University of Pittsburgh football keeps switching turf

For the fourth time since it moved into its South Side football complex in 2000 and second time in the past three years, Pitt is considering changing the surface of one of the two practice fields the university maintains, a potentially costly side effect of the numerous leadership changes the athletic department and, specifically, football program have undergone in that time frame.

If Pitt decides to swap one of its natural grass fields in favor of synthetic turf, that could push the costs of switching back and forth just one practice field to more than $1.5 million over the 15-year lifespan of the facility.

The facility opened in 2000 under athletic director Steve Pederson and head football coach Walt Harris with two grass fields. In May 2007, athletic director Jeff Long and head football coach Dave Wannstedt opted to make the switch to a Sportexe synthetic turf on one of the fields, so that Pitt could practice outdoors in all weather conditions.

Six years later, in the summer of 2013, head football coach Paul Chryst and Mr. Pederson, by then rehired as athletic director, made the change back to natural grass on both surfaces, since it’s the surface that Pitt plays on most often. Pitt’s home, Heinz Field, and nine of the other 13 ACC stadiums have natural grass.

Now, first-year athletic director Scott Barnes said converting one of the fields back to synthetic turf is “a likely add” as Pitt looks to upgrade its practice facility under first-year coach Pat Narduzzi.

“We’re doing a quick feasibility study just to look at it and make sure the cost-benefit is there,” Mr. Barnes said. “We believe it is, and we’ll move forward with it.”

Mr. Barnes said if Pitt does decide to go ahead with the conversion, it would begin fundraising for the project. Pitt declined to disclose financial details on how previous conversions were financed. Pitt shares the facility with the Steelers but maintains most of its own office and practice space. Both of the Steelers’ outdoor practice fields are natural grass and have been since the complex opened.

The teams share an indoor practice field, which features a 100-yard synthetic surface.

Cost can vary greatly based on the type of artificial surface used, but FieