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Getting to know Last Chance U’s protagonist, Brittany Wagner

At first glance, Netflix’s Last Chance U has the look and feel of most all-access football documentaries. However, the show has received much acclaim for its focus on off-the-field issues, particularly the players’ academics and was recently renewed for a second season.

I gave a very favorable review to Netflix’s first foray into a sports documentary series. One of the things that stood out was the emphasis given to the player’s academic struggles opposed to their on-field performance. At the heart of that narrative is Brittany Wagner, East Mississippi Community College’s athletic instructional adviser, who has made a very memorable impression with fans of the show and has evoked many comparison’s to Friday Night Lights‘ Tami Taylor.

Curious to know more about Ms. Wagner’s role, life, and thoughts on the series, I conducted an interview with her last week. Some highlights include her daughter refusing to watch the series (but will if Katy Perry or Taylor Swift says it is cool), how she feels about being compared to Tami Taylor, why she prefers pencils to pens, and her thoughts on the student-athlete dynamic.

Did Ms. Wagner know she’d be a primary focus on the show?

Honestly, I didn’t even know. Greg and One Potato Productions, Greg Whiteley is the producer and owner of that company and they were very tight-lipped about what was being edited out of the footage, what they were going to use and what storylines they were following. So throughout the whole post-production process, I didn’t know what was going to be in it. And I was kind of not very optimistic because when GQ came in and did the article that was written about us in October 2014, I was cut from the whole article. I was followed and interviewed by Drew Jubera just as much as our football players and coaches were, and when they started cutting down the article, I was the part that was cut out. So in the back of my mind, I kept thinking “they could film me this whole time and then in post-production, they could edit me out of the whole show.”

So I just kept trying not to get my hopes up or think anything was going to come of it or that I was even going to be in it, because I knew that was a possibility. And then I remember asking once they were editing and getting near the end of that process, I remember asking one of the post-production people “Am I in it?” And they laughed!  You know, so I knew then I was like OK, I’m at least in it. And then honestly, it wasn’t until the trailer came out that I kind of thought “Oh, wow. You know, I am in it. A lot!”  So it wasn’t really until I saw the trailer and heard my voice being the main voice in the trailer that I really got the sense that I was going to be, you know, a main character in the show.

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On why her office is such a popular destination for the team to hang out

I think my office placement is part of the reason why there is always traffic in it. I am not in the football complex. Our football building is across the campus, and all of our coaches are housed there, the weight room, and all that is over there in the football complex. I am actually in the academic building, so I am not even in the athletic department building where the AD and the other people that work with athletics are. I kind of scouted and chose to be over here in the academic building because I felt like it was important to be around our teachers, kind of bridge the gap between academics and athletics, and I knew that if I was somewhere else and isolated myself, the teachers wouldn’t be as trusting of me and I wouldn’t build those relationships with our faculty. Also I knew that, in order for me to know what’s going on in the classrooms, I would need to be somewhere where I could just pop up.

So my office is in our main academic building and it is on a main hallway where classes are taking place. So that is why in between classes when classes are changing, they are all popping in here and they kind of hang out in here before their next class starts. A lot of those conversations that you saw were after an 8 o’clock class but before the 9:30 class started, so they are just hanging out in here before they go to their next class.

I used to kind of not have as much of an open door policy as I do now. Several years ago, probably five years ago, I used to feel so overwhelmed and I had so much to do that I kind of had my door cracked… when they came in, I would be like “what do you need?” to try to speed up the process of them leaving. And then I started realizing that’s really hindering my ability to do my job because I’m building relationships with them like I need to. So now I welcome them. I do have an open door policy.

One thing after watching the show that I’m going to work on this next year, is giving them my undivided attention. I noticed when I was watching the show that a lot of times I was typing an email, or texting another athlete, you know I was either on my phone trying to handle something over text or emailing. I was always kind of preoccupied while these conversations were taking place. So that’s my goal this year, to make sure I stop and really give them my undivided attention. But I welcome them in here. I like them in here. Secretly in my mind, sometimes I may be thinking “when is 9:30 going to get here” because I have so much work that just needs to get done, but I think that aspect of having the open door has really helped me to develop the relationships that I have with them.

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On her relationship with Ollie and if these relationships continue past players’ departure from EMCC

I still talk to him probably, if not every day, then every other day. Through text or Face Time or a phone call. That was the relationship that I think we saw on camera the most and that was kind of portrayed. I have that connection and relationship with a lot of the guys. There has been an Ollie in every group. I feel like this is the group that got the TV show, but I’ve been here eight seasons. So for the past seven years, there have been the same stories, the same relationships, the same Ronald Ollie, DJ Law, John Franklin in every group. It’s been something that has been happening here for seven years, it just so happens that this group was spotlighted on TV.

I think for some of these guys, it’s the first time that someone has taken an interest in them at all in an area other than football. And it’s the first time that anyone has really believed in them, pushed them, given them confidence or hope, or anything kind of positive in an area other than football. I think it is important to just be real in those situations, and to say to Ollie “Hey, you can do this or I’m behind you I support you, or I love you.” And I do.

