A Passion Passed From Father to Son
By Beth Kohl • October 5, 2016
Gavin White, Sr. probably had no way of knowing that he was creating a legacy when he brought his two sons with him to Temple University Stadium, where he coached football and track. He was just being a dad, keeping his boys with him on weekend afternoons.
“My dad was a football coach and the head track coach at Temple then, and since we were little, he would take my brother, Dave, and I out to Temple Stadium,” said Dr. Gavin R. White. “Sometimes, we would take friends with us and play hide-and-go-seek. Or we would just run on the track. We had complete run of the place, and it was really fun.”
White tells that story not because he wants to share how much he enjoyed playing in the stadium, but because watching his father coach had a tremendous impact on him.
“I loved to watch Dad operate and see how much fun he had coaching, how much he really enjoyed it,” White said. “He was my hero, and having him to observe and seeing how much he loved his kids was special. He was at his best when he was teaching, and of course, coaching is teaching. My dad is the biggest reason I coached.”
And did he ever.
For 37 years, Dr. White ran scores of young men up and down Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, coaching them from a launch, running them through land training along the paths of nearby Fairmount Park, or overseeing the indoor workouts in the old Philadelphia Canoe Club in the shadows of the Strawberry Mansion near the head of Kelly Drive.
“He was my hero, and having him to observe and seeing how much he loved his kids was special. He was at his best when he was teaching, and of course, coaching is teaching. My dad is the biggest reason I coached.”
Even though the building where he made his sanctuary was located about two miles upriver from the city’s storied Boathouse Row, the name Dr. Gavin R. White was, is, and always will be a part of Philadelphia’s rich rowing legacy.
Working with a low budget program on a part-time salary, White became the second head coach in Temple’s history in 1979, and for 37 years, he grew the program and oversaw a succession of crews comprised of what he always referred to as “tough, gritty guys with character.”
He led them to 20 Dad Vail Regatta varsity eight titles including an impressive string of 13 consecutive titles from 1989 to 2001. His crews were invited to compete in the prestigious Royal Henley Regatta seven times, reaching the quarterfinals four times and the Grand Final in 1984.
But more important to his athletes, himself and his beloved Temple University, White served as a role model and helped mold young men into productive adults, just like he watched his father do when he was a child.
For all that he has done for rowing and following his retirement as the head crew coach this spring, White has been named the 2016 USRowing Man of the Year.
He will be honored with the award on Dec. 3 at the USRowing Annual Convention in Springfield, Mass.
“I was surprised by the award,” White said. “I was totally surprised and gratified. It is nice to be recognized. Rowing has given me and my family so much joy. I feel I have already been honored to have played a small part in this beautiful sport,” he said.
“Man of the Year truly epitomizes Gavin White,” said Dr. Patrick Kraft, Temple University Director of Athletics. “Not only for his dedication and service to our rowers over the past 37 years but, more importantly, for being a tremendous role model to the student-athletes in his program.”
A son of a city steeped in tradition, White began his career at Temple as a freshman athlete, playing basketball and then rowing on the crew team from 1971 to 1973.
He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in physical education and, as a senior, he was honored with the club’s Most Valuable Rower Award. Following graduation, White went to the University of Maryland, where he earned a Master’s degree in physical education.
White returned to Temple to begin a career as a teacher, and one afternoon while walking to a class, he was approached by a member of the crew. White had not relinquished his ties to rowing after leaving Temple. He continued to row at Fairmount Rowing Association on Boathouse Row, where he successfully competed in pairs at both the senior and elite levels. The young undergraduate wanted White to help then-head coach Tom “Bear” Curran, who was really working part time and couldn’t spend enough time with the crew as a whole.
“I came back to Temple as a teaching associate and between classes, I ran into Marty Jackson, who was a kid on the team and he said, ‘The Bear has so many guys, he doesn’t have enough time. Why don’t you come down. We would love to have you come down and coach us.’ I thought, ‘let me see what happens.’ So I went down unannounced and went in the launch with The Bear. And that’s what I did pretty much for two seasons. I drove the launch for The Bear and just helped out. Coaching Temple was only a part time job, so The Bear would miss a number of practices every week. I was there to make sure he kept the continuity going from week to week.
“He was never forthcoming with information, though. He always said, ‘If you tell somebody too much, they’ll have your job,’” White recalled.
Curran must have told White exactly what he needed to learn, because when he retired, White took the helm of that launch and drove it from then until this spring. The only exception was the 1984-85 season, when he took a sabbatical to work on his doctoral degree, which he received from Temple in 1986.
He coached the men’s four to a fifth place finish at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, and served as a U.S. national team coach five times, coaching the men’s pair with coxswain to the gold medal at the 2003 World Rowing Championships in Milan, Italy. In 2003, he was named Schuylkill Navy Coach of the Year.
Many of White’s athletes rowed in international competition at world championships and Olympics. Of all the athletes White coached, there is one that stands out in his mind as being the model of what a Temple oarsman is.
“Every crew is different,” White said. “But I can tell you when the program turned around. And I can tell you for a fact that it had to do with a guy named Charlie Bracken.”
Bracken was a Philly rower from the start. He rowed at West Catholic High School in Philadelphia and with a very successful junior program at Fairmount, where White also rowed. White wanted Bracken to come to Temple, but he chose Northeastern University in Boston instead. According to White, Bracken he was told he was too small following his freshman year. But White knew they were not seeing the size of his competitive heart.
“That really affected him, and he came back to Philly,” White said. “We got him a partial scholarship, but he was ineligible his first year.”
When he was finally able to race, it was in a fall regatta called the Frostbite Regatta. The University of Pennsylvania was also racing that day, and because of frigid, wet weather that weekend, the Penn crew was warming up in Temple boathouse, close to the racecourse.
“Charlie heard them talking and telling each other how they were going to kill us. That got under his skin. When they were at the line, Charlie turned around and said to the guys behind him, ‘I want this bad.’ He went off the line at a 50 and never settled. And we won,” said White. “The guys in the boat tell me to this day that they got chills up their spines when he said that.”
White said that day, that win, that one athlete stood for everything Temple was to him, an undersized program that would not be pushed around.
“Just having him in the program changed everyone,” White said. “It really did.”
Bracken remembers that day. But his memory is of what White and Temple did for him, not the reverse.
“Clearly one of the best experiences of my life was Temple rowing,” Bracken said. “Gavin and I first met at Fairmount Rowing Association. He was rowing the elite pair with John Wright and I was starting out in the summer youth rowing program.
“Even in that environment, Gavin took interest in our program. He was always sincere and made you feel part of the program, always with positive comments. He made you feel good about yourself,” Bracken said.
“I was recruited into Temple with several local Philadelphia rowers who were also on former U.S. junior teams. Gavin inspired us to want to be exceptional. You wanted to do well for the program, for Gavin and each other. He cared about his team. His boys were all his sons. We were family, his family. Even Jane, Gavin’s wife became like your second mother. It was a special environment, a very special time.”
White said that through the years, he had offers to move to bigger programs, but he never considered any of them. Not seriously. Temple was his family. It had been from the days when he and his kid brother went to watch their dad coach.
“Temple was my perfect storm,” White said. “It was in my blood from the start.”