A football coach who teaches more than Xs and Os

Recently, I binge-watched the fifth season of the Netflix series, Last Chance U. It features the junior college football team at Laney College in Oakland, California, and head coach John Beam.

I hadn’t watched previous seasons of this series, so I’ve watched a few episodes from all four of them. They feature two seasons each for the East Mississippi Community College Lions and head coach Buddy Stephens and the Independence (Kansas) Community College Pirates and then-head coach Jason Brown. He was forced to resign after the 2018 season. Events leading up to Brown’s resignation were included in the second season the team was featured on Netflix.

In order to not totally give away the story lines from any of the five seasons, I’ll just say that Brown deserved to be forced out. In my book, Stephens should have been forced out as well at the end of the 2015 season, the first that was followed by the Netflix series. Also, I can’t help but question the priorities that result in a community college with 3,000 students having a 5,000-seat football stadium in a Mississippi town of 700 people. This is a community where per capita income is $12,110 and 30% of families and 25% of the population live below the poverty line.

I want to think Beam and his program at Laney are different, especially after listening to an interview with Beam on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.

He has been coaching for 41 years, starting has an assistant high school coach in 1979. In 16 years as head coach at Skyline High School in Oakland, Beam won 15 league championships, 11 section championships and had four undefeated seasons. He finished with a 160-33-3 record at Skyline. At Laney, he has gone 58-31 in eight seasons as head coach, won two league titles and gone to six bowl games.

Obviously, he has been successful. But he seems to be about more than just football. His role as a community leader in Oakland — his affection for Oakland — seem as important to him as his win-loss record. In both the series and the NPR interview, he refers to himself as a teacher and he points out, when asked why he has stayed in Oakland for more than 40 years, that the grass isn’t always greener somewhere else. He seems to like knowing he has a positive impact on the lives of his players that extends beyond football. Of the three head coaches, he is the one who has at least some balance in his life. He and his wife Cindi, have been married for 39 years, they have two daughters and a grandchild.

If I had a son who wanted to play junior-college football in an attempt to become a scholarship player at a NCAA Division I university, I’d want him to play for Beam over the other coaches featured in the series. All three of them lead players who face myriad challenges — one of Beam’s star players was homeless. Beam seems to actually care about all of them as people and not just as football players.

If you’re looking for something to binge watch on Netflix, season 5 of Last Chance U is pretty good. It’s even better, if, like me, you’re eager for a college football season that may not happen this year and will be radically different if it does.

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