By Scott Walters
SCOOBA — East Mississippi Community College football coach Buddy Stephens watched a private screening of the Netflix documentary “Last Chance U” in April with anticipation and nervousness.
Deep down inside, the ninth-year head coach probably knew what he was about to see.
The six-part documentary was a behind-the-scenes look at the national power EMCC football program. It showed the good, the bad, and the ugly. More than 82 million views took place in the first week after the July 28 debut.
The series also has been renewed for a second season, which begins Thursday when No. 1 EMCC plays at Jones Junior College.
“After watching the program, I knew we had to change some things,” Stephens said. “I knew personally I had to change some things. We had to do some things differently.”
Stephens has built a program with an edge. The Lions have no hesitancy in running up the score. There is an attitude and an arrogance with EMCC found nowhere else in the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC).
On the field, the Lions have backed up that attitude with results. Stephens has compiled a 76-11 record, with the school’s first three National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championships and four MACJC state championships. The Lions have won seven MACJC North Division titles and four bowl games. EMCC saw the nation’s second-longest winning streak snapped at 25 games last season with a second-week loss at Copiah-Lincoln C.C.
The documentary showed all aspects of the EMCC program, from doing community service, to learning in the classroom, to going out socially, to training in the weight room, to working on the practice field, to playing in games.
The “in-your-face” style was prevalent as the wins mounted. Also prevalent was foul language and other potential detractions to the program.
Stephens, EMCC President Dr. Thomas Huebner, and EMCC Athletics Director Randall Bradberry attended the early screening. Stephens took pride in the positives of his program and admits the documentary was “fair and representative” of the program.
The documentary included Stephens being suspended one game for an on-the-field altercation with an official during a 48-24 home victory against Itawamba C.C. and the team being banned from the MACJC playoffs for a benches-clearing brawl in the final game of the regular season — a 48-0 victory against Mississippi Delta C.C. in a game halted in the final minute of the first half.
As time passed, Stephens began to investigate the inner workings of his program in more detail.
“I talked to the lady at Chevron,” Stephens said. “I asked how my players acted when they came in to make purchases. I talked to custodians. I talked to other coaches who I really believe and confide in. I talked with my family. I counseled with my pastor, deacons, fellow church members. This was a deep, exhaustive look at the program as a whole and myself as an individual.”
One person who reached out to Stephens was his pastor, Michael Bird, of Midway Baptist Church in Meridian. Bird counseled Stephens at a McAlister’s Restaurant. After the pastor left, Stephens did additional soul searching and accepted Christ into his heart. A public profession of faith was made at the church that weekend — five days before the Netflix series went over the air.
“I realized as a 50-year-old man I have never accepted Christ as my savior,” Stephens said. “To be able to say that has now happened is extraordinary. It didn’t come about because of this, but it came about because of the reality that this caused. It has helped me. The commitment to my religious faith has helped me make a change as a person and it has helped us change things as a program as a whole. For you to look at what happened to us last season, if you were not to make changes, that would be stupid.
“Each day, we watch film and make corrections. What am I saying to my guys if I can’t make changes myself?”
Bradberry took over as the EMCC athletics director in January. A longtime football coach in the MACJC, Bradberry understands the challenges Stephens faces on a daily basis. He also had viewed the program from a far and heard the negative ramblings around the state.
“I have always viewed it as the people who run down your program the most are simply jealous,” Bradberry said. “Each day that passes, I have more and more respect for coach Stephens. I respect his ability to mold a bunch of young men and make them who they are in the adult world. I admire his football knowledge. The success he has had is unprecedented in this league.”
EMCC will begin the season ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Lions are odds-on favorites to win a third national title in four seasons. After being defiant in December and saying no major changes were coming to the program, Stephens has softened his stance. Changes are coming, but they will be subtle and behavior-related. Not much should change on the field.
“We are going to be the same football program,” Stephens said. “I will be mad at the same things I have always been mad at. However, we are going to approach things with a different demeanor. I am in a better place than I have been at in my whole career.”
EMCC sophomore running back and former Starkville High School standout Jacquez Horsley has been a part of the transformation.
“Coach hasn’t lost his edge,” Horsley said. “He is still the most competitive person I have ever met. But sometimes, you see him pause and think. You can tell he has put a lot of energy into getting over last year. As players, we just want to play. It has always been an us-against-the-world mentality around here. I don’t think that changes. However, you can definitely feel something different going on around here.”
Stephens said the disappointment of how last season ended was similar to the disappointment of the 2012 season. After winning the national title in 2011, EMCC won eight straight to start that season before losing to Itawamba C.C. in the regular-season finale and Copiah-Lincoln C.C. in the playoffs. Back-to-back 12-0 seasons followed, before the bitter ending to 2015.
“Anytime your season ends on a sour note, the next year comes with some added importance to do a little more,” Stephens said. “You want to work a little harder. As a coach, you have to shut up and let last year go. However, you have to learn from it. We have a great platform for growth and for teaching moments. Sometimes, you have to bring up the past. This year was different in that I did a lot of the learning myself.”
The documentary brought home several points to Stephens. Now, cussing is at minimum. Stephens has offered the team five pushups for each cuss word in practice.
“I was not a great son of God,” Stephens said. “I was not a very humble person. So you say, ‘How do you change those things?’ I realized I can’t make those changes. I have to let God take over. I can only hold so much of the rope. There are things I should have been more responsible for. There are teaching moments for me with my interaction with officials. When you can watch yourself on a video, you see it unfiltered and uncut. If you don’t like that, this is your chance. (Longtime) coach Dennis Franchione always videotaped coaches interacting with players. I always thought that was a great idea. I am not too big a person to say, ‘Hey we got to do something different.’ ”
In meetings, Stephens has worked with coaches to discuss what happens if a fight breaks out during a game. In practice, Stephens has orchestrated altercations between players so everyone knows how to react.
“Each year, you have to assess your program, you have to figure out how you can do things better,” Huebner said. “You can never quit getting better. You have to learn, adjust, adapt. I think our coaches have done a great job of accepting responsibility for some of the things from last season and making sure we move forward as a program.”
Stephens admits the altercation with the official — which led to a one-game suspension for himself — was a huge mistake. He admits he even briefly thought about the possibility of losing his job.
“We have a wonderful program here,” Stephens said. “We do things the right way. Personally, I am thankful for (former EMCC president) Dr. (Rick) Young, for giving me this opportunity and for giving me the resources I need to do the job right. This year is about redemption. We have a huge chip on our shoulders. We have more fans because of the documentary. We have more people who don’t like us because of the documentary. All we can control is what happens on that field. It has felt like forever waiting for September 1st to get here.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.