The SportsTurf Interview: Mike Tarantino, CSFM

This month in “The SportsTurf Interview,” we hear from Mike Tarantino, CSFM, director of maintenance and operations, Poway (CA) Unified School District. Tarantino is a long-time STMA advocate and former Board of Director member who has led the work on several important association initiatives.

SportsTurf: What are your biggest challenges working for a school district? How are you meeting them?

Tarantino: Without a doubt it is budgeting. Since the “Great Recession” school districts have seen their budgets slashed. My departments lost 30% of our workforce and millions in dollars for supplies, contracted work and project work. However, it is important to keep your eye on why we doing what we do, educating children. With that said, money needs to be directed to the classroom: teachers, teaching supplies, textbooks and providing a safe, orderly and aesthetically pleasing environment. My sports fields are classrooms that provide the tool for PE teachers and coaches to educate children and these sports fields need to safe, orderly and aesthetically pleasing. I have been fortunate working here in the Poway Unified School District as they understand and support what I do to make the sports fields the best they can be for the benefit of children. There of course are other issues: drought, storm water regulations, pesticide use and renovations that loom large; however, most can be managed through proper budgeting.

Meeting these challenges is not all that difficult with proper planning. For my high profile fields, I rely on my past Player Condition Indexes (PCI). When performing the PCI I record past practices, weather conditions and materials used. This information allows me to know what has worked and what hasn’t and to budget accordingly. A working relationship with suppliers and contractors as well as internet use is another valuable tool for keeping up to date on new technology or products that provide me with information to include in my budgeting process.

SportsTurf: How has social media impacted your work?

Tarantino: It has increased my workload. Our work is constantly under scrutiny and now is available to the world to scrutinize! So now I must monitor emails and social media to see if there is a problem with any of the fields. I have created a social media “friends” group to be proactive if there is a concern my staff or the community or I have on particular fields or for field closures. And yes, it also goes out via email to our users as well.

With this said, social media and email also provides me with information that I may not know about, i.e., events not posted on our facilities calendar or work we may have missed or subpar maintenance.

SportsTurf: What are the most important changes you’ve seen in sports turf management since you have been an STMA member?

Tarantino: The use of social media, apps and the growing professionalism in our industry. I discussed social media and what that has done to change the way I work and communicate. With smart devices (is that an oxymoron?) and the use of the internet information to help problem solve, help is now literally in the palm of your hand! You no longer need to go back to the office or the shop to grab a reference book to problem solve you can do it right on the field, and if you determine the problem and need materials to remedy the problem the material can be ordered from the field.

With my years in STMA this organization has always strived to be the very best and to promote our members as professionals. It is so important that professionalism is represented in our core values, mission statement and in our credo, “experts on the field, partners in the game.” Our membership numbers keep growing, attendance at the annual conference keeps growing and the need for networking and education is very much in demand.

It is important that our membership stays current on new technologies, new products, climactic conditions, and federal and state regulations. We also must include synthetic turf fields and the maintenance they require, and to be able to discuss synthetic turf field concerns to their communities and employers; in other words, be professional.

SportsTurf: No member has more passion for the STMA than you; why are you such a believer in the association?

Tarantino: Passion, what a strong word. My passion is something that I found in 1987 (don’t tell my wife, she was my first passion, starting in 1970). In 1987 I attended a seminar in San Francisco and met Steve Wightman. I was new to the Poway Unified School District and one of my duties at the district was to maintain the sports fields. I had no formal training in this but since I could grow grass in a landscape setting, I figured how hard could it be?

I soon realized I didn’t know enough about the demands of a sports field! Steve in that seminar brought out my passion for learning and the love of the green industry. Steve shortly thereafter took the turf manager’s job at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego and in 1990 I joined the National STMA and my local chapter.

It was at the local level that I soon realized how important STMA is and what it could do for me and others in the green industry; networking and education and I soon realized that at one time or another we all have had the same problem but not all the same results. STMA is like opening up a reference book, researching the problem and discovering the solutions through a variety of methods, networking being the most important to me. I’m a people person, so I enjoy listening and talking to people, picking their brain on solutions and running ideas through them and hopefully being of some help to others.

This really is what STMA is about: people helping people. I have not found another organization whose members are so willing to assist their fellow members; we are a very confident group of individuals that promote a common goal, safe playing fields for all. There are no trade secrets, and information is passed on willingly.

So my passion is to continue what Steve instilled in me in 1987; to continue to be a learner, find your passion whether it is in the green industry or elsewhere but more importantly, to be what Steve was to me, a mentor and a friend.

SportsTurf: What STMA project are you working on currently?

Tarantino: I am currently the Chair on the Natural Grass Task Force and Chairing the Seminar on Wheels and Co-Chairing the SAFE golf tournament for the National Conference being held in my hometown, San Diego, in 2016.

The Natural Grass Task Force has been challenging. This group of volunteers has been tasked with bringing the importance of natural grass to other sports turf managers, their customers and the general public. This is a very diverse group, all with a passion for natural grass and the important role it plays in our communities. The role of natural grass is often overlooked unless you are a player or a parent whose child is playing on a poorly maintained sports field. It is the Task Force’s role to promote the use of natural grass playing surfaces through education including magazine/newspaper articles, training videos, the education of the STMA members and the general public. We are making progress but our work is far from over. We are currently working on an article that we hope will be out soon on the benefits of natural grass and how communities (this includes all schools, park and rec and professional) can become educated about the benefits of natural grass, how to recognize a safe field, and what can be done to keep or make the field safe.

SportsTurf: How do you think the STMA should approach the increasing number of synthetic turf fields being built?

Tarantino: Tough question. I’m not a basher of synthetic turf fields. I have approximately 20 acres of synthetic turf fields and approximately 165 acres of natural grass.

We need to come to the realization that the synthetic turf fields are not going away, we need to do what we do best and that is to educate our membership on promoting natural grass, understanding the health concerns of synthetic turf, how to maintain synthetic turf and to offer viable solutions to our members when faced with making a selection.

Synthetics to me are a tool; my stadium fields are all synthetic, as they could not be maintained on what budget I could allocate to them for the amount of sporting events played on them. It was my only logical solution if I wanted to have a safe playing surface.

SportsTurf: How do you think the profession and industry will change in the next 10 years?

Tarantino: Don’t get me wrong I like technology but I feel technology (apps, texting) detracts from the interaction between people and I fear that we will have a world of people that will not know how to communicate with each other beyond texting. This is a scary thought for a people person.

Technology will quicken the way we problem solve and do things. I can see mowing in the future that will be done via GPS guidance (unmanned), mowing could be done in the evening hours freeing up time to concentrate on the turf or soil.

The turf industry will need to invest more dollars into research to develop that “super” grass that can compete with the synthetic turfs.

The industry and STMA will need to be on this cutting edge to keep up with the information stream and provide information to its membership. We will also need to demonstrate to a younger generation the importance of being able to communicate face to face and that relationship building is important to succeeding in any profession.

SportsTurf: What are your passions and interests outside of work?

Tarantino: I love to cook for family and friends. It’s kind of a hobby that I find relaxing. I’m not sure that there is anything that beats a good meal with great company.

I know that when I retire I will get back to into my artwork. Most people don’t know that I was an art education major and really wanted to teach high school art. I still dabble now and then but will get more serious once I retire. Too busy now working on a 3-dimensional canvas: my sports fields.