When Gavin White visited the boat house on Monday morning, something felt different.
White, who announced his retirement preceding the Dad Vail Regatta, coached his last race on Saturday and suddenly, after 37 years coaching the Owls, he was no longer Temple’s head man.
“I felt like I was naked or something,” White said. “It’s part of your being. … It was my way of my life for so many years.”
White became the second crew coach in school history when he took the reins from Tom “Bear” Curran in 1979. He told his team on Thursday he would retire at the end of this season.
The coach was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2002 and his declining health kept him from driving to practice. With assistance from his wife, Jane, and Friends of Temple Rowing, a fundraising group for the team, White attended three or four practices per week.
White said his wife told him he could go for one more year, but knowing he had a senior class poised for a solid showing in the varsity 8, White decided 2016 would be his final season. The varsity 8 boat delivered with a third place finish on Saturday—the Owls’ first medal at the Dad Vail Regatta since 2008.
“I’ve been looking at this group coming along since they were freshmen,” he said. “It’s a senior-laden crew, so I kind of figured it had to be the year.”
“I think coach White held on for a couple of years to see this group of guys through,” assistant coach Brian Perkins said.
Under White’s watch, the Owls rose to national prominence peaking in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. From 1989-2001 Temple won 13 straight varsity 8 titles at the Dad Vail Regatta. White finished his career with 20 wins at the event.
His favorite memory, he said, is winning his first Dad Vail title in 1983 after finishing second the previous year. The win sparked a span of five consecutive victories for the Owls.
“I knew we were on the verge of something big,” White said. “We won five straight years after that, but that first one is always the best.”
University of California, Berkeley crew coach Mike Teti was on White’s staff at Temple from 1982-89. Teti, who was a three-time Olympic rower, went on to coach the U.S. national team and the U.S. Olympic team, but he said his best memories were with White at Temple.
“He took a big interest in their kids, everything they did, their families, their ups their downs, their weddings, their funerals,” Teti said. “He is Temple.”
“I used to say I would pay them to be able to hang out with Gavin two hours every day,” Teti added.
Along with coaching at Temple, White was a coach for the U.S. national team five times. He coached the men’s 4 to a fifth place finish at the 2000 Olympics.
“He had this unfathomable pool of knowledge to pull from,” said Scott Waters, who rowed for White from 2008-11. “If he didn’t have the answer himself, he knew someone who did.”
Waters now volunteers with the with freshman 4, varsity 4 and lightweight 4 boats. He is one of several Temple rowers to come back to coach on White’s staff. Only one member of the current staff didn’t row for White.
Perkins rowed for White from 1988-92, when he was team captain, and spent time as a graduate assistant for the program from 1995-98. He rejoined White’s staff in 2010 and is the team’s assistant coach and principal recruiter.
“It’s a tough culture to maintain,” Perkins said. “But with Gav being a Temple rower, myself being a former Temple rower with three of our four other Temple coaches being former Temple rowers, when we lose a group seniors like this, that helps us maintain the culture. It keeps the message carrying forward. We’re not sort of restarting this clock.”
The accomplishments of White’s tenure at Temple have drawn admiration from outside the program.
Drexel coach Paul Savell has helped guide the Dragons’ program to success since taking the position in 2007.
He led Drexel to the Henley Royal Regatta in 2012 and has led his men’s teams to 23 medals at the Dad Vail Regatta over the past nine years. As he tries to build upon the recent success of his program, he marvels at what White has accomplished at Temple.
“One thing is you know you can’t ever be satisfied because he’s the gold standard,” Savell said. “We haven’t accomplished even a little sliver of what he did. You always feel like you’re a little bit behind where you want to be with that.”
White rowed for Curran at Temple from 1971-1973 and spent a year on the Owls’ basketball team before building his program. He was inducted into Temple Athletics Hall of Fame in 1985, even before the Temple crew team went on its run of 13 straight Dad Vail titles.
He is the son of a former Temple Athletic Director, Gavin White, Jr., who is also a member of the Temple Hall of Fame, and a graduate of the university.
“It’s always about his team, his boys, his guys,” Perkins said. “It’s never been about what he’s done or putting his resume together and taking it to other schools looking for another job. He always bled Temple and was always here for the guys. The team’s that he created kept him here.”
The program’s success has been down in its recent history. While the varsity 8 boat medaled on Saturday, it had been eight years since the last time the Owls achieved that feat.
In December 2013, the crew and rowing teams were almost cut with seven other Division I programs, before they were reinstated in February 2014. The Owls’ boathouse, East Park Canoe House, was condemned in 2008.
Last July, Temple broke ground on renovating the facility, which should be ready for use this summer.
“We haven’t done much in the last 10 years years because it’s been tough,” White said. “For the last eight years, we’ve been running out of a tent. You can’t get good get recruits to come. Once this new boathouse is opened, we’re hoping with the rehabbed facility we’ll be able to get a lot more recruits to come to Temple.”
White will carry the title of Coach Emeritus after his retirement. He said he will check on his team from time to time, but he’s unsure of what else lies ahead. “Crochet,” he jokingly said when asked how he will spend his time.
In terms of what he’s leaving behind at Temple in after 37 years, White had a simple response.
“I’m leaving the program in better shape than I found it,” White said.
Owen McCue can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @Owen_McCue