McFarland is a new running film starring Kevin Costner. It’s based on the true story of Jim White, a cross-country coach who guides kids in an impoverished Californian town after detecting their raw ability for the sport. Disney, the producers of the film, brought the legendary high school coach in to chat with us about coaching being portrayed on the big screen.
First of all, what’s the experience been like over the past couple years with a movie being made about you?
It has been a positive ride. Just a wonderful experience to have people play myself and my wife.
What did you think of Kevin Costner playing you?
I thought he did an outstanding job. He captured some true feelings on how we felt about the team and the boys and their families. We didn’t meet. He got everything out of articles in Sports Illustrated and various things like that. He picked up on those feelings just from those.
How did getting a team together all start?
If you go back to 1980, we didn’t have a cross-country team and I didn’t teach at the high school. I wanted to coach cross-country and track but I was offered a job coaching football. I did that for one year. I didn’t like coaching football. I don’t coach to keep from losing, I coach to win. I wanted cross-country and I was told there wouldn’t be a team. I said “Well the athletic director has committed you to have a cross-country team.” She told me she would do that. So I started the program in 1980 with 16 kids. I had a girl’s program and two boys teams.
What was your largest team?
We were up at around 50 or 60 kids.
When you started there wasn’t a lot of information on running technique and science of writing. What resources did you go to?
Since I had no background, I researched. I went to various clinics and listened to some of these people and became determined. From there I thought ‘If they can do it, why can’t I?’ Every school has these talented kids.
Do you remember any really tough workouts or styles of workouts that you’d have them do?
We’d do a lot of mileage in the summer time. As far as I’m concerned that’s the key to any running program in high school. You have to put in a large base. We do your mile repeats. We’d go out and run four to six miles at speed to build your endurance up and get used to gassing it. One of my favourites was this speed workout. You’d do 200m with a minute rest then 200m again and drop to 45-second rest then drop to 30. I would have them do three or four sets. That was a good workout.
What do you think are the big differences for the kids you coached and the ones out there today?
There’s so much information out there that they try to do everything instead of one particular thing. It’s hard because they see this elite athlete who is running mega miles or super times and they try to duplicate that and they don’t have that potential or background and that’s a hindrance.
How do you get kids interested in running?
We ran the mile in my gym class I taught every week. I made it appealing to them to be one of the top milers in the seventh and eighth grade. We built that up. Sometimes you lose a few to football because they think that’s the sport that gets girls. They think I’m going to get a girl now. So I said, “OK, I don’t want you to have a girl and be on my team anyway. You can’t put in the effort that we need.”
Cross-county is the most popular participation sport in North America. But professionally it’s more difficult. How do you make it more appealing for high school kids?
We try to make it not just a sport but a lifestyle. They go on and continue running. If they’re not running every day themselves, they’re coaching the running teams. I have people that I coached when they were kids who are now running a marathon. I didn’t push that in high school because they’re not quite ready. We had a girl and a boy who ran the Boston Marathon in the past two or three years. One has run the 100-miler and is doing all kinds of ultras. Most of them made it a lifestyle.
Who is the best runner you have ever seen and why?
I got to see Jim Ryun and I got to talk to him during the NCAA Championships. He was a three-time Olympian and record holder. He’s an inspiration.