Legendary cross country coach Jim White, the man behind McFarland: 'It’s all in the attitude'

Retired McFarland High School cross country coach Jim White speaks with joy in his voice in a phone interview from Hollywood, where they had an advance screening of Disney’s McFarland, USA, a based-on-a-true-story movie about the 1987 rise of a California state cross country championship contender from fields of migrant workersThe movie opens Friday.

“Have you seen the movie yet?” he asks. “It’s really good. We showed it to 300 people last night at Pepperdine, because I went to school there. It was wonderful; they gave us a standing ovation for five minutes!”

White is happy with Kevin Costner’s portrayal of him. “I don’t think they could’ve picked anybody better for me than him. We just loved it.”

He was impressed with Costner’s knowledge of his coaching style, and Costner influenced the script by telling them they had initially been portraying him in the wrong way, which wouldn’t lead to success, White says.

The screenings, including a round of 25 media interviews in Toronto, have been surreal — “I didn’t even know what a press junket was!” — for this man who worked 40 years teaching and coaching, building record-breaking teams with often impoverished students in California.

The story shows White, his wife and children, serving as friends, teachers, uncles, or second families. “I tried to teach them and console them and treat them like my own kids,” he said.

The Cougars bond was because of closeness White and his wife Cheryl (played by Maria Bello) held for the kids. “My wife became a caring mother for them,” White said. “She hugged them when they came in from practice — it didn’t matter their sweaty bodies — she’s developing a bond with them, and those things were very important to us.”

He says he didn’t try to take the place of the boys’ dads who never saw them run. “I had three Diazes on that [1987] team, but there were four more and they all ran. I’m going to expect one parent who’s just trying to survive working in the fields … to buy shoes? Or to feed them when they’re running? So I had to spend time doing that.”

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White points to his faith as being key, his parents instilling Christian values: “God’s been an important part of my life,” he said.

As a Church of Christ minister, he has preached, conducted a funeral, and even performed [’87 runner] Damacio Diaz’s wedding.

“They only showed one prayer in the movie, and that’s all right,” he said. “But I wanted to be a godly man, and I wanted to be a godly example for the kids.”

White says his cross country coaching model is Joe Newton, who coached for 50 years, winning 28 Illinois state titles and helping manage marathon runners in the 1988 Olympics.

“I picked up little things from him, like how he treats the kids,” he said. “He promotes a good attitude. He would pick them up and put them in limousines, I’ve done that. He’d put them in tuxedos for different awards, and I would do that for awards banquets.”

White, now in his 70s, sums up his coaching: “I preach attitude all the time. That’s the only thing we can control. It’s more important than anything else and it’s going to carry you a long way. If you develop a good attitude. … you’re going to do better on your team. It’s going to help you do better in your profession, in your job, in all walks of life, if you can control your attitude. What I tell the kids is, everybody’s going to have problems. You’re going to have problems no matter what you do and what you did, but it’s how you let the problems affect you that you have to control.”

And his advice to student athletes facing challenges is similar.

“You have to spend time developing your own attitude in controlling those things that are happening in your life,” he said. “I’ve had some kids [who were faced with difficult situations]… all they kept thinking about were the negative, negative, negative. You have to still think of positive things.

“Things will work out. You’re not going to always be perfect. But you can still try to do the best you can do all the time. We don’t win all the time. We won our share. But you still strive to win, and strive to set your goals as high as you can. They can be achievable.”