my roster to see who had registered late or what have you, so when he walked in, I was shocked. ‘Oh, Mr. Bruce, you’re here!” During the season, I had a few students, they would come in to class and have a seat, and I don’t mind that because they may learn something else that day.
ES: Of your many memorable lines, I especially liked your analogy about, for a lot players, football being the ‘main chick’ and academics and the other stuff being the ‘side chick’. What or who is most responsible for that relationship? Is it something about the system, or is it a common error in judgment those guys are making?
LP: It could be a common error in judgment, and I said this on the show, because their sport, it has consumed their life, that nothing else really matters. The only way I could think to put that for it to be understood was the main chick/side chick. You can’t pick both of them because one will fail, so you have to really pick your poison to see which one will get you to the most success, and that’s the one you go with. But if you do more for one and not the other, you’re going to fail. I believe it’s just judgment, what they’re used to, and what they have to deprogram themselves not to be used to can be a challenge. And then that’s where I come in.
ES: What percentage of football players that come through this route understanding this is their last chance still need a wake-up call as far as how much this other stuff matters?
LP: It’s hard to quantify that, it really is. I would say quite a few come in still thinking that they can slip through the cracks or not be noticed and just play football and get away with not doing much of anything, and want everything. They’re used to that coming from high school. And like I tell them, this is a different world. You’re in college now, we don’t have time for that little game. I don’t know what you’re used to, but you have to work in here and in many other classes on campus. So a lot of them will come in with that mentality, that, ‘Oh I just need to do a little bit to get by,’ and that’s not the case. And so it is really a jolt to their systems when you have to put forth a lot of effort and a lot of time to work. And because they’re athletes, their schedule is wild. And I’m impressed by what they can do. And so when they come to me and say, ‘Oh I can’t do this and I can’t do that,’ the first thing that I’ll say is, ‘No, you can. If you’re able to learn a play, remember this play, execute this play on a field with people watching you, you can learn grammar, you can learn math. You’re just not putting the time into learning it.
ES: If you could change one aspect of the relationship between jucos and four-year colleges and the system that these guys are using as a stepping stone to someplace else, what would you change?
LP: I would add some sort of program where if you have been redshirted. Most people come in as the big fish in the pond, and so when you come in and you’re a guppy among other fish, it’s hard. And so if you had to become a redshirt or you’ve been cut at whatever level you are, there should be something in place for these athletes to say, ‘Hey, you’re more than football. Let’s reinvent you and figure out where we going to go.’ But I would add something to get them prepared for, ‘O.K. that didn’t work out. What else do you want to do and be successful at it?’
Most of them, when they become a redshirt, there’s almost a wave of depression that comes through. And even though they may play the next season, in this moment they don’t see that, and most of them want to quit.
ES: What have you heard from other people about your role in the show?
LP: I have been filled. I’m on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, email, and I have been filled with nothing but love and appreciation and acknowledgment and recognition. I am so truly humbled by it. So many people love the series, love what’s being portrayed with the growth of the students, and how the coaches play a part in the students’ life, how academics play a part in the students’ life. But for myself, I’m so humbled right now. I’m so grateful I can make an impact as an educator.
ES: Did you feel any obligation that you were supposed to follow Brittany Wagner’s shoes in any way as a character in the show?
LP: No sir, not at all. Before the show came out, before I even knew about the show, I’ve been doing this. And so what they show now is just a snippet of what I’ve been doing.
One evening the power went off in the kitchen or something happened, and they sent the football players sandwiches and beverages or something. And I thought, “Wait a minute, there’s some big ol’ football players eating sandwiches. I can’t have this.” So I whipped up two pans of spaghetti, got some bread and I talked to [defensive lineman Emmit Gooden], I said, “Emmit, I’m bringing two pans of spaghetti. Please share.” So I’ve been doing this, so I don’t feel like there’s an obligation or I had to step up to a role. This is something I’ve been doing.