Longtime Temple rowing coach stunned by news of cuts

Without a boathouse, Temple's boats are stored outside near the tents that is the team's temporary home. White says pushing for a new facility sealed the program's fate.
Without a boathouse, Temple's boats are stored outside near the tents that is the team's temporary home. White says pushing for a new facility sealed the program's fate. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 08, 2013

Barely more than an hour after he got the news, Gavin White sat in his car in the driveway next to the Liacouras Center, blinkers flashing, rain filling his windshield. He looked at his ringing phone.

"This is my wife," said Temple's men's rowing coach, in his 34th year on the job.

"Hey, Whitey," White said, getting right to why he had left her a message to call. "They cut crew. . . . Yes, they did. They cut seven sports. They cut men and women's crew. I think the whole boathouse thing, we cut our own throats with that. They cut baseball, softball, gymnastics." During the call, White's right hand began shaking but his voice stayed even.

"You plan the party," White told his wife.

His wife had been telling him that when he finally got out she would throw the biggest party known to man.

"You hear her?" White said when he got off the phone. "She was cursing a blue streak." White, whose Varsity 8 had won the Dad Vail Regatta 20 times, wore his Temple shirt identifying him as the crew coach. His Temple ID hung from his neck.

"I bleed Temple blood," White said. "Yeah, I do."

He had just left a meeting where his team had been given the news.

"One kid says to me, 'How long have you known about this?' " White said. "Thinking I'd say a week, or two days. I said, '20 minutes.' " His son had called while he drove into work. He'd just heard a rumor from someone at La Salle that they were cutting sports at Temple.

"I walked in this morning, nobody would look me in the eye," White said. "I felt like I was walking into my own funeral."

When athletic director Kevin Clark gave him the news, White said that if no resources were going to be put into rowing, he understood it couldn't continue the way it had been.

"You can't treat Division I athletes like you've been treating them," White said. "Putting them in port-o-pots, no roof over their head, boats laying outside on the grass all summer long.

"There was no dignity at all. They just weren't treating our kids with dignity."

He was talking about how Temple - and only Temple, out of all the colleges and high schools and clubs that row on the Schuylkill - competed out of a tent by the river's edge, since their home in the Canoe Club had been condemned in 2008. Efforts had been made to build a new boathouse but, for all sorts of reasons involving money and politics, it never happened.

"I just said to my dad, 'I don't know, we may have cut our own throat, pushing for a new boathouse,' " White said. "I think when they saw the cost of property in the park and everything else, they might have said, 'Whoa.' "

White's father once had been Temple's athletic director. White isn't kidding about that Temple blood. He had played basketball for the Owls as a freshman before switching to the sport that became his life. White's mother had been pregnant with him when she went to see Gavin White Sr. play football for the Owls. The old man also had coached Bill Cosby on the track team.

"He's all hot," his son reported.

The truth is, White was leaning toward retiring as rowing coach after this season. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2002, kept it on the back burner for some years with exercise, then underwent surgery in 2010 to stimulate activity in his brain. He uses a cane or a walker to get around.

"I have never quit anything on my life - I wasn't going to quit,'' White said. "But, likely, honestly, it probably would have been my last year this year because it's getting so tough to get out anywhere. Getting up and out of the dock - it's an outdoor sport, it just takes too much effort. But I was going to stick with it as long as I could."

He's had his time. He's coached future Olympians at Temple, coached at the Olympics himself, in charge of the men's four at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

"You start thinking about all these kids," White said. "We've got a real good squad but they're so young. If it was all seniors it would be one thing. These kids would be really good in two years."

He knows a couple rowers will want to transfer, he said, and he can't stop them or blame them.

"I can't ask guys to stay if they've got scholarship offers somewhere else," White said. "I've got the best coxswain I've had in a bunch of years, he's from Bonner. He could have gone anywhere. He chose Temple."

In recent years, White had a handful of scholarships he splits up between team members. They can keep them if they stay, or be eligible immediately if they transfer.

There was instant talk that rowing may continue as a club program. There's a good chance it will happen. One of the assistants wants to do it. Clark said the team can keep the equipment. I talked to someone today, a Temple guy, who aimed to help that happen - he meant, financially - and has the means to help. White, now 61, said he would keep going as a club coach if he were younger and healthier.

The women's team, a more surprising cut given the Title IX implications, also can continue as a club team, but the money for future scholarships is gone, and so is the coach's future salary.

In his car, White reached around and grabbed a steering cable for a boat out of a cardboard box right behind his seat, showing that in the absence of a boathouse, this is his office.

"You could probably build a boat out of the stuff in this car," White said.

White had told his guys they would try to go out with a bang this spring, "give them something to remember us by."

What else could he say?

It was time to ignore his phone and drive home in the rain to Elkins Park.

"The thing I regret most - in ten years, nobody will remember us," White said. " 'Temple had a crew team?' "


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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