THE BLOG

Interview With Coach Jim White of McFarland USA

02/17/2015 10:56 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

Kevin Costner plays real-life coach Jim White in Disney's McFarland USA, the story of a group of teenage "pickers" (crop workers) who became California state cross-country champions. In an interview, Coach White spoke about what makes great coaches and great runners, and why McFarland is still his home.

When he speaks to the kids he coaches and when he speaks about coaching, his most important focus is not on the techniques of running and endurance.

I preach a lot on attitude. You have to have a good attitude about what you want to do. And that leads into goals; you have to be able to set some goals. You have got to be able to set some goals for your team, for your job, for your family for your spiritual walk. These things have to take place. Attitude to us there at McFarland is the most important thing because that is the only thing that you can really control. And I think you have to work on confidence and that comes from having a good attitude, putting the trust into your coach. You have to have some perseverance and that has to be linked with your hard work and hope. And to have the ability to really believe that there's something better than the present, better than what you have in your life now.

He says that a great coach is one who can teach these principles to the team.

Taking first place all the time is never going to happen. For me, the great coach is teaching some lifelong skills. That to us is more important than all of the championships that we won. If these kids now can really accept what we have been pushing and preaching in education and various things like that, I think that this can make a great coach.

The movie covers the team's first championship season in 1987. White said it began with a story about the kids working in the fields and coming back to run in those same fields, which was picked up by some newspapers, and then Runner's World, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN and the BBC. Several groups tried to make it into a film, but it was not until Disney took interest that it came to screen. Costner had been offered the role twice before and turned it down, but he said the third script created a character that he really believed could coach a winning team.

A turning point in the film is when Costner's Coach White goes into the field to work alongside his team picking cabbage. In real life, White did that more than once, and it was not to pick cabbage.

We didn't do cabbage, because cabbage is not a valley crop so to speak. That's more of a coastal thing and that had to do with the proximity and the availability of a crop to work in when they were filming. Yes, I've worked in the fields picking almonds and the grapes and the cotton and I used to go even getting some of these younger kids actually to work in the field if I would work with them. Because we were trying to raise money for various things. Yes, I worked in the field quite often, usually because we were trying to raise money for shoes or something else for the team.

McFarland was the kind of community White wanted for his family.

I was raised in a large town. I went to a large high school, over 4000 kids in the school. Like I told my mom years ago, 'I don't enjoy that.' I told her, 'I want to be small.' 'What, what do you mean small?' I said, 'Mom, I want to make a difference, I want to be known and I want to know people. I want to know who my girls are going out with, who they are running around with.' This is small; this is what I wanted. And so we chose McFarland because that was my first job and that's real but we stayed there because of our love for it.

White said that a challenge with the teenagers of today he did not have 30 years ago was the distraction of all of their devices.

It's sometimes more difficult to get a lot hard work out of them because they have too much at home. They have iPods and all these phones that they can connect to the Internet. I love working with the team, but when boys show up with these earphones and things like this they are concentrated on things that they need to not be concentrated on. My first impulse out there is, 'Young man I'll take your earphones or I'll hold your phone. You're not here to get calls from your girlfriend. You're here for a particular reason, and so let's make the most of it.'/

He admires athletes and coaches who work hard, and he learns from those he admires. A Chicago coach named Joe Newton told him that he honored his team by having them wear tuxedos.

And so I tried to do some of the little things that he was doing. For instance, I always dress my kids at our awards banquet in tuxedos. If you are dressed up like that, you're going to feel good about yourself. I want to the community to feel good about you, to know it is special. I not only dressed them into tuxedos, but sometimes I had them picked up in a limousine, which was a total new experience for them. I also dressed them well when we went to the meets. In the movie you saw them into the rag-tag shoes. I had to put good shoes on them. I had to put nice uniforms on them; I had to put nice sweats. You're not going to take off the sweats, you're going to go ahead and wear this. Here is a sweater; here is a nice shirt you can wear afterwards but you are not going to go down to the tank top. You're not going to wear that 'wife beater' thing. You are going to represent us when you go there and when we leave they are going to know that McFarland is first class.