“You go to get out” is the purpose of the East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) Football Programme. Based in Scooba, Mississippi, the team is documented in the Netflix series Last Chance U. The team is a concoction of football players of which some have not got into or have been released from Division 1 college football teams often due to disciplinary issues or sub par academic performance.
This article gives the perspective of an analyst on the programme; how they set up their roles and responsibilities, comparing contextual factors, how they build relationships and how they feedback to the athletes.
The programme is led by the passionate Buddy Stephens. A fiery character who took over the programme 8 years before the beginning of the first series who described their goal as “Have a winning record, that’s the number one goal“. He has employed an aggressive recruitment strategy, recruiting talented athletes that other schools won’t, that has resulted in them having a very strong team in the NJCAA, winning national championships in 2011, 2013 and 2014 and conference titles 5 times since 2009.

Like most elements of sports science, analysis also requires a needs analysis. Although the individual’s goals are to “Go to get out”, the team’s and programme’s primary goal is to win the NJCAA national championship. They have secondary goals of getting the players into division 1 schools and developing players as individuals, but these sit below winning each and every football game by as much as possible. This is highlighted in Stephens stating things like “We don’t have time for a quarterback to grow, we just don’t” and “Does that mean I have to win by more? If so, I’ll do that” The other contextual factors of this programme is how short the season is, in 2017 it is from 31st August to 4th December, just over 3 full months and the large squad size of 55 athletes. With these elements in mind, that is why you’ll find football coaches in particular to be more authoritarian in their approach compared to most other sports coaches.
The coaches used previous games against their next opponents frequently through out the show as an indicator of the opponents difficultly level. “The last loss we had was to Co-Lin in 2012 and the last two losses they’ve had came by us last year.” – Marcus Wood, Offensive Co-Ordinator. Previous results have a strong correlation with how good opposition will be and perhaps a barometer of how motivated they may be based on the circumstances of that last result. This comes through in the final game of season 1 against Mississippi Delta, where Marcus Woods show the opposition hitting after the whistle, seeking fights and giving (non-)actions to his players to do.

This use of video, enhanced the need to know and confidence of the players in the information about to be provided. Woods actually described the actions to do first before describing why those actions were so important. The players did respond to this and remained disciplined for a time. This was a great use of analysis, it was delivered to the players as a team, that brought a responsibility of the group to look after their discipline. The players then began leading each other on this part of their game plan, not just from the coaches. This was a great bit of targeting the outcome with their analysis. They wanted the players to be on point with their discipline, they related the story to a bible story – which is very powerful in a deep southern state like Mississippi, they gave them video examples of what to expect and gave them example actions to implement. The various stimuli enhanced the impact of the feedback and instruction and resulted in the players having better discipline… although not quite enough. 
Another use of pre-game analysis was to identify key threats in the opposition, such as Justin Crawford, running back for Northwest Mississippi. Again, this has positive and negative affects to be wary of. On the downside, seeing clips of an opposition player tearing up is going to do little to help your confidence but will increase the players awareness of the need to shut that threat down. What is required to make it have a positive effect on performance, is to follow it up with an instruction that will lead to said threat being nullified. Jordan Lesley, Defensive Co-Ordintor said “We’ve got to make our tackles” showing that East Mississippi did use that follow up but the more specific would be better as I’m sure the defence don’t deliberately miss tackles. They may well have gone into more detail on what intervention to do, but it was not documented in the show.

In Game
In game, coaches typically have 3 roles.

  1. Observing
  2. Logistical
  3. Influencing

Elements always crossover and they’ll have different roles at different periods of the game, but usually at a given time they’re prioritising those roles. For coaches primarily interested in optimising observing as Quarterback Coach – Clint Trickett does, they generally situate themselves up in a tower to the side of the pitch, giving themselves the best view possible. Sometimes that view can be useful from behind as well as it makes the player’s perspective more relatable but has more impaired vision and reduces overall information collected while observing. It is very frustrating hearing how many times Arsene Wenger and other Premier League managers have said “I couldn’t see the incident from the dugout” and none have prioritised finding a better angle to watch the match from, obviously they’re avoiding the question from the reporter too.
If you are interested in observing the game to give the most accurate and reliable feedback, get in the best position to view the game as possible. If you are in charge of a specific role, there may be better positions for you than others. For example, a goalkeeper coach in association football may be best suited to behind the goal, preferably with a bit of height. That will allow you to have the same perspective and increase your empathy for him and what he sees.
There needs to be people on the touchline for logistical purposes. Co-ordinating substitutions, giving feedback and instruction to replacements and players on the field. You should consider if you and your athletes value who delivers the message over what the message is. In rugby, you’ll find most coaches in the stand, with a laptop in front of them so they can watch replays of what they want. The person delivering the messages is often the physiotherapist or strength and conditioning coach bringing on water. There is cases such as the Irish rugby team, the skills and kicking coach delivers messages to the players.  In the case of East Mississippi and many others, there is a headset communication system that allows coaches to communicate freely. If a communication system like that is out of your club’s budget, then you can use your phone to communicate with each other freely.
The reason Stephens is on the touchline is not logistical, it is so he can have maximum influence on the match. Stephens uses the opportunity on the sidelines to provide feedback to his players, both positive and negative. With him on the touchline, the athletes are likely more focused and most on edge, hopefully improving performance. The other people he is influencing, often embarrassingly, is the officials. He is often seen screaming at them over calls they’ve made. At this junior college level, he is probably making an impact on the calls by intimidating officials, it possibly does help them get a 50/50 call, it could even lead to the team winning a game. But ethically it is definitely something I despise. If your goal is winning at all costs at underage level, then fair enough, I understand your action but I don’t understand your programme’s goal and the lows you’re willing to go to achieve that. 

Need to know
Due to the purpose of this football programme, the players are highly motivated when they’re doing football related activities. A standout for all coaches watching this programme will be how they can have a room that is deadly silent with 55 young males in it and numerous support staff.

That is due to the high “need to know”. Players realise that they need to be attentive and take it seriously if they want to become college or pro footballers and with that the coaches can get messages across to the whole team at once which is a very efficient. The other way they create this need to know is through vilifying the players for their mistakes. This causes players to have a high level of focus on what the coaches are saying, although certainly has its downsides on encouraging creativity. Again, the constraints of the large squad numbers and the short season have a bearing on the forms of communication they use.

This article will come off quite negative on the coaches. Stephens’ fiery, split second temper is obviously more interesting for the cameras and took up the majority of his airtime. He defends himself in USA today discussing elements that weren’t evident in the documentary. Also, parts where I call for more action, may well have happened but were not shown in show as they condensed a week or two of a football into a 50-65 minute show.

See part 2 here in a fortnight where we delve more specifically into the different forms of feedback that was given to players and the affect it had on them both as individuals and collectively. If you want to be notified of the next article and more like this one, please subscribe on the right or follow me on twitter @brianfitzp10.