The Ins And Outs Of ‘Last Chance U’ With EMCC’s Dr. Thomas Huebner

How many college or university presidents have had to negotiate a television or digital rights deal during the first week on the job? Chances are, not too many. For Dr. Thomas Huebner, President of East Mississippi Community College, that’s exactly the circumstances he found himself in two summers ago as he discussed the terms of Last Chance U, a Netflix docuseries taking viewers behind-the-scenes of junior college football and for the past two years EMCC.

When Huebner assumed the presidential role on July 1, 2015, the “unprecedented project” had already been agreed to in principle, according to Huebner, but there still hadn’t been a signed agreement. Even with a strong disposition of Last Chance U coming to fruition, Huebner still “had the authority to pull the plug” on the entire deal.

With a career rooted in academia, and specifically communications, Huebner embarked on some grassroots homework before he green lit the docuseries. He coincidentally enough had former students and colleagues in media and communications who he tapped for research on members of the production staff and overall crew, including director Greg Whiteley and producer/director Adam Ridley.

“I wanted to make sure that they were going to treat the subject with integrity,” Huebner said to Sports Business Chronicle. “That didn’t necessarily mean I was always going to agree. Heck, I didn’t know what I was stepping into. Who does, though? … I wanted to make sure whatever they were doing would be done with a high level of integrity.”

Huebner watched all of Whiteley’s films, one of which was called Mitt and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections of the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. The other, titled Resolved, explored the high school policy debate world.

“There was always a sense of hope,” Huebner said of the Whiteley-produced projects. “There was always a sense of exploring. … There was the process that they used to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

“The more I learned about (Whiteley) personally, I learned that he had a strong sense of integrity and approached his craft as a professional who was trying to direct something that was excellent and not exploitive.”

With that perspective in hand coupled with extensive research and dozens of conversations, Huebner finally engaged with a local Mississippi lawyer well-versed in entertainment law. The possibility of national exposure, for the EMCC story to be told outside the small town of Scooba, Miss., was too great to pass up. Within five to six weeks of Huebner’s start date, he estimates, a deal had been signed for Netflix along with GQ publisher Conde Nast Entertainment, One Potato Productions and Endgame Entertainment to film the 2015 EMCC football season.

“Was I nervous? Yes, for the two years that they were on campus I was nervous,” laughed Huebner. “There’s a great risk in pulling back the curtain and allowing people to see behind the scenes. I knew there’d be great risk. But I also knew there could be great benefit for the institution.”

*****

In July 2016, the weekend following the launch of Season 1 of Last Chance U, the EMCC online bookstore had 59 sales. It seems like a relatively modest number on its face, but considering that the year prior that number was zero during the same time period, the impact was immediately felt, business and non-business related. Within two weeks, EMCC had sold apparel and school-branded items to consumers in all 50 states and two dozen countries. The 48 hours after the Season 2 release saw the bookstore receive 400 sales. In any given week, the store may close a handful of purchases, according to Huebner.

“It has its peaks and valleys but it hasn’t waned,” he said about the online sales.

Added Huebner: “We tried to be as prepared as possible about what would happen after Season 1 launched, but we could not have possibly prepared for it. It was incredible. From where I sit as the president, I can’t even begin to describe to people the impact on the institution.

“Our brand is one that is known — not only in Mississippi — but also now known all over the world.”

From the London Times, Sports Illustrated and New York Times to the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Sporting News, East Mississippi Community College was spreading across the globe.

“My personnel was being contacted to do interviews, radio, TV, newspapers, podcasts. I even did a nationally syndicated radio show. They wanted to talk with the nerd boy president,” he said.

By Season 2, Huebner and his staff knew they needed to tweak certain football-related operations, like giving fans the ability to purchase tickets online and post airport information on the revamped school and athletics website. On any given Thursday night, there’d now be fans traveling to the thousand-person town of Scooba, Miss. from all over the U.S., Canada and even Europe to fill Sullivan-Windham Field, which can seat upwards of 7,000 fans. Kemper County, where Scooba sits, is under 10,000 people so selling out EMCC games at maximum capacity is a monumental feat.

To put it into further context, Dollar General recently planted a flag in Scooba, with Huebner calling the move “huge.”

“You don’t even know,” he said of the store’s importance now. “Prior to that, we’re 45 minutes from Walmart. We’re 30-plus minutes from a McDonald’s. We’re 20 to 25 minutes from a grocery store, except Dollar General.”

Added Huebner of the rural Mississippi town: “It wasn’t made for TV.”

Throughout the last two years, he said the school has also received thousands of inquiries from high schoolers and junior college football players vying to play for coach Buddy Stephens, a hot-tempered central figure who was quickly recognized in the docuseries for his use of four-letter words.

Though he couldn’t provide specific data, Huebner said the school’s web viewership of football games also “skyrocketed” in addition to the traction across social. The athletic department’s Twitter account has tripled in followers from the start of the 2016 season (36,000-plus today) while the University’s Facebook page has more than doubled, too (about 20,000). Brittany Wagner, the former EMCC athletic academic counselor and star of Last Chance U, is nearing 90,000 Twitter followers of her own after beginning with just a few thousand in August 2015.

“The reach has been phenomenal,” Huebner said. “That has been unbelievable. I think raising awareness on what we do has been positive. … The funny part is with this whole moniker of Last Chance U, people think that’s the totality of what we are, and it’s not. We have a chance to impact students in a positive way. To be able to have that venue to tell that story has been very positive. It’s almost a reward for people who have worked so hard through the years, that people now know what we do.”

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On the business front, Huebner said he’s had numerous communications and interactions with CEOs of major corporations who were “moved by the work we do at EMCC,” with Wagner being the front-facing personality in Last Chance U. According to Huebner, one multi-national corporation he’s been in touch with, who he declined to name, said the Netflix film sparked a re-evaluation of the company’s overall marketing strategy.

During the filming of Season 2 in 2016, Huebner said the school had also been engaged by a handful of sports marketing agencies and professionals who wanted the opportunity to sell EMCC. Product placement was an unanticipated effect of the series, too. Huebner mentioned that adidas, who has been a two-year partner of EMCC Athletics, announced in August a three-year deal with the National Junior College Athletic Association, becoming the governing body’s Official Apparel, Footwear and Accessory brand.

“I don’t know if (the partnership) had anything to do with us, but I got to think it probably did,” said Huebner of the new relationship.

This summer, Netflix announced there’d be a third season of Last Chance U, but it’d be moved from Scooba, Miss. to Independence Community College in Kansas. Despite the change in primary location, Huebner said the production staff is still planning to film at EMCC and incorporate some elements into the next installment.

“Certainly, if we have a strong season and postseason, they will re-engage us more strongly at that point,” Huebner said about the possibility of Last Chance U returning to Mississippi.

*****

There were parts of Last Chance U that were good, bad and ugly, but “that’s life,” as Huebner said.

“I knew when people would watch it, they weren’t going to agree with everything they saw,” he added. “… I couldn’t say, ‘Hey, don’t put that in there’. … As long as they were true to their narrative, I was going to be OK with it.”

Heading into the docuseries release in 2016, Huebner knew there would be concerns about language, particularly about coach Stephens. Huebner said that based on getting to know director Greg Whiteley on a personal level that language was something he may struggle with in the film.

“That wasn’t something I was particularly proud of,” said Huebner of Stephens’ language. “However, you have to filter that kind of concern. It was probably more pronounced locally. Believe it or not, I personally received very little criticism about that, but I was well aware that the criticism was out there. I would tell people, ‘Hey, I don’t like it either’. But it’s a reflection of a reality. It gives us an idea of some things that we can work on. Interestingly, some people communicated that that part was authentic, reflected experiences that they’ve had and believed that was fundamentally an opportunity part for creating opportunities for change.”

After talking with Huebner for well over an hour, the general consensus of Last Chance U was that it was fairly produced, generated an unfathomable amount of awareness for EMCC and at its central core, shed a light on how junior colleges provide athletes and students an alternative option for education and athletics. Huebner said that 90 percent of his students will be first-generation college graduates during a time when state budget cuts are forcing schools like EMCC to adjust its operational and personnel costs and rely much more on local counties’ support along with tuition fees.

“While we’ve been heralded on television, we’ve also sustained one of the biggest budget cuts in the state’s history for community colleges,” he explained. “State support for community colleges in Mississippi has declined dramatically in the past two years. It’s one of those things where we’ve had to make lots of adjustments in how we do business.”

The film’s Last Chance U title, which was derived from a 2014 GQ article and wasn’t chosen or approved by EMCC, in some instances accurately portrays some EMCC football players’ or students’ situation and how EMCC is a last-resort destination. Consequently, as Huebner depicted, there are individuals who have chosen East Mississippi Community College to further their studies and career, a point of pride for the 25-year academic administrator and professor.

“I always chuckle because one, we’re not a ‘U’. … I get why that sells but that doesn’t tell the whole story. … We have people here in a lot of different programs who are looking for restarts. So, the title isn’t one I would have chosen, but I understood why. I understood how it sells and the purpose of it. Like I tell people, Last Chance, Best Chance, First Chance, Second Chance, that’s the kind of institution we are.”

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About Mark J. Burns

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