‘Last Chance U’ Director Greg Whiteley On What Makes Season Five The Best Yet

Though I didn’t know his name until recently, Greg Whiteley has been responsible for countless hours of my Netflix binging. Thirsty for something that would fill the Hard Knocks-sized hole in my television needs, I stumbled first upon QB1 (a documentary series about high school quarterbacks) and eventually a show Whiteley directs, Last Chance U, a series following a junior college football program.

There were colorful characters trying to fight their way into a Division I scholarship, school faculty desperately trying to get players to attend class and stay eligible, and an overweight loudmouth of a coach who seemed either like an unlikely mentor or an abusive tyrant, depending on the day. That goes for both coach Buddy Stephens of EMCC in Scooba, Mississippi in seasons one and two, and coach Jason Brown of ICC in Independence, Kansas in seasons three and four. Stephens was a Bible-thumping good ol’ boy and Brown a foul-mouthed, angry white boy ex-QB from Compton, but spiritually they were similar. Dare I say it, the show was even more addictive than Hard Knocks, the series that led me to it in the first place.

After that was Cheer, an arguably even more addictive series about a cheerleading team, also produced and directed by Greg Whiteley. Now Last Chance U is back with season five, following coach John Beam and the Laney College Eagles of Oakland, another team that is somehow both the exact opposite of previous Last Chance U teams and exactly the same. They’ve traded small towns in the south and Midwest for a gentrifying Oakland, dorms for commuters, fat white coaches for a skinny half-Korean one, and yet it’s still the same emotional ride, with a coach whose depiction alternates between “great guy helping the youth succeed” and “insufferable wet blanket asshole.”

As always, shooting it seems like a massive undertaking. I spoke to Greg Whiteley this week about how the sausage gets made, how colleges should treat their student-athletes, and the mixed emotions of being a football fan knowing what we know in 2020.

In terms of which characters you focus on, is that something that you decide on before the season?

We usually make it in the first two or three days that we’re there. There are two or three people, four or five people that will pop during that first week of practices. There’s some pretty big debates that will happen in the hotel lobby at night over who those four or five players should be. Usually, at the end of the first week, there are about 10 people that are kind of on your list, but in my mind, there’s always a top five. Strangely in the five seasons that we’ve been doing that show, those top five have typically been the five that we end up focusing on.

How many hours a day are you shooting your main characters?

Well, we can’t go past a 12-hour shoot day and that includes travel time. I don’t know. Do the math. If you got two crews doing 12 hours, you’re not spending all 12 hours with one single person or it’s rare that you would ever do that. You’re doing your best you can to be in contact with the people that you are focusing on and learning their schedule. Somebody might be getting a haircut one day. Somebody might be going to a job interview. The other one might have an important final that they’re taking. The other one might be a meeting with Coach Beam to discuss their future. We are constantly looking for what are different events that are going to move this particular person’s story forward.

Then when you’re filming them in class, is it up to the teacher?

It’s always up to the teacher. When we get an idea of who our main subjects are going to be, we’ll get their schedules, then we’ll go and meet with those teachers. A football schedule is so demanding that a lot of times there’s a few select classes that the coaches really want players to take because it takes into account team meeting times, lifting times and all that stuff. Invariably, there’s a handful of teachers that ended up being teachers for all of the athletes with some exceptions, but we just always go and meet with those teachers. Sometimes the teacher is just not interested, they don’t want us in the classroom. We always respect that.

How do you choose which teams that you want to feature in the series?

Well, it’s sort of a combination of who will have us and who will let us come and give us the kind of access that we need to do this show. We’re also looking at things like, where have we been before? How is this place different? When we meet the coach, do you get the impression that they’re excited about doing the show? Because it’s a lot to ask of that coach to open up their program to us. Occasionally, we’ll meet with a coach and we can sense that there’s some hesitancy. I’ve learned the hard way to go where people want you to be and you’ll have a better show.

How do you think the season is different from the past few? Were there any new challenges for you?

We’ve never been someplace where there was no student housing, no central place where all the players live. Which was always a great advantage because after practice, we always knew where to find players, particularly in towns like Scooba and Independence where there wasn’t much to do. Oakland, we had to really be in close contact with everybody that we were following to know where they were going to be when they weren’t practicing football. That was a unique challenge.

Where are they all coming from?

I would say most were coming from what I would consider far away, sometimes as far away as two hours by commute each way. A lot of that was a function of… Back in the day in the ’70s and ’80s, everybody that was going to Laney Community College lived probably relatively within walking distance of Laney. That’s not true anymore. The cost of living has risen so much in the city of Oakland that the types of kids that are going and playing football at Laney are typically living, like I said, one to two hours away.

What were the things that you found compelling about shooting in Oakland?

Well, Oakland has such a rich history in sports and it has such a rich social justice history, which in our series those two themes seem to intersect a lot, so it was really was a good fit.

You say you choose who you’re going to feature on these a lot by the coaches. I feel like I always have a similar arc with the coaches, where I start out liking them. Then three or four episodes in I start thinking, oh man, I hate this guy. What kind of personality do you think that job requires and what types of people does it attract?