But that relationship I feel like is with several of them, and it just so happened that he was the one shown. I feel like they’ll text me, some of them will text me and say “Hey, love you” or if I’m having a bad day, one of the players you didn’t see a whole lot on this show, he was in a few of the scenes, Jay Johnson, he is a constant motivator for me. If I’m having a bad day or he comes in and sees that I’m down, he’ll send me a text immediately. “What’s wrong? Are you OK? We love you. You’re doing a good job.” So I think it kind of goes both ways with those relationships.

Why pencils over pens?

I love that question! I’m OK with pens. I think the pencil thing just kind of came about because, first of all, our English Comp 1 class requires them to write all of their essays in class and they can’t type them until the first couple essays they write in Comp 1. They have to be handwritten on a piece of notebook paper because the teachers want to make sure the computer isn’t helping them with grammar and punctuation, and make sure they are actually able to write cohesive sentences.

I think the pencil came in with the English because in my mind, you are going to make a mistake at some point writing an essay and you are going to need to erase a mistake. And then they have Scantron tests sometimes, as well in other subject areas. Obviously, you can’t take Scantron with a pen. And two, I’m older; when I was in school, everyone used a pencil. I think it just kind of became a thing, you know, do you have a pencil, do you have a pencil?

I will say this: Today, I have received 864 pencils in the mail.

Did the cameras miss anything?

There were a couple of things I knew the backstory on, like Ronald Ollie getting an ‘A’ in English. I knew how much work he put into getting that A and how many countless hours he spent with teammates. There were other football players in that class with him that put in just as much work as he did, they just weren’t featured on the show. But the countless hours they spent in here… I think there was one day where RO was in here for probably five hours straight working on his research paper.

To me, that part, there were a few little clips of him working with the English teacher or sitting in the English class, I wished a little bit had shown the blood, sweat, and tears that he had put into actually earning that A. And how the moments when it was a little iffy, like we were a little worried about the grade, because it really was a glorious occasion the day that the A came down. And I think they’ve got that, but I felt like I wanted it to be shown a little bit more how hard he actually worked to earn that grade.

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The prevalent comparison to Tami Taylor

OK, this is going to be horrible, but I haven’t seen that show! So the first thing that came out that compared me to Tami Taylor, I had to ask who she was! I don’t know why I didn’t watch it, but I did not watch it. And I have Netflix obviously, so I sat down a couple weeks ago, I think it was maybe the week after our show came out, I sat down and was like “OK, I’m going to watch Friday Night Lights, because I’m being compared to her. I have to see this for myself.”

I just have so much going on right now, but I watched an episode and that first episode doesn’t really shed light on her character and who she is. I don’t know yet, but it is in my plans to finish the whole show, although I think it’s several seasons now and it might take me a while. I hate that because I feel like I should have watched it, but I don’t know because I haven’t seen it. I have seen The Blind Side, and I know there have been some comparisons to Leigh Anne Tuohy. The Blind Side is one of my favorite movies. I do think that she is an inspiration to me and has been for a while. I think she is a great person and I have the utmost respect for her. So that comparison, I am cool with.

On if coaches should punish players more for academic issues

I think that every academic counselor in the country wishes that academics was more of a focus with college athletics. Certainly, I have my moments where yes, I wish he (Coach Stephens) would hold out certain players out of practice or games as a form of punishment. I’m not saying right off the bat, the punishment would be playing time. But at some point, the punishment would be you’re going to sit the first half or whatever. If it’s basketball. The first quarter because of “this.” Because you didn’t do what she told you to do, or didn’t go to class, or haven’t been performing academically the way that you need to. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking let’s not play him and then he’ll learn his lesson.

But at the same time, I also understand that winning is important, and their film, and their playing time, and their ability, especially at this level, maybe not at the Division I level, it may not matter as much that they have all this film, because very few of them are going to go to the NFL anyway. But at this level for our players, we saw that with Ollie, playing time is so important because their recruitment to Division I is dependent upon the amount of games that they play, the stats that they have and the amount of film that they have for those Division I coaches to see. So it’s a Catch-22, because if you pull them out of playing time, you are getting them eligible for Division I, but are you hindering them from going Division I because you don’t have enough film?

The emotional toll of growing close to players who will inevitably leave

It’s really tough. I would say that’s one of the hardest parts of my job, and it’s hard to continue to be vulnerable. There have been many times I’ve said to myself that I’m not going to let myself connect to this group. I’m just going to come in and do my job, and I’m not going to let myself get emotionally connected to these guys because it’s too painful when they leave. But I don’t think that’s my personality. I don’t think I have that ability. I’m just a passionate person that is all in for pretty much everything I do. So I can’t do that.

When you are at a Junior College and you are turning them out with football in a year and a half. It’s really not even two years with a lot of the guys. It’s hard, because a lot of the times I don’t feel like they are ready. I have so many question marks of what are they going to do? Are they going to make it? The next school they are going to, are they going to be lost in the crowd? Are they going to work hard? Did they learn enough life lessons here to be successful on their own? There are all those questions and fears. And two, when you see someone every day, you know, and they are involved in your life and you are involved in their life every day, even if it is only for a year and a half, and then they are just gone. And honestly a lot of times no matter how close I am to them when they are here, sometimes when they leave, I don’t talk to them again. Or if I talk to them, it may be once every six months. That’s tough.

I’ve learned kind of how to deal with it, but it used to really take a toll on me. I would kind of go through a little, just a little funk, after they would leave every time, of just being sad. I think I’ve learned how to deal with it a little better, but it is definitely the toughest part of my job. Saying bye to the guys every December and every May.

Has her daughter watched the series?

I have told her that she can watch it. I will allow her to watch it. I think that the content in the show and the goodness of the show and the things that happened in it outweigh the language, maybe. So that’s a teachable moment, I think, to her. So I have told her she can watch it, but she doesn’t want to. Is not interested. She did watch the two seconds that she was in. She said just call me when my part comes on. So when her part came on, she came down and she saw that, and she was done. She has seen the trailer and she loves the trailer. She watches the trailer over and over and over again.

But she’s just not interested yet, I think, in sitting down and watching it at all. She is kind of annoyed by the fact that people know who I am now, and you know, we get stopped sometimes in the grocery store, or at her school and she just kind of looks at me like “Seriously?” I asked her the other day, I was telling her that Snoop Dogg tweeted about the show and I thought she might think that was cool, but she didn’t. So I asked, what would make me cool? What could happen that you would think “Oh that’s cool,” and she said “If Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, or Jason Derulo tweeted you. Then you would be cool.” So yeah, I need that to happen so she thinks it’s cool. Right now she is just like “nah.”

Has life changed much since the show started airing?

I thought about this the other day. My life, like the big picture, my life, hasn’t changed at all. I mean, I’m still working here. I still live in the same house. I still have the same amount of money in my bank account. I’m still single. Still a single mom.

I think just my day-to-day life hasn’t changed at all. Now, the notoriety, obviously my Twitter followers have gone through the roof, that kind of stuff with Twitter and Instagram followers, the messages I’m getting on there. The emails that I’m getting… I’ve lost count. But countless number of emails that I’ve gotten from fans with wonderful, inspiring stories, telling me how watching the show touched them in a way, or motivated them to do something, or just saying “Thank you for the job you do.” That is totally overwhelming and I just don’t feel worthy a lot of days of some of that.

The only thing I would say that has kind of changed as of right now, I’m currently not answering my office phone, because my office number was on our website when the show came out, and it apparently just got passed around. So people are just calling my direct office line and I could, I want to talk to them, but I could literally sit here all day and do nothing but answer my phone and talk to fans. So they are now screening my phone calls and I can’t answer my phone. So that’s the only thing, I guess, that’s changed at this point in my life.

Do I want things to change? I am open to it. I am open to opportunity. I think me saying in the show that I want to be at the place where I can impact the most people, never in a million years did I think when I put it out in the universe, think impacting students at East Mississippi Community College could impact the world. So yeah, if there is a bigger opportunity or a place or a cause where I can impact even more people for the betterment of society, then certainly I am open to it. That and then there has just got to be a man out there somewhere. (Ed. note: Ms. Wagner has had multiple online proposals, including some on my previous article, and has yet to take anyone up.)

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On how she would like herself and the show to be remembered

Five, 10, and 20 years from now, I hope people are still getting out of it what they are getting out of it now. I hope they are inspired. I hope we’ve changed as a society 20 years from now to where this has caused kind of an epidemic of educators to maybe teach differently in their classrooms or maybe to get to know their students better, or maybe just to get motivated. Teaching is a thankless job. I know that a lot of times, you just get to a point where you are just drained, and you are burnt out and you think I’m not even making a difference anymore. So for educators to watch this, and it motivates them to get fired up in their classrooms and have this new energy about teaching young people.

Maybe 20 years from now, our whole education system has changed and people are watching and going “Well, that happens every day, so what’s so special about her? This is education in America now.” That would be my hope, that people watch 20 years from now, and it’s irrelevant because everyone is doing it.  I hope that it continues to inspire and motivate people in all areas. I’ve had athletes and coaches and educators and corporate business people contact me saying that in some way it motivated or inspired them. The more that it can happen, I just feel like the more positive our whole society becomes.

You can follow Ms. Wagner on Twitter here and read my initial review here.

Ben Koo

About Ben Koo

Copying and pasting my Twitter bio. I'm also refusing (for now) to write this in the third person. This is me - EIC and CEO at @comeback_sports and @AwfulAnnouncing, world's greatest chinese jew, proud Buckeye, funny dude, and sports and digital media zealot.

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