When he first became the athletic director at Hillcrest (SC) High School, Tommy Bell didn’t understand what he calls “the pageantry” of Friday night football.
“It was white lines and white numbers and let’s go play,” Bell said. “I maybe sold some of that other stuff short.”
But it didn’t take him long to learn the field isn’t just a safe, organized place to play a game.
“It’s the biggest platform you get in a year, your home football games,” he said.
Making that platform look its best requires long hours of planning, coordination and hard work, both during the season and throughout the year.
Greenville County Schools has roughly 90 high school athletic fields to maintain, well more than 100 acres of grass. Caring for those fields means giving all 14 schools the best playing surfaces possible, said Darryl Nance, director of athletics for Greenville County Schools.
“It’s not just cutting grass,” Nance said. “Our fields are curb appeal for our students.”
Greenville County is in the middle of a transition designed to help lift some of the burden of field maintenance.
“Until this year, pretty much our coaches took care of our fields,” Nance said.
The district wanted that to change – coaches already are teaching and handling huge responsibilities with their teams.
“It’s really hard for them to be able to cut grass as well,” Nance said.
Each Greenville high school already had a groundskeeper and the district has moved mowing athletic fields to that person’s responsibilities.
“Those guys really took a lot of pride in their facilities and they’ve done an amazing job,” Nance said.
The district also is in the process of assuming responsibility for care such as weed control, fertilization, top-dressing and over-seeding. That work will be contracted out for the entire district. Nance said he’s hoping to have a bid approved this fall and the change in place by January. That work used to handled or contracted out by each school individually.
“Hopefully you end up with fields that all look the same across the district,” said Erin Keen, athletic director at Travelers Rest High School.
Painting still will stay the responsibility of each school. And that work is done by all sorts of people – from coaches and athletic directors to parent and student volunteers.
At Travelers Rest, coaches paint for the varsity games and hope the numbers and lines still are clear enough by the time junior varsity plays. Keen said they’ll put out number markers, if needed, rather than repaint.
“We do spend quite a bit of money on paint,” she said.
Painting lines from scratch can be a three- to five-hour job, depending on the painter’s experience and whether there’s a partner to help place the marking strings or not.
Nance, who started in his district position just this year, remembers when he was a building AD and student volunteers would come to tell him they were running out of paint for that week’s job.
“I’d tell them, ‘Walk faster!’” he said.
At Hillcrest, Bell takes care of painting himself. He’ll be out from 8:30 p.m. until midnight or so one night the week of a home game. The late hour is his choice, he said. It allows him to spend the evening at home with his wife and children, then head out to work when it’s quiet and there are no distractions.
If the weather is uncooperative, as it’s been recently, sometimes he calls in a support team of students to help him get the job done more quickly the day of the game.
Lines and numbers on the fields are for the teams. All the extras – logos, for example – are for the fans. They’re part of that pageantry Bell mentioned.
“The TR is for the people watching the game,” Keen said.
On a home game day, preparing a giant tunnel and helmet “takes a good portion of my afternoon, making sure that’s up and ready,” she said.
But those are the kinds of touches that ADs and coaches are committed to, as vital parts of the whole Friday night atmosphere.
Keeping cutting and painting and other field maintenance scheduled and in the proper order is a huge job. Keen said she works closely with coaches and custodial staff to be sure everything is handled at the right time.
“If one of us forgets about something, the other one will remember it – we work together well that way,” Keen said.
When fans pour in Friday night, they’re seeing the final product of an extensive endeavor.
“If it looks good, somebody went to all that time and effort to make it look good,” Nance said. “It’s a coach who stayed late, it’s a group of parent volunteers. … It’s really a lot of sweat equity.”