I think your experience probably mimics the experience of what players go through. I think a football season, it’s hard. I think football is a difficult sport, both physically and mentally. You’re asking a lot of an athlete in order to be able to do what you need that athlete do to put your team in the best position to win. As a result, there’s this culture of football that has developed where coaches will say and do things to players that you would never see a human being do in other academic spheres. You don’t see an English teacher yelling at someone in the same way a football coach yells at a player. Even in most other sports you don’t see that that kind of intensity.

I think it’s important to remember that these coaches, they grew up playing football. They’re a product of that culture themselves. Most of these players have played it most of their lives. This is not something that comes as a complete surprise to them. I think sometimes coaches will reach a level of intensity that even they themselves would admit crosses the line. Players were probably surprised by that. We were surprised by that because none of us were college football players that are making the show, but I’ve learned to be careful to not to judge these people too harshly. I try to shoot it with a cold eye and try to explain the context for why a coach or a player is behaving the way that they are in a way that an audience can empathize with. I feel like we try to be fair to this main subject who’s trusted us to tell their story.

When you’re there with them in those really intense moments, is it ever intimidating trying to get that shot?

Wherever we’ve gone and whoever is going to be on camera with us, we explain what we’re doing. We aren’t going to back away whenever there is a heated moment. That’s part of the show. If you’ve seen the show, they understand that. No. I’m not intimidated. I just sort of take that as part of my job.

There haven’t been moments where maybe you’re filming and they yell at you to leave or tell you to get out of there or something?

Oh, yeah. That’s happened.

Do you just respect that when it happens?

Yeah. We do. I try and go and talk to the coaches. The coaches that we’ve filmed have been really great about it. I would say more so in seasons one and two. I can’t ever remember a moment in seasons three or four or even five, but there were a couple of times in which a coach did not want us there. We always respected that, but it always prompted a conversation later saying, listen, this is what you signed up for. You’ve got to tell me, what are we doing wrong as a film crew? Are we somehow in the way? Can we change things so that you can allow us to be here that isn’t going to compromise your job? I felt like in every instance we had those conversations, it was really productive. Moving forward, we were able to get the moment that we felt like we needed to get to properly tell the story.

I also watched Cheer, another show you did. How do you compare shooting the two shows?

Football is different because there seems to be an easy chapter marker each week when you have a game. For us, the structure of the show was you have this main character. If something really good or really bad happens to them in this game, we could spend a lot of time on that episode going into that person’s story. With Cheer, there is one contest at the end. We felt like we had to do a lot more explaining to the audience just what cheer is because I don’t think your general population understood competitive cheerleading in the same way that your typical audience would understand football. That was fun. That was fun to expend some time explaining that because it’s an interesting story. The history is interesting. I didn’t know it before I started it. It was challenging to figure out, well, what’s the format of that show? But there was also a lot of similarities. They’re both very intense, very dedicated, focused, and top athletes. When you’re filming intense people who have a lot at stake, that’s a good recipe for compelling viewing.

Has doing Last Chance U affected your feelings about football? Do you find yourself liking it any more or less after having been around it so much?

I feel much stronger than I did before I began making the show that something had to be done at the collegiate level to… How should I put this? Here’s maybe the most efficient way I could put it: I think historically there is an exchange that’s being offered between a student-athlete and its institution. The exchange is, we will give you an education. We’ll educate you and you’ll play football for us. In return, you get that education for free. You can look at education as having some very long-term benefits. I think the sport of football in particular… You can maybe even argue basketball as well. It has grown. It’s grown in such a way that the demands of that sport are such that I think the educational component of it has been compromised. What the university is offering back to these kids is not the same deal it once was. You can’t be a normal college student like I was and take advantage of all a university has to offer and still be competitive as a football player. The demands of that activity are so severe. People know this. People that are now showing up with their scholarship in hand to play at a Power Five school say, they’re there largely to major in football. Given that, I think somebody’s got to do something to make that trade equitable. If an institution is making money off of the sacrifice and efforts of a young student-athlete, they need to be compensated for it.

On that note, how much does this COVID stuff bum you out? We talk a lot about staying safe and everything, but I also think about all these athletes that are maybe missing out on these huge opportunities right now not being out there.

Yeah. Because I’ve seen up close how difficult it is to pursue that dream of one day playing in the NFL, that you could even make it all the way to a Power Five Division I school and still your odds of making it on a game day NFL roster are so slim that I hope… During COVID-19 frankly, I just hope that there’s a reevaluation of the whole thing. I think there are all kinds of things that we should rethink and that’s one of them.

Just how much effort we put into getting to that level?

Yeah. College football is this extremely popular thing. It’s popular on the backs of a demographic of people who are making a sacrifice that in some cases is severe, both from a physical sacrifice and a mental sacrifice. I think we’ve got to rethink how we’re compensating those people for making that sacrifice.

Do you struggle with that as a viewer? I know I do, as much as I love the entertainment of it.

Yeah. I feel conflicted. I’ve grown up a Seattle Seahawks fan. I think I’m just sort of hard-wired to look forward to a season and to watch a Seahawks game when it’s offered on Sunday. It’s been such a part of my life for so long, but I do feel conflicted that I never had considered how much more sacrifice those players are making to provide me entertainment. It has given me pause.

‘Last Chance U’ season five is now available on Netflix. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.