He Turned Migrant Kids into Champions


Jim White retired from coaching cross-country at McFarland High School more than a decade ago, but he still shows up for practice plenty of afternoons, pedaling his bicycle alongside the team as they run through the central California town’s dusty streets and out into fields lined with orchards and vegetables. “I try and give the kids the best I can,” says White, 73, “and I expect them to give me their best.”

That approach helped make history: During White’s two decades as coach, the McFarland High team – composed mainly of the children of immigrant farmworkers – won an unprecedented nine state championships. With each win, White and his star runners opened the door for hundreds of kids to dream of bigger things than picking almonds and avocados. “I never set out to leave a legacy,” says White, whose story inspired the new movie McFarland, USA, starring Kevin Costner. “I just wanted to make a difference.”

He did. Known affectionately as “Blanco” among his students – most of whom spent summers and weekends working the fields alongside their parents – White first came up with the idea of starting a cross-country team in 1980 after noticing the natural talent of several of his high schoolers. Before long coaching became a year-round endeavor, and he could often be found paying for running shoes and even food for his cash-strapped runners. “He would dish out more money than what the school was paying him,” says former student Danny Diaz, 43, who is now a high school counselor. “He was coaching 365 days a year.”

In between the workouts and long miles, White would drill – and still does – a simple mantra into their heads. “I tell them, ‘Attitude is everything,’ ” he says. His runners see him as more than a coach. “He was a father figure,” recalls former team member Johnny Samaniego, 42, who now coaches the girls’ basketball team for the school. “He was the first person to take me to a bowling alley, a pizza parlor or to the movies.”

White’s motivational philosophy has had a profound effect on generations of locals. “A lot of us wanted to aspire to be like him,” says Diaz. “He put the footprints where we should follow.”

But White considers his former students the true champions. McFarland Mayor Manuel Cantu recently chatted with White about plans for a plaque honoring the team’s achievements. “The only problem was that Jim didn’t want his name on it,” recalls Cantu. “He told me, ‘I want the kids to have the credit. They’re the ones who ran.'”

Related Articles