10 | COMMUNITY COLLEGE JOURNAL AACC.NCHE.EDU
I am the president of Last Chance U. Really.
When I started as the president of East
Mississippi Community College (EMCC)
in July 2015 I was aware the institution
had been approached by Condé Nast—
the media company best known for GQ,
Glamour, The New Yorker, other well-known magazines—about the possibility
of being the subject of a documentary
series associated with our football program. A small number of personnel had
traveled to meet with executives in Los
Angeles, I was told, and all we needed to
do was sign a release to make it official.
Nothing about those two items made
me comfortable about the prospect of
walking into an institution as the new
president. My instinct, as you can imagine,
was to kill the deal. But…..
After reviewing documents with
our general legal counsel, I secured the
services of an attorney who specializes
in entertainment law. I had dozens of
conversations with the executive producer
from Condé Nast, the production director,
my personnel and a variety of colleagues
in higher education. I talked to friends
and former students in the film industry
in an attempt to get the inside scoop on
the individuals involved with the project.
I spent countless hours watching, literally,
anything I could find online associated
with any of the names of the people who
would be involved in the project. I even
checked the Facebook pages of the key
individuals associated with the production
to see if their public postings illuminated
their character in any particular direction.
I nervously stepped out, negotiations
were good, and I made the plunge. Greg
Whitely, the director of “Last Chance
U,” and his team arrived in Scooba,
Mississippi, and began the process of
filming. They happily followed a few
ground rules, which included turning off
the cameras when asked and not invading
the sacred space of the classroom unless
explicitly invited. They gathered hundreds,
probably thousands, of hours of footage.
I am often asked how they chose the
storylines and I can tell you they emerged
through the course of the semester as they
became acquainted with our students, our
personnel, our community and the deeply
moving stories woven throughout. They
didn’t arrive in Scooba with a script.
THE REALITY BEHIND REALITY TV
I do not want to sugarcoat reality. The
Scooba campus of EMCC, which was the
setting for “Last Chance U,” was founded
in 1927, is located in the rural, Deep South
in a county that has, for decades, struggled with poverty. We have approximately
1,000 students and nearly two thirds of
them live in residence halls. It’s hard to
commute to Scooba. People don’t believe
me when I tell them we are 30 minutes
from a McDonald’s, 45 minutes from a
Wal-Mart, and until recently, 25 minutes
from a Dollar General. Rural.
Our location, though, is an import-
ant part of the narrative. It allows us to
manage the experiences of our students;
to hold them accountable, and to expect
much from them. Within the city limits
of Scooba, our students build lifelong
relationships, learn to trust each other,
and learn what they are capable of doing
and being. And, make no mistake, they
are very capable.
The truth is always more complicated
than what can be revealed in a six-hour
Netflix documentary, though. While
certain scenes were difficult to watch and
the language was often tough to hear, the
cameras captured situations and people
as they were and are. Ronald Ollie, DJ
Law, John Franklin and Wyatt Roberts,
the players featured on “Last Chance U,”
along with their teammates are special
to EMCC and have it within them to be
world-changers on or off the football
field. I’m proud you got to meet them and
get a glimpse of what we see here daily.
Brittany Wagner, who recently left
us to pursue an opportunity in cor-
porate marketing, is a hardworking,
driven individual who approaches tasks
with passion and compassion. She lives
her work as it was written in her job
description but, more importantly, as
she understood it in her heart. Coach
Stephens didn’t become the best junior
college football coach in the country by
accident. He recruits hard, coaches hard,
expects the best from those around him,
and holds our student-athletes to high
standards. Believe it or not, he’s a very
sensitive person who embraces his role
as a mentor and a builder-of-character.
As he shares on film, sometimes you
have to show tough love. Pulling back
the curtain was gutsy, no doubt, but the
journey to success isn’t always pretty.
What about impacts? The attention has
been phenomenal. Our social media reach
exploded overnight and has garnered
the attention of hundreds of thousands.
We’ve almost become a regular “shout out”
on football broadcasts across America.
I was particularly pleased when Brent
Musburger and Jesse Palmer held up two
EMCC football jerseys during a nationally
Leadership in the spotlight
By Thomas M. Huebner, Jr.
Football games at East Mississippi Community College