November 21, 2014*
Editor’s addition on 2/20/2015: Our review of the film shows up as point #3 below.
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — The 2014 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships are tomorrow. LetsRun.com’s Robert Johnson and Jonathan Gault arrived in Terre Haute yesterday and spent the day checking out the course, talking to coaches and athletes and attending the international debut of the upcoming Kevin Costner film McFarland, USA, about McFarland High School, the winners of the first-ever California state meet in 1987. The film doesn’t officially come out until February but we, Jim Ryun, and all the NCAA runners got to see it on Thursday
We share what we learned below.
1. No one seems to be worried about the course
Anyone who is a mudder is likely to be disappointed. People who like track but not xc are rejoicing. Why? Well it’s been cold and very windy here this week but it hasn’t rained since Monday, and the course was hard and dry when we visited it yesterday. There were several snowy patches, including the finish area, which had the most snow of any place on the course, but overall the course looks as if it will be relatively fast — as long as it stays dry between now and noon on Saturday.
Weather.com’s forecast for Terre Haute says there is a 30 percent chance of rain tonight but the rainfall doesn’t look like it will be very heavy. Wunderground.com says there will be less than a tenth of inch on rain on Saturday (but more than an inch on Sunday so the race will just miss be swamped). Temps are expected to be 48 degrees for the first race (noon ET) with a wind of 15 mph.
The course is going to almost certainly be very firm and in tons better condition than it was last year, when the start line had to be moved up because the original start area was waterlogged. None of the coaches or athletes we spoke to seemed to be worried about the conditions as most believed that significant rain won’t come until later Saturday afternoon, after the races have been run, if at all.
As a result, we could see some very fast times on Saturday. It’s important to note that the course in Terre Haute varies drastically based on the conditions.
As a reminder, the course record for the men is the 28:41.2 by Liberty’s Sam Chelanga run at NCAAs in 2009. However, Josh Rohatinsky also won on this course in 30:44.9 in 2006 – more than two minutes slower.
Similarly, the fastest winning women’s time is the 19:28.1 by Texas Tech’s Sally Kipyego at NCAAs in 2008, but the slowest is the 20:11.1 that Kipyego ran in 2006.
Of the two course records, the men’s record is less likely to fall given that favorite Edward Cheserek isn’t usually one to chase fast times, but with Kate Avery in the field (she ran 19:15 at Holmdel Park in New Jersey to win her conference meet), the women’s race could go out fast. It will be a challenge for Avery — or anyone else for that matter — to break the course record of a three-time NCAA XC champ and future Olympic silver medallist, but the hope is that the times are quicker than last year, when no one broke 20:00.
2. Several of the top teams were absent from the blue carpet last night
Last night, the NCAA put on a banquet at Indiana State’s Hulman Center, followed by international debut of Kevin Costner’s new movie on cross country, McFarland, USA, at the beautiful Indiana Theatre, which opened in 1922. It was quite a night as Jim Ryun was in attendance as was the coach of the McFarland squad Jim White.
Usually, there’s a blue carpet at the banquet and the media is able to photograph the teams before dinner, but this was certainly a much bigger event. This time, the blue carpet was at the theater, bringing a Hollywood feel to western Indiana. Two search lights shone into the night sky in front of the building as a sign reading “Champions can come from anywhere. Welcome NCAA.” greeted the athletes and coaches as they arrived on the scene (“champions can come from anywhere” is the film’s tagline). Even a television news truck was there to capture the spectacle.
We saw many of the top teams and individuals — the Syracuse and Oklahoma State men, the Michigan State and Iowa State women — but several teams were notably absent. Of the top 10 men’s teams, we counted six that weren’t there: #1 Colorado, #3 Oregon, #5 Villanova, #6 Wisconsin, #7 Portland and #9 Stanford (it’s possible that we missed them, but since all athletes and coaches entered through the same door, we’re pretty confident). On the women’s side, #2 Georgetown, #3 Oregon, #6 Wisconsin, #8 Colorado, #9 New Mexico and #10 Stanford weren’t there.
That’s a real shame in our mind. It was a wonderful event, Jim Ryun gave an inspiring talk (more on that below) and yet many top coaches apparently didn’t want their teams’ routines to be upset. We personally think the NCAA should mandate that all teams attend the banquet. Collegiate sports is supposed to be educational. Going to a classy event, seeing a world premiere of a movie, and listening to Jim Ryun is something that doesn’t happen every day. If the NCAA mandates that everyone goes, then it becomes like the weather – everyone has to deal with it.
Don’t misunderstand us. We understand why some top teams don’t show up. Last year, one coach of a team that finished in the top 20 told us he that he views NCAAs as a business trip, not a social event, and it would seem that several other top coaches agree with him. But come on people, the movie was two nights before the race and wrapped up just before 10:00; it was a great way for the top teams to forget about the pressure and enjoy a new experience.
3. The movie itself was well-done (and got lots of cheers from the athletes during it), albeit extremely predictable.
First of all, kudos to whoever was responsible for setting up the advance screening. The venue was incredible, the athletes got the chance to feel like Hollywood celebrities, and the real-life inspiration for Costner’s character, former McFarland High coach Jim White, as well as 1968 Olympic silver medallist Jim Ryun were both on hand and spoke to the athletes in attendance. Plus, the movie doesn’t come out in theaters until February 20.
McFarland, USA is based on the true story of the 1987 McFarland High School boys’ cross country team, which won Division III of the inaugural California state meet in 1987 (you can view the trailer here). White, a failed football coach with no running experience, pulls together a team of migrant workers and turns them into champions. It’s a feel-good story (unsurprising considering it’s a Disney film) and while the movie was not without flaws, it drew heavy applause from the audience at its conclusion and at certain points throughout the film (usually when the team’s overweight seventh man, Danny Diaz, was shown passing runners).
Writers Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson took a few liberties with the script, according to White, and the actor playing the team’s top runner, Thomas Valles, looked more like a lacrosse player than a runner. But the race scenes were fairly well done, even though the runners could sometimes go too fast and the courses were unrealistic. The main problem with the races was that it’s impossible to create a buzzer beater/Hail Mary-type moment in cross country. Instead, the drama centered on teams waiting for the results to be announced, which is nowhere near as exciting. Of course, that fault there lies with the sport and not the director.
Sports movies that use the phrase “inspired by the true story” are generally uplifting, and it was impossible to walk out of the theater on Thursday without a smile on your face. McFarland, USA did a great job telling the story of White and his athletes, and we’d recommend it to running fans and parents alike. This movie will certainly become a classic on all team bus rides for years to come.
But movies like this are formulaic, and McFarland, USA hit on every sports movie cliche:
- New coach is viewed as an outsider by his athletes, but eventually they buy in.
- The star player quits the team but ultimately rejoins after a heart-to-heart with the coach.
- The happiest scene in the movie is immediately followed by tragedy.
- The coach is approached by a larger school and offered a position; one of his athletes finds out right before the big race.
- The overweight kid that nobody but the coach believed in comes through when it matters most.
Those first two moments were straight out of the Hoosiers playbook (appropriate, given the venue), and the other three have popped up in other sports movies from time to time. Sometimes trailers can be deceiving, but this one lines out exactly what to expect from the film (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing). It’s a great story, and director Niki Caro has done a good job with it.
Oh yeah, one other thing. Maybe it was a good thing that Stanford skipped the screening. The villians in the movie are the rich kids from Palo Alto high.
4. Words of wisdom from Jim Ryun
Ryun, the first American schoolboy to break four minutes for the mile and the former world record holder in the mile (3:51.1, run at the tender age of 20), spoke for about 10 minutes before the film. They tried to show a video of Ryun’s world record on the screen behind him, but YouTube paused to start loading right before the bell lap and we were never able to see the finish.
Ryun shared the story of how he was cut from his church basketball team and that as a teen in Wichita, Kansas, he struggled to find meaning in his life. He would pray to God, asking Him to reveal His plan for Ryun. Eventually, Ryun went out for cross country, found success and the rest is history: three Olympic teams, three world records in the mile (one indoors) and 10 years as a congressman from Kansas’ second district.
Ryun’s main advice for the runners on Saturday was to dream big. He said that his high school coach Bob Timmons (who would later become his college coach at the University of Kansas) told Ryun after he ran 4:21 in his fourth career race that he could become the first American high schooler to break 4:00 for the mile. By his junior year, he had run 3:59. A year after that, he was down to 3:55 and made the Olympic team.
5. Have no fear, Syracuse is here.
In case you didn’t know, parts of Buffalo received more than six feet of snow on Thursday. Well Syracuse, the home of the #2 ranked Syracuse men, is just 150 miles east of Buffalo. The Orange weren’t supposed to leave for Terre Haute until Thursday but the NCAA got real nervous on Wednesday when they saw the forecast and told Syracuse they had less than three hours to get to the airport as they were now flying out on Wednesday. The Orange somehow got everyone together and they got to Indianapolis on Wednesday. Of course, their rental cars, etc weren’t ready so they spent the night in Indy before coming to Terre Haute as planned yesterday.
We just wonder if some of them have some dirty singlets and what not as we always did laundry the night before departure.
For the record, Syracuse didn’t get any snow but it’s better safe than sorry.
More Photos From Yesterday Below. Click for a large image.