March 26, 2015
In 1987, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) held the first high school state cross-country championship meet. The Division IV winner was an unheralded team from McFarland High, a small school (about 750 students) in a small town in the San Joaquin Valley. Coached by Jim White, the Cougars were entirely composed of Mexican-American boys, a reflection of the demographics in the town itself. Many of the students also worked in the nearby fields, picking grapes and almonds with their parents, even while they attended school and clocked training miles.
White and McFarland were just getting started. The Cougars went on to win nine state cross-country titles in 14 years, establishing a distance running dynasty in Kern County. Many of his students were able to parlay their running prowess into college scholarships. Their victories helped a town in need of some positive news: about the only story coming out of McFarland since the 1980s concerned a mysterious “cancer cluster” that plagued the area.
Soon, this remarkable story of determination, pride, and love began making headlines outside of the running community. Marc Benjamin, a reporter with the Bakersfield Californian, was the first mainstream journalist to write an in-depth story about Coach White and his hardscrabble runners (who delighted in calling him “Blanco”). That feature was published on November 29, 1996. Almost exactly a year later came a gripping, front-page story written by reporter Mark Arax of the Los Angeles Times, who trailed Coach White when he jumped on his bicycle and pedaled alongside the runners weaving through the vineyards.
In 2004, Gary Smith, the longform wordsmith at Sports Illustrated, followed with an extended feature about McFarland. “No one can figure it out, how the runners with the shortest legs and the grimmest lives began winning everything once Blanco took over the program in 1980,” wrote Smith.
This year, Disney turned the feel-good story into a heartwarming movie titled “McFarland, USA,” directed by Niki Caro and starring Kevin Costner as Jim White. The film, which is advertised as being “based on a true story,” manages to stay true to McFarland’s authentic spirit, even as it strays from the literal truth. “Predictable and predictably rousing, this inspirational sports pic earns points for its big-hearted portrait of life in an impoverished California farming town, the likes of which we too rarely see on American screens,” wrote Variety’s Justin Chang.
SportsLetter spoke by phone with coach Jim White, now 73 and retired, about coaching youth sports and about the new movie.