Independence football coach Kiyoshi Harris on life after Netflix, Jason Brown
When Independence Community College hosts Dodge City this Saturday and a new football season begins, there won’t be any Netflix cameras, another season of the Last Chance U documentary, or Jason Brown on the sidelines.
It will be a new look for Independence and that’s exactly the point.
After Brown led the program to its best season in decades during 2017, Independence spiraled downward just as quickly with a disastrous 2-8 season for a team that once held national title aspirations. But that was only the start.
In February, Brown resigned after a text message in which he wrote “I am your new Hitler” to a German-born player was publicized by The Montgomery County Chronicle. In June, the Montgomery County Attorney’s Office charged the former coach with eight felony counts for allegedly pretending to be a lawyer from Johnnie Cochran’s Los Angeles law firm in an attempt to silence criticism of Brown in local newspapers.
Everyone from Brown to the athletic director to the school president is now gone from Independence, which is looking at a total rebuild. It’s an attempt to escape the fame and infamy brought on from the national spotlight generated by the Netflix show.
“At the end of the day, there’s a new ship that’s rolled in and we’re not going in the direction that we went,” said athletic director Brett Vana, who started three weeks ago. “The stuff that was on TV, that’s not in my repertoire, not in my cloth. We’re not going to make a five-minute Hollywood show as our claim to fame and destroy images and tarnish things and leave.
“We’re going to clean up the image and we’re going to build a championship culture and we’re going to be faith-based and be strong in mentoring and serving our community. We’re going to do things the right way.”
A new coach in charge
The new coach tasked with that challenge is a familiar face for Netflix watchers: Kiyoshi Harris, who was the associate head coach and offensive line coach the last two seasons at Independence.
He comes from the Brown coaching tree — he’s known Brown for 15 years and still considers him a good friend whom he speaks to “at least once a day” — but Harris has made it clear he has his own ideas for how to run a football program. After 22 years as an assistant coach, Harris finally has his chance.
“It’s always been a goal of mine to run my own program and I’m going to put my own stamp on it,” Harris said. “We’re trying to change the culture. We’re trying to hold kids accountable and develop a little bit of work ethic. We have a pretty close-knit team and that’s something we haven’t seen in the last few years, which is a bonus. I’ve learned a lot of good things from (Brown), but there are other things and certain situations that I’ve done my own way.”
Getting away from Last Chance U fame
Vana believes his entire life as a basketball coach overseas and at the Division I level has led him to this opportunity in Independence, which will be his first administrative job.
This summer, Vana was working to turn around the Chicago State women’s basketball program as an assistant and couldn’t tell you where Independence was or what Last Chance U was even about. But then a friend called and suggested he consider the opening.
While doing his research, Vana asked another friend about the program and his friend tried to deter him from taking the job. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” Vana’s friend told him. “You’re going straight into the lion’s den.”
Vana wanted to see for himself and sat down to binge-watch the show. He was riveted.
“I grew up in the inner city of Cleveland, so my life was basically a mess growing up,” Vana said. “Seeing what these kids were coming from and seeing the lack of direction, I knew this was my calling. This is what I’m doing. I’m going to go there and mentor these players and these coaches and help this school rebuild their image with the community and nationwide. All the experiences I’ve had all over the world in various countries, all the way from Europe to Division I, this is what all of those experiences were meant for.”
Vana says he has been demanding of the football team since his arrival at the start of August, but commends Harris and his coaching staff for accepting new standards.
Changing the culture around the program has actually been easier at Independence than it would have been at a four-year program, as Harris returns just seven letterwinners from last year’s roster. A clean slate has allowed Harris and Vana to mold the program.
“I’ve raised the expectations for them in the classroom, on the field, in the community by just doing common-sense things,” Vana said. “We’ve started saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ opening doors for others, looking people in the eye, shaking people’s hand.
“But if you teach them and mentor them, it’s not that they don’t like it. They want it, they just don’t know.”