How quickly could one assemble a documentary crew and make sure they're in Boca Raton, Fla., this fall? Perhaps college football fans could develop a Kickstarter for "Last Chance U" Season 3 at Florida Atlantic.
The Owls open preseason camp on Wednesday, and new coach Lane Kiffin is hardly the only attraction. Fans of the Netflix documentary series "Last Chance U" have plenty of reasons to perk up and pay attention to the Owls, who will find national college football relevance this fall, regardless of the program's record on the field.
Boca Raton will play host to the show's epilogue this fall, and we might as well start calling FAU "Last Chance U South." But the title is fitting for more than just the personalities we got to know on Netflix.
"Last Chance U," which follows junior college juggernaut East Mississippi Community College, was an overnight success after chronicling the Lions' 2015 season, which ended in an ugly brawl that brought national notoriety to the tiny town of Scooba, Miss. Last Friday, Netflix released all eight episodes of Season 2, which followed the program's 2016 campaign. Speaking as someone who spent the weekend once again binging the series, it's well worth your time. (Author's note: Mild spoilers await later in this piece.)
No one in the 700-person town hides from the underlying theme of every player's story: No one chooses to play junior college football at EMCC or elsewhere in the juco ranks. You either weren't good enough, didn't have good enough grades or made a mistake (or a series of mistakes) that put your career in jeopardy and left you condemned to a year away from the spotlight in college football purgatory.
De'Andre Johnson signed with Florida State in 2015 as one of the nation's top quarterbacks but ended up at EMCC after punching a woman at a bar in July 2015. He spent the 2015 season redshirting but took a starring role both on the field and on the show as cameras depicted his attempts to convince viewers and possible future coaches he didn't deserve the pariah status that the incident and subsequent video had given him.
Johnson will be playing for Kiffin at Florida Atlantic this fall.
"It was something the president, the athletic director, the previous staff had done a ton of research," Kiffin said in December. "They had connections at the junior college where he was at, they had brought him in, spent 48 hours around him, did a ton of research. They had already sent him his papers. That was something that was totally in place and was already done before I even got there."
He'll be joining his EMCC teammate Tim Bonner, whose struggles with technique and academics were at odds with his raw athleticism in the second season of "Last Chance U." He signed with Louisville in 2015 but transferred in October of that year after an incident with a gun. On the show, Bonner said he had been falsely accused of having a gun in his dorm room and faced charges from a female student if he didn't leave campus.
After initially committing to Ole Miss, Bonner signed with FAU after Lane Kiffin hired his brother, co-defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin, away from the Rebels while he was caught in the middle of the program's ongoing NCAA investigation.
Additionally, 26-year-old Clint Trickett joined Kiffin's staff as tight ends coach after two seasons as the Lions' quarterbacks coach. The ex-Florida State and West Virginia is a good bet to be a head coach somewhere within a decade. In the season finale, Trickett found himself awkwardly thrust into a play-calling role during the Lions' bowl game after coach Buddy Stephens angrily demoted nine-year offensive coordinator Marcus Wood mid-game and called Trickett down from the booth to run the offense. Wood left the program for an administrative role after the season, and Trickett joined the staff at FAU, what's now one of the Group of Five's most fascinating programs.
"Last Chance U" is unflinching in its honesty, but it also lets subjects speak for themselves, leaving viewers to decide where they stand on a cast of compelling, flawed characters. Most often, its storytelling produces figures that beget a rooting interest, even those with unsavory pasts. Sometimes, especially so.
Kiffin's already in the midst of his own reclamation project. Rest assured, if he fails to turn his fourth head coaching destination into a winner, he won't be granted another opportunity. Less than four years ago, he was standing on an airport tarmac, freshly fired from USC after controversial exits from head coaching jobs with the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Volunteers. Nick Saban gave him a chance to re-boot his career with a three-year apprenticeship as the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator, a run that included 40 wins, a national title and a Heisman Trophy before Kiffin -- who had already accepted the FAU job -- was abruptly "relieved" of his duties in the time between the playoff semifinals and the national championship. That dismissal, aided by Kiffin's split loyalties between his old job in Tuscaloosa and his new one at FAU, stretched his streak of awkward exits to four consecutive jobs.
Kiffin had already courted controversy by admitting both Johnson and ex-Baylor assistant Kendal Briles into his program. Briles, the son of former Baylor coach Art Briles, was given the assistant head coach title and will have "full control" of the offense as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. After his father was fired last June, Kendal remained on staff at Baylor under acting coach Jim Grobe, despite the sexual assault scandal that loomed over the program.
The Owls won't be a sentimental favorite among fans of the sport this year, but they will have more eyeballs pointed in their direction than any other season in school history.
Johnson has excelled on and off the field in his two years at EMCC and earned a favorable portrayal in "Last Chance U," but it takes more time and action than that to outrun an incident and video as damning as the one that cost him his scholarship to Florida State. That's how the nation's No. 2 rated junior college quarterback ends up at a program without a preseason all-conference selection and a team picked to finish fifth in its division.
Could Kiffin, a man blessed with the gift of producing publicity for any program he calls home, have brought Bonner along and kept Johnson on board in part because of the attention he knew they might receive following the documentary series' release? Only Jim Harbaugh loves making headlines more than Kiffin. Among the outlandish conspiracy theories that can populate this sport, that particular hypothesis is rather tame, even considering Kiffin's accurate insistence that Johnson's enrollment predated his arrival.
Regardless, Lane and Chris Kiffin, Briles, Johnson and Bonner all have mistakes to thank for landing in Boca Raton. But they're there, making Florida Atlantic a fitting extension of "Last Chance U."