Rain cannot stop sure-footed Sooners

By Stacie Zinn Roberts

The rain came down in buckets. Jeff Salmond, CSFM, director of athletic field management at the University of Oklahoma and a 20-year member of STMA, stood on the sidelines and watched as the Oklahoma Sooners football team took the field at Memorial Stadium in Norman. But the rain kept coming. “It wasn’t a light rain, or a misty rain. It was a downpour. Water was pouring out from the stands,” Salmond recalls. It rained the entire game.

Still, despite the punishing weather conditions, Oklahoma freshman running back Samaje Perine scored five touchdowns that November day last fall, and rushed for a record 427 yards to lead the Sooners to a 44-7 win over the Kansas Jayhawks. Perhaps nearly as impressive, after the game the field (featuring Latitude 36 bermudagrass), looked virtually untouched.

“The field held up great. It was awesome,” Salmond says. “There were no ill effects from the weather. After we mowed it, you couldn’t even tell we’d had a game.”

He attributes the field’s performance under such dramatic conditions to several factors: The field has an excellent drainage system. Because it is sand-based, wet weather doesn’t create a sloppy mess, which helps with durability and playability. He also credits the grass.

“I think the resiliency of the grass, and what we had been able to do to it in the 3-4 months prior from the initial grow-in, helped. That’s what we prepare our fields for, to be able to withstand something like that. The integrity of the field, the drainage, and all work put into the field, it’s really a tribute to our staff and the job they do,” he says.

Field preparation includes solid tine aerification “to help water and moisture to get through, to get the water off the surface as fast as possible.”

Salmond says their fertility program is also an important factor. “We have backed off of synthetic fertilizers and moved more to a carbon-based fertility,” he says. “The grass does well on its own. What we’re trying to do is keep the grass growing and going. It is doing well with this kind of fertility plan. So far, that’s what we’ve seen.”

At Oklahoma, Salmond oversees a crew of eight full-time professionals and three part-time student workers. Together, they maintain Memorial Stadium and the John Crain Soccer game field, as well as baseball and softball fields, the track facility and tennis courts. Latitude 36 was chosen for the soccer field and football stadium, Salmond says, “For its durability and cold tolerance, and its early spring green up to compete with overseeded perennial ryegrass.” Native soil football practice fields are grassed in the center of the fields with NorthBridge bermudagrass.

Another consideration of the grass selection, Salmond says, was the close proximity of the sod farm, Riverview Sod Ranch, just 2 hours away in Leonard, OK. “Latitude was grown on a sandier soil at the farm that closely matches our field. The NorthBridge was grown on heavier soil” which is similar to the soil at the football practice fields.

In Norman, deep in the heart of the transition zone, overseeding is critical to maintain a thick, green stand of turf during the winter months when the bermudagrass goes dormant. Also because of the location, where weather can change from cold to warm in an instant, properly timing an overseed program can be a challenge.

“Last fall we overseeded when we saw temperatures were coming down to help provide good germination and a good stand. We got great germination. However, temperatures went back up and so the Latitude took back off with a flush of growth,” Salmond says. “So for the rain game in November, we were playing on semi-dormant bermudagrass with a light cover of ryegrass. But it provided excellent footing.”

Since the Latitude offered such a “dense mat layer,” next year he intends to verticut a bit more aggressively before overseeding again.

Transitioning out of ryegrass overseed back to bermudagrass is usually tricky business. Yet, this past spring, the first year the football and soccer fields transitioned out of the ryegrass back to the Latitude 36, was almost stress-free.

“It has provided us with the fastest transition we have ever seen. Other than a color difference between the perennial ryegrass and Latitude bermudagrass, there has not been a lack of significant cover to tell we have switched between the two grasses during the transition,” Salmond says.

He’s also happy with the overseed results of the NorthBridge Bermudagrass on the practice fields.

“So far it is the only grass that we have been able to use that will actually help take the overseeded ryegrass and provide enough cover for the ryegrass to germinate and sustain through a rigorous practice schedule for football, and provide a protective cover for the bermuda in the early spring,” he says. “We like both grasses, with the Latitude 36 being a bit darker green than the NorthBridge.”

In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the field at Memorial Stadium had an artificial turf surface. In 1994, it was switched back to natural grass.

“I am a believer in the best and safest surface for our student-athletes to help them achieve championships,” Salmond says. “A well-maintained and manicured natural grass surface can provide the best playable and safest surface out there. Most athletes would agree a well-kept natural grass field is the preferred surface to play on.”

He adds, “It benefits the environment. Natural grass plays a vital role in our oxygen and carbon dioxide.”

Salmond began his career as an assistant field manager for the Baltimore Ravens, followed by stints at University of New Mexico and Northwestern University. His wife, Loida, also works at the university and their three children (with a fourth on the way) all spend time on campus “growing up being field and gym rats

“Growing up, I was a Brian Bosworth fan. I never thought that my career would bring me to Oklahoma. I have been blessed from having great mentors and friends in the turfgrass industry who have helped me along the way. I am thankful that our athletic director, Joe Castiglione, gives us the tools and resources for our athletic field management department to be successful,” he says.

Salmond’s reaction to the fact that both Latitude 36 and NorthBridge were developed by the turfgrass research program at Sooners rival Oklahoma State was diplomatic. “One thing they can do,” Salmond says, “is breed good grasses.”

Stacie Zinn Roberts is president of What’s Your Avocado? and wrote this article on behalf of her client, South Carolina-based Sod Solutions.