Netflix’s Last Chance U is returning for a third season with a new look, moving to Independence Community College in Kansas with fiery coach Jason Brown.
Netflix’s Last Chance U pulled a reverse-Wizard of Oz for season three, which comes out Friday. “We’re in Kansas!” head coach Jason Brown yells during a season-opening speech to his Independence Community College team. An on-field encounter with a loose cow (and a local man chasing it with some sort of gun) soon after only further hammers home the point to both viewer and player.
Previously, the documentary series told the story of East Mississippi Community College, a powerhouse that took in players who had been unable to stick at top college programs, often for disciplinary or academic reasons. To keep the show fresh going into a third season, director Greg Whiteley and his team looked nationwide for the best potential stories, studying past rankings and recruiting service information to find the best candidates. “We looked at this ranking of the top 100 juco prospects. If you were a juggernaut like Eastern Mississippi, you’d have two … then there was this other school in Kansas that we’d never heard of, that as best we could tell had never appeared in the top 20, that had nine kids out of the top 100,” Whiteley said. “How could that be possible? So we reached out and got the coach on the phone. Five minutes into talking to him, we got it.”
Brown, described at one point as “a creature of pure testosterone,” gives the lead performance this season. He’s as profane as possible—the kind of guy who slams doors on his way out only to come back in to get another final word. He also physically fought his former boss and later described the altercation in front of cameras. What he’s not is the ideal role model for 100 young men learning to handle their own emotions, and yet he shows time and again that he cares about getting them on the right track. He’s joined by an eclectic group of players, led by quarterback Malik Henry, a transfer from Florida State who comes with a fraught relationship with his own father and an open willingness to criticize Brown at any point during a practice or game.
At Independence, Last Chance U is also able to document a program that went decades without a league title trying to earn local respect while hoping to build itself into the next EMCC. That different angle excited the crew, but as they explain it, it’s clear they think Last Chance U could tell stories well beyond the format it has used for three years. This season also includes a one-episode update from EMCC, for instance. In the future, the series could document past LCU stars training for the NFL draft or becoming coaches themselves.
“It’s really not about football, even,” executive producer Joe LaBracio said. “It’s people who have life stories that you can relate to and who have really fought for what they want to get … it’s a system and a subculture you haven’t seen before. Those stories are universal and you could expand to other sports and mine those stories as well.”
As Season 3 proves, at the core of Last Chance U are the eternal struggles of becoming a man and being one. In fact, one of the most emotionally rewarding subplots from the whole season centers around a student not on any team. That universal storyline is what makes the franchise so valuable for Netflix. Without hosting actual games (and with no plans to), the service is still able to offer something for sports fans, something with a much longer shelf life than any game. Netflix is reportedly adding to that collection, hiring LaBracio’s Condé Nast Entertainment to produce a behind-the-scenes documentary about India’s most successful cricket team. Amazon has followed a similar strategy, with an All or Nothing series that has focused on teams around the world, and an upcoming documentary on the World Cup champion French national team. “Every company in town is saying, What’s our Last Chance U?” LaBracio said.
There might be more actual football in this season of LCU than any previous, as the crew was lucky enough to be on hand for a string of down-to-the-wire contests. And it’s worth noting that while Whiteley, LaBracio and executive producer Lucas Smith all said they were proud of how the series’ universal themes connected with non-sports fans, one of the biggest lessons each has learned was related to one of the sporting world’s biggest debates.
“I’m not sure how strong of an opinion I had prior to making this show over whether kids should get paid,” Whiteley said. “I now feel very strongly it’s not a fair trade. For one, I don’t think football players in particular, even at a juco level, are able to be normal students …. I think it’s radically unfair to not compensate these athletes in some way.”
Whiteley has stayed committed to a fly-on-the-wall style rather than veering towards op-ed, and yet he’s hopeful that if he can reflect the athletes’ situation accurately enough, compellingly enough, to enough people, maybe he could have an influence. Maybe in Kansas, they could prove that the NCAA is just the man behind the curtain.