Interview with Coach Jim White of “McFarland, USA.”
Ron Salfen for the Presbyterian Outlook: First of all, I really enjoyed the movie. And the fact that it was based on a true story just makes it even better.
Jim White: Thanks very much.
Presbyterian Outlook: So here you are, out in a remote area, kind of a coach’s purgatory. How did you decide to go from coaching football to coaching track?
Jim White: Well, the movie took a little bit of liberty there, in order to tell the story. I actually did still help with the football program, but after a while, track became my primary emphasis, just because it was something I really enjoyed, and the boys seemed to be responding positively.
Presbyterian Outlook: They sure did. It’s amazing how you were able to take a bunch of untrained high schoolers and turn them into competitive athletes. How did you do that? I mean, where did you start with evaluating the talent?
Jim White: I started with P.E. I was also teaching physical education classes and I simply had everybody run a mile. With those who finished under six minutes, I figured I had something to work with.
Presbyterian Outlook: Ah, that makes sense. And so you had several who were able to run a six-minute mile without any training at all?
Jim White: Yes, they were in pretty good shape because of all that working in the picking fields that you saw in the movie. It’s not like they spent all their time in front of the television playing video games and eating potato chips.
Presbyterian Outlook: Yeah, that part was really vivid, about the boys having to work afternoons and weekends alongside their families, picking cabbage.
Jim White: Actually, they didn’t do cabbage. That was another little liberty in the film; it was really more cotton and grapes, and hoeing the weeds in between the rows, and also picking oranges.
Presbyterian Outlook: But it is true about your going out there once with them and quickly realizing how backbreaking it was?
Jim White: Yes, and it’s also true that I had to modify their workout schedule accordingly. I had to take them when I could get them, not when it was convenient for me.
Presbyterian Outlook: That must have been really exciting when you began to see some progress.
Jim White: Yes, and it was also true about how at first we didn’t do well in the meets because we weren’t accustomed to running on hills. But I adjusted their training regimen to include that.
Presbyterian Outlook: Is it also true about that community helping with your daughter’s quinceanera?
Jim White: Well, actually, it was a “sweet 16” party, but yes, by that time the parents were family friends, too. But my wife did a lot more for that than they gave her credit for in the movie. She organized tamales sales and pizza bakes for fundraisers. She hugged their sweaty bodies after a race. And she even went with me to see one of them in jail.
Presbyterian Outlook: That was kind of poignant, at the end, about that one team member who had landed in prison.
Jim White: Yes, but the community accepted him back, and I’m proud to say that he’s doing OK now. And I know that not because of working with the track team so much as through the church community.
Presbyterian Outlook: They didn’t say much about the church connection in the movie.
Jim White: No, but my wife and I are involved in the worship and we’re music leaders. I’ve led Bible classes, and even preached, baptized and performed a wedding, so we’re pretty active.
Presbyterian Outlook: As a Christian myself, I wish that part could have been emphasized more.
Jim White: Me, too, but overall, I don’t have any complaints. They did a good job with telling the story.
Presbyterian Outlook Yeah, it’s not every guy who gets a movie of their life starring Kevin Costner! What fun!
Jim White: (laughs) Yes, it’s all been a lot of fun.
Presbyterian Outlook: Anything else that wasn’t represented correctly in the movie?
Jim White: Well, they showed all the Hispanic boys being Catholic, which wasn’t true, and I thought was kind of a stereotype. There were several Protestants denominations represented there, but I guess they were trying to simplify things. And my wife’s father was a Church of Christ minister, so they didn’t need to imply that there was anybody drunk, or smoking, or womanizing, or cussing, or anything like that. But for the most part they got it right.
Presbyterian Outlook: Well I think you should be proud, Coach White, and I say congratulations and best wishes!
Jim White: Thanks very much. Pleasure visiting with you.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.