The fifth season of the wildly popular Netflix show “Last Chance U” debuted last Tuesday, putting a national spotlight on Laney College in Oakland.
Laney will be the final junior college football team featured on the show after East Mississippi Community College and Independence Community College in Kansas were followed for two seasons each. Netflix announced that the show will continue in the future but will show JUCO basketball teams instead.
Like the head coaches who were shown on the series before him, Laney’s John Beam was a central character of the season. The reviews of the fifth season, as well as Beam’s program as a whole, have been widely positive on social media. Additionally, unlike the previous four seasons of the show, Season 5 of Last Chance U features a handful of Hawaii connections.
Tracing back to his days as the head coach of Oakland’s Skyline High School, Beam opened a pipeline to the University of Hawaii football team. Davone Bess played for Beam at Skyline before a legendary UH career and a six-year NFL stint.
Other players who have played for Beam at Skyline before playing for Hawaii include defensive backs Rob Grant and Keith Bhonapha. Bhonapha is now the running backs coach at the University of Washington.
As head coach at Laney, Beam coached defensive back Jamal Mayo, as well as receivers Jared Smart and Season 5 fan favorite Dior Scott before they were UH bound.
Beam and his wife are frequent visitors of Hawaii and consider it to be their second home. He sees a lot of similarities between the temperament of Oakland and the islands.
“The kids that play in Oakland, they sit around and sit on the porch and talk about things. Well, in Hawaii you sit down on lanai and talk story, right? Very similar,” he told KHON2 sports director Rob DeMello. “I think that’s why it’s such an easy fit.”
In his first year for the Rainbow Warriors, Smart had a breakout 2019 season, hauling in 87 passes for 1,129 yards, including two touchdowns in UH’s dramatic Hawaii Bowl victory over BYU. As he enters his senior campaign, Smart is the team’s top returning receiver.
Back when not many on the islands knew who Smart was, Beam told others to expect greatness out of him.
“A year ago when Jared first got to Hawaii, I took him out, went to Side Street (Inn) and we were in there eating,” Beam recalled. “I took him up to people and I asked them ‘tell this young man the best receiver Hawaii ever had.’ They said, ‘it’s gotta be Davone, right?’
“I said, ‘OK, you see this guy right here? He could be the next Davone.’ I wanted to put Jared on the spotlight like hey, these are high expectations but I know you can do it. And he was up for the challenge.”
Smart was a key member of the 2018 Laney squad that won a CCCAA and national championship. Scott was on the team as well but was a freshman who didn’t blossom until his Netflix-documented sophomore campaign.
Scott’s pure grit on and off the field is what won many fans over during Season 5. On top of the rigors of a college football season, he lived in his car and worked at Wingstop to earn money. Although he was asked to play quarterback for parts of the 2019 season, Walker will be back at his natural receiver position as he walks on to the UH football team for the 2020 season.
Before Nick Rolovich departed for Washington State, Beam was in talks with him to bring Scott to Manoa. Even though he hasn’t had an opportunity to prove his worth in a UH uniform during the COVID-19 pandemic, Beam believes it’s just a matter of time until Scott gains even more fans in Hawaii.
“This is a kid that’s living in his car at times. That’s driving an hour to go to school, practicing, doing work study cleaning up at the field and then going to do a four-hour shift. That guy knows how to work and knows how to grind,” Beam said.
“Last spring during our spring ball, (former Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich) and I talked for a long time about they like Dior, he can earn a job during spring ball so he’s fired up, he does it. And then as soon as he shows up on the island, what happened? Rolo takes the job at Wazzu. And then COVID hits, and now there’s no spring practice again and so he can’t show everything that’s happened.
“I think it’s going to be a great season for him at the University of Hawaii.”
As for the next season at Laney, the CCCAA has already moved the upcoming football season to the spring. It’s given Beam more time to reflect on becoming a viral star virtually overnight, but he believes he was represented well for the most part.
“To expose your whole life, your family to the world and getting the comments, luckily they’ve been all positive,” he said. “But it’s kind of like the aloha spirit just raining down on us right now in this dark time with the pandemic so there’s some sunshine.”
Because of the pandemic, Beam was not able to make one of his regular return trips to the state this year, but he vows to come back in the future. The same can apply to future players he hopes to send from Laney to UH. Either way, the Beam-Hawaii connection has and always will thrive.
“For Oakland, if you don’t do people right, they won’t talk about you, there’s no respect. But if you do right, there’s a lot of respect. It’s just like that in Hawaii,” Beam said. “If you do the do, people are gonna respect you and treat you like their own. I think that’s why it’s such an easy thing and I think it’s easy for us to send our young men to Hawaii because I know they’ll be taken care of in every possible way — just the love.”