‘Turf man’ says goodbye to Merlo (or not!)

By Ana Clyde

Update: According to Athletics Director Scott Laykam, Kevin White has decided not to stay with Wilbur Ellis and is coming back to University of Portland.  He starts back full time on Monday. 

He had been hired only four days before. It was July 19th, 2015, and University of Portland’s third athletic fields manager, Kevin White, was getting Merlo Field ready to host the Portland Timbers 2. White had to learn what to do, and prepare for a professional team, in less than a week.

He made a mistake. It was a small mistake. The line he painted at the end of the field was supposed to match the goal posts. But the line was slightly crooked, putting the goal only a hair in front of the paint. The referees were easygoing about the mistake, but they told him it had to be perfect for the next game.

“Oh it will be,” said White. “Don’t worry.”

It was. And it continued to be. In fact, White’s skills are so renowned, he brought home the Field of the Year Award for Merlo in 2016. He even consults with the Timbers field managers on how to keep up their turf. White is known for always being one of the first athletics staff members to show up every day. But only a little over two years after his first day on Merlo, White will be leaving UP to work as a sales rep for Wilbur Ellis, a company that sells agricultural products.

“This opportunity became available that’s…hard to pass up,” White said. “It allows me to spend more time with my wife, more freedom for taking time off.”

As athletics fields manager, White worked on Joe Etzel Field, the two practice fields, and Merlo — without a crew. Other than the few student workers he trains to provide some help on the fields, he is the sole caretaker of UP’s renowned facilities. This gives White a lot of control over his work, as he decides things like what fertilizers to use on the fields to what patterns will be mowed on Merlo.

White has spent an average of 55 to 60 hours on campus per week, the majority of that time going to Merlo, especially with home games. Game prep takes all week. Leading up to a game, White spends every day mowing, seeding, and watering the field, dividing his work up into small increments.

“The best place to find him was always at work as I’ve never met anyone who showed up earlier or worked longer than Kevin,” said men’s soccer head coach Nick Carlin-Voigt. “He prided himself on his craft to ensure both soccer programs had the crown jewel field in the Pacific Northwest.”

Taking care of the renowned playing field along with three other fields on his own has been a lot of work, even with two practice fields and an artificial baseball field. Etzel might not have real grass to mow, but White still gives the field the attention it needs.

“There’s kind of a misnomer that, because it’s turf, there’s not a lot of maintenance. But that’s far from the truth,” said Gonzo Grasis, associate athletic director of operations. “He spends a lot of time out there, grooming and keeping that artificial surface playable and safe, so that we get the most useful life out of that.”

But even though he was the only one to take care of UP’s fields, White knew what he was doing. For six years prior to UP, White had been working at Seattle University taking care of its fields. It was there that he came into contact with the two athletic fields managers that worked with UP athletics before him. The three of them are members of the Sports Turf Management Association (SFMA), and all studied turfgrass management in college.

The position of athletic fields manager was still being developed when White first interviewed a few years ago. But although Buzz Stroud, the associate athletic director, wanted to hire White then, the offer was not enough to uproot him and his wife from Seattle, where they were living. The work itself also seemed too overwhelming. The athletic fields manager at that point had to take care of Merlo Field, the practice fields, and the baseball field all on his own. So, White continued working at Seattle University, but stayed in contact with Stroud.

In July of 2015, the position opened up, and Stroud called White to see if he would be interested in interviewing for the job again. He agreed. The position had grown in athletics, and White saw more incentives to move. For one, the baseball field had been converted to an artificial surface, which meant less work for one person with no crew. The second incentive was the renowned Merlo Field itself. And the third incentive: at the time, the school was hosting all of the Portland Timbers 2 home games.  Stroud made sure to bring White to a T2 game on UP’s home field.

“It felt like a sellout crowd,” White said. “It was just really electric in there…I liked that excitement. And I thought, well, I want to do this.”

So, when White was offered the position a second time, he accepted and moved to Portland.

White majored in turfgrass management at Cal Poly, taking science-based classes like soil biology, botany, and plant physiology that would give him the foundation to make educated decisions in taking care of a sports field.

His position at Seattle University was the first time he worked on sports turf, but before then, he worked on golf course maintenance. White’s love for golf is what first got him interested in turfgrass management. He wasn’t good enough to golf professionally, so he looked for another career path that would let him work on the golf course.

Initially he wanted to be a course designer because of his interest in designing with minimal disruption to the environment, feeling passionately about an environmentally friendly approach. But as a field manager, he’s been able to apply his passion that was fueled by his studies, and use it on Seattle U’s fields. The school is a pesticide-free campus, which forced White to be creative with some of his strategies. He had to fall back on the sciences he studied, like when certain diseases or insects affect the plants, and how to combat those issues naturally. When he came to Portland, White rethought his tactics once again, and continued that pro-environmental philosophy on Merlo Field.

“I knew that it was going to be a challenge, and I knew that there was going to be an expectation to continue on that tradition of high-quality field,” White said. “But that was my goal as well.”

His efforts have also been noticed by UP athletics. White’s conscious approach and attention to detail are appreciated by staff members, coaches and players.

“He’s got good rapport with the coaches,” Grasis said. “The players obviously love him because he goes above and beyond…Kevin’s one of those people that does that extra ten percent.”

White’s relationship with the soccer teams has become particularly important, especially with men’s soccer and head coach Nick Carlin-Voigt. On game day, White will come in around 6:30 that morning, and work straight through until the team comes out to do walkthroughs at around 10 a.m. He’ll wait for them to finish, then go back on the field and work up to game time mowing patterns, which usually takes about three to four hours.

He tried to accommodate so that the men’s team can also go out on Merlo once a week. To make sure this doesn’t intervene with maintenance, White keeps dialogue with the coaches. They tell him what they want for playing conditions, and he does his best to meet their requests and offer solutions.

“Kevin is a true professional who took great pride in his work,” Carlin-Voigt said. “His work on the field spoke louder than his words off it as he took great care in developing the best grass field in the country.”

White feels prepared for his new position, and confident that his experience at UP and with the Timbers will help him in his new position with Wilbur Ellis as he consults clients about which products to buy. He hopes that the new UP athletics fields manager will work with him and buy his products, so that he can come back to campus as often as possible.

But for now, White is simply proud of what he’s done on Merlo and his contribution to the field’s reputation in the collegiate sports world. He doesn’t rule out ever going back to working on turf because of the experience he’s had at UP and his love for getting the field ready for home games.

“I will miss that point. Looking back and knowing what it took to get to that point,” White said. “That’s probably what I’ll miss most: the people and just that whole game day experience. I really enjoy that.”

White’s last official day with the Portland Pilots was Friday, Oct. 13, but he will continue to work at UP as Gonzo Grasis looks for a replacement with the same experience and pride as White. The two have decided to have White come back temporarily on a lighter schedule so he can help maintain Merlo as the soccer teams play their home games for the rest of the season.

“…he will be sorely missed by everyone at Portland soccer,” Carlin-Voigt said. “His legacy will live on in the hallowed grounds of Merlo Field.”