What the actual cross-country coach has to say about the Disney film.
McFarland, USA follows the true story of how cross-country coach Jim White, played by Kevin Costner, gathered a misfit team of runners from a small, predominantly Latino farming town in California and transformed them into championship contenders. With the Disney-produced film hitting theaters on Feb. 20, we caught up with the real Jim White about his thoughts on the movie, running, coaching and his relationship with the 1987 team now.
Were you a runner before you started coaching cross country?
“My running experience was nonexistent. I was a baseball player as shown in the movie. I went to Pepperdine University as a PE major and I actually wanted to coach baseball. But I ended up teaching the fifth grade for nine years and I coached everything. Eventually I ended up working with an age-group track. When we unified as a school district that also gave me the chance to coach running at the high school. I coached at the high school for over 20 years.”
I read in a press release that director Niki Caro spent some time with your family in McFarland prior to and during filming. What was it like working with her?
“She did spend a couple nights with us in our house up in the mountains. She’s done a good job as far as doing her job and directing the movie. We didn’t have a lot of input as to what was going on in the movie, but we’re very satisfied and happy with the outcome of it. We just think it’s great.”
What do you think of Kevin Costner playing you as the coach? Did you give him any tips?
“Both my wife and I were very happy that he accepted the position. He’s a very personable and warm person, and we enjoyed talking to him and being around him. Actually, he told us he had initially turned down the position because of one part of the script he didn’t feel was conducive to myself—as in they were leaving me in a bad light. He had read a lot of the articles they had provided him about the team and me, and he felt it wasn’t the person they were trying to portray. So he had a lot of influence on rewriting the script when they offered it to him again under those conditions.”
Have you seen the film yet and what do you think of it?
“Yes, we’ve seen it three times. We think it’s wonderful. It captures the feelings we had for the town, the people and the kids. It captured what the workers are going through and the hard lives these kids had to grow up in.”
When you first saw the movie, did you feel McFarland, USA’s portrayal of the sport of cross country was authentic?
“I think they did a good job. They showed about four different races. They’re not all true to life as in who we ran against and this and that. But the general aspect of the race, how it scored and how you have to keep working harder to develop in a certain area, such as hill workouts if hills were a problem, was accurate.”
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Do you still keep in contact with the 1987 team?
“Oh, absolutely, every one of them! We just had Thanksgiving dinner with the Diaz clan and they’re a part of our family and we’re a part of their family. All of the head coaches now at the elementary through to the high school all ran for me. So those are big rewards right there. It’s a running program we started years ago and they (the original team) have just been making it bigger. In fact our running program has changed our city. Our city slogan used to be ‘Heartbeat of Agriculture.’ Now it has a runner running through the fields and it says, ‘Tradition, Unity and Excellence.’”
What is the hardest part of coaching runners?
“Probably the hardest part from my perspective is having to continually raise money to provide things that I feel our team needs. I had a lot of kids that couldn’t even buy their shoes and so we spent a lot of time raising money, having fundraisers every year. I put new sweats on them because the school didn’t even buy me sweats. They bought the first pair of sweats I used in 1980 and ‘Cougars’ was misspelled with an ‘e’ instead of an ‘a.’ They use that detail in the movie with the hats. So I said, ‘I’ll raise money, and if we’re going to run for McFarland we’re going to run as a good-looking team whether we’re good or not.’”