Leadership at Last Chance U
Updated: Jun 11
There is a documentary series on Netflix titled Last Chance U. It is about a small community college in a small town in Mississippi with a big-time football program. The team is made up of superb athletes who have lost their scholarships after having been thrown (drugs, crime, behaviour) or flunked out of major universities. There are also a few younger men who are trying to get eligible for scholarship offers by improving their literally nonexistent grades out of high school. Fundamentally, great players, lousy students. There are lots of reasons for this equation and so many issues here but the one I am interested in addressing today is the role of the head coach and the academic advisor.
The head coach is a volcanic, driven and obsessive man. The advisor is a very organized kind, caring and perhaps overly friendly (is that a thing?) woman. The coach is paid to field a winning team, and they do win. In a fiercely competitive environment his teams win national championships (3 in the last 5 years.) There are nine players who played on his team in the NFL which is more than many college programs. He is successful in those terms. The advisor is successful too, in the sense that some of the young men do get their grades up and do receive the scholarship opportunities that are available to them because of their physical talents.
But this coach is abusive and demeaning. The practices are ferociously difficult. He is incredibly demanding and often berates his assistants in front of the team. He attacks officials, once even getting in a fist fight with one on the sideline. He constantly threatens his under performing players with phrases like, ‘we’ll put somebody else in if you can’t do the job’, or even outright dismissal from the team. The players do not seem to like him, the school or even playing ball in some cases. Yet, they win. And the scholarships are awarded. And the kids keep coming.
The advisor is a mother to the players. She encourages, hugs and tells them that she loves them. She helps them do their work, arranges supports if she can’t and even texts or calls them if they sleep in and miss class. She often disagrees with their attitudes towards relationships, education and even each other, but in a calm and friendly way. They like her and hang around her office constantly. Yet I don’t know if she is any more successful than the head coach. Some listen and work, some don’t. There is only the grade point average to judge her by and many do not succeed.
I am a head football coach and an academic advisor, so of course, I see myself in these people in ways that are both good and bad.
You have probably worked with someone like Brittany (the advisor) in that she believes that servant leadership is the most effective model. That leaders facilitate the growth and efforts of their staff, students or players. They do not hector or dictate. I would like to believe that is true. I have tried to lead like that when given the opportunity and responsibility. Personality has a lot to do with it, granted, but it is hard not to understand the reasoning behind this approach. Helping others succeed no matter where they start is the root of this philosophy.
Yet you might have had a boss like Buddy (that’s the coach’s name) too. Demanding and irascible. Uncompromising and difficult. They believe the industry you are in is difficult and competitive and that we cannot expect success if we do not recognize and work to that reality. You might have been told “get on the bus or get off,” by this person. And, this person might be rich and influential because their business makes money. They are successful in the societal sense of the word. Like Buddy.
I have been him. I have been hard on my players. Very hard. I have yelled at them. (I don’t yell at students in the classroom. It doesn’t work and many of them are only there because they have to be. I can’t imagine being as demanding in the classroom. Our system just does not allow it. Which is a either a problem or a blessing depending on your perspective. You have got to try and inspire them.) I am extremely challenging at times and I will pull a player if he will not do as he is coached. I have gotten into it with officials. Hard to know how to feel about that in retrospect. But we are a small school with an affluent clientele. Football is a difficult sell here at times. And we win. And send many players to university with football scholarship money in their pockets.
One of the hardest parts about being a leader is distinguishing the interests of the organization from those of the individuals in it. A leader like Buddy’s imperative is different than Brittany’s. He must win a team game in a tough profession. She has each student to shepherd through the process. And, importantly, if a lot of students fail, she gets to keep her job. If the team loses too many times, he doesn’t.
I know there are leaders like Buddy and like Brittany. There are also many of us in between. They aren’t stereotypes. They are real and complex people, but they represent something. If you watch the show and you have leadership responsibilities you should. You may end up thinking long and hard about how you do it.