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McFarland, USA: History vs. Hollywood

Starring Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratts, Hector Duran

Kevin Costner
Born: January 18, 1955
Lynwood, California, USA
Jim White
Born: May 14, 1941
Birthplace: Sweetwater, Texas, USA
Maria Bello
Born: April 18, 1967
Norristown, Pennsylvania, USA
Cheryl White
Pictured in 2015.
Carlos Pratts
Born: August 21, 1986
Texas, USA
Thomas Valles
Hector Duran
Johnny Samaniego
Sergio Avelar
Victor Puentes
Michael Aguero
Damacio Diaz
Ramiro Rodriguez
Danny Diaz
Rafael Martinez
David Diaz
Johnny Ortiz
Jose Cardenas
Diana Maria Riva
Born: July 22, 1969
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
Juanita Diaz
Omar Leyva
Mexico City, Mexico
Paul Diaz
It's not a documentary. It's based on a true story, but not everything's very factual, but it's still an enjoyable movie. ...I didn't do some of the things they had me doin' in there, but that's alright, that's Hollywood. We developed a program. Did I do it that way, no, but it's okay in the movie. It turned out fine. -Jim White, September 2014,

Questioning the Story:

Did Jim White really start coaching at McFarland High School in 1987?

No, the real Coach Jim White actually started coaching cross country at McFarland High School in 1980. However, he had been a teacher in the McFarland School District since 1964, following his graduation from Pepperdine University. Back then, McFarland was largely white demographically. He retired in 2003 after 23 years of coaching boys cross country. The movie pushes up his arrival and coaching position at McFarland to 1987, the first year his cross country team attended and won the state championship (1987 was also the very first year that California had a state championship).

From left to right: Thomas Valles, Victor Puentes, Damacio Diaz, Johnny Samaniego, Jose Cardenas, Danny Diaz, Coach Jim White.

Had Jim White really been fired from several prior teaching jobs?

No. As stated above, the real Jim White started teaching in the McFarland School District straight out of college in 1964. The McFarland, USA true story reveals that, unlike the movie, he didn't come to McFarland on his last leg after being fired several times for losing his temper with players, superintendents, etc. His first teaching position in the district was instructing fifth grade science, which he did for nine years. He then taught seventh and eighth grade woodshop and PE for 11 years at McFarland Middle School, and then switched to just teaching PE and coaching the high school cross country team. -Congressional Record, V. 146, Pt. 12

Did Jim White really create a cross country team at McFarland?

Not exactly. Jim White restarted the program in 1980 after it had been dropped for a year. However, he did rebuild the boys and girls cross country programs from the ground up. -Congressional Record, V. 146, Pt. 12

Does Jim White really have two daughters?

The real Jim White and wife Cheryl White actually have three daughters, Tami, Julie and Jami. Julie and Jami are depicted in the McFarland, USA movie. They are portrayed to be 15 and 10, a few years younger than they actually were at the time of the first state title in 1987 (the girls were in college at the time). All three girls graduated with degrees in education from Lubbock Christian University in Lubbock, Texas; Tami in 1985, Julie in 1988, and Jami in 1991.

Did the kids really nickname Jim White "Blanco"?

Yes. Inspired by the irony of his last name, "Blanco" was one of the nicknames that the kids and their families gave Jim White. -LA Times

Is McFarland High School really located across the street from a prison?

McFarland High School is actually just down the road from the Central Valley Correctional Facility, not across the street. Though it is very close, Jim White likely wouldn't have had a clear view of it from his classroom window, as a street of homes separates the school's athletic fields from the prison grounds.

Did Coach White really follow the boys on a bicycle?

Yes. A 1997 LA Times article described it as a rickety, worn bicycle, but did not state that it was a girl's bicycle like in the movie. However, similar to the film, Jim White had never been a runner himself and used the bike to follow the team during their workouts.

The real Jim White (left) in the 1980s and Kevin Costner as Coach White in the McFarland, USA movie.

Were the Diaz brothers really forbidden by their mother from competing?

Yes. The McFarland, USA true story confirms that at first, the mother of the Diaz brothers -- David, Damacio and Danny -- forbid them from competing. She eventually concluded that it was good for them as long as they still worked.

Did Coach White really help the kids work in the fields?

Yes. To make up for the time they couldn't work in the fields due to cross country practice, Jim White would sometimes give his time to them by helping them pick in the fields. "Sometimes I helped them work in the fields," says the real Coach Jim White, "but more importantly, I had practice at a different time. If one or two of those boys couldn't make practice at four o'clock 'cause they're just gettin' in from work, then I might practice at 6 or 7 o'clock with those boys. So I'd have two practices." -KGET 17

Like in the McFarland, USA movie, Coach White sometimes helped the kids pick in the fields so that they would have more time to practice.

Were their opponents really snobby rich kids who looked down on them?

Likely not. Local photojournalist John Harte, who followed the team at the time, says that he witnessed opposing teams offer genuine handshakes of good luck. This included members of the Bakersfield High Drillers. In the least, such scenes seem to have been exaggerated by the filmmakers.

Did Coach White really take the team to the beach?

Yes. However, it happened a little differently than in the movie. The real Coach Jim White took both the boys and girls cross country teams to the California central coast beach at Cayucos during the 1985 season (not the 1987 season). It was indeed the first time that many of the kids ever saw the ocean. -John Harte

Did they really hold community fundraisers?

Yes, and at times the White family paid for new shoes and clothing for the team out of their own pockets. On one occasion, Mrs. Diaz made 200 dozen tamales to send the team to Asia. Coach White took the orders and delivered them. -KGET 17

Did Coach White rescue Thomas Valles when he was thinking about jumping off an overpass?

Yes. Like in the movie, Thomas Valles went to an overpass above Highway 99 one night after his parents got into a horrible fight. "I was standing there. I didn't want to go home," says Thomas. "I can't say I was going to jump, but I was thinking about my life and why some people would jump. All of a sudden I saw these headlights and it was Mr. White in his '59 Chevy." Coach White called Thomas over. He got into the truck and began to talk with Coach White about his difficulties at home. -LA Times

The real Thomas Valles (left) in 1987 and his onscreen counterpart, Carlos Pratts (right), in the McFarland, USA movie.

Was Danny Diaz really overweight as a kid?

No. Danny Diaz was not overweight, but he was the seventh runner on the team. His performance at the 1987 state meet did help McFarland lock up the title. -23ABC News

How many state titles did McFarland win?

The McFarland, USA true story supports that McFarland High School won nine CIF California State Championships in cross country (including five in a row) and held a streak of attending the state championship meet 24 years in a row. That streak ended while the movie was in production, after the small school was elevated to Division I status, a byproduct of their success. They were cross country state champs in 1987, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Were all of the runners from the 1987 team represented in the movie?

No. Director Niki Caro chose to omit Luis Partida, who in the movie is replaced with David Diaz. "Niki Caro wanted to show more family in the movie so they chose me," says the real David Diaz, who actually graduated during the school year before the first state title win. David is represented in the McFarland, USA movie along with two of his brothers, Damacio and Danny.

Did a lot of Coach White's runners really go on to college?

Yes. Dozens of Coach Jim White's runners ended up going to college or into the armed forces. All seven Diaz children went to college and all seven returned to McFarland where they live today. Many of White's former runners credit him with inspiring them to achieve personal and career goals they would have otherwise deemed impossible ( Some, like David Diaz, became teachers themselves. Thomas Valles went on to become a prison guard (LA Times).

Was the movie filmed in McFarland?

Yes. Primary filming took place in McFarland, California in 2013. Many of the citizens of McFarland were extras in the movie. -KGET 17

Kevin Costner (left) and the real Jim White (right) stand outside McFarland High School in McFarland, California.

Coach Jim White Interview & the Diaz Family Looks Back

Learn more about the McFarland, USA true story by watching the Jim White interview below. Also, take a closer look at the Diaz family, who had seven children run for McFarland.

 Coach Jim White Interview conducted this Jim White interview. The legendary former McFarland cross country coach talks about what it was like to have a movie made about his experience coaching the team. He says that it's not all true but he's okay with that.

 The Diaz Family - McFarland's Family of Champions

Members of McFarland's Diaz family reflect on their time as cross country runners under Coach Jim White at McFarland High School. Included in the segment, titled "McFarland's Family of Champions," are Danny Diaz, daughter Delia Diaz, Gabriel Diaz, Damacio Diaz, David Diaz, Diego Diaz, and father and mother Paul and Juanita Diaz. They talk about being inspired to strive for something beyond picking in the fields. All seven Diaz children ran for Jim White and all seven went on to college.

 McFarland, USA Movie Trailer

Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) is the new PE teacher in McFarland, an economically challenged town in California's farm-rich Central Valley. White sees the athletic potential at the predominantly Latino high school and decides to put together a cross country team. He offers the kids a chance to know what it feels like to be champions.

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