Leadership in the spotlight

Thomas Huebner, Jr., president of East Mississippi Community College, and the crew of "Last Chance U." (Photo: EMCC)

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 important 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 corporate 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.

This article comes from the current issue of the Community College Journal, which has been published by the American Association of Community Colleges since 1930.​

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 televised game — that particular week we were mentioned on three different ESPN broadcasts.

Read the full article in Community College Journal online.

About the Author

Thomas M. Huebner, Jr.
is president of East Mississippi Community College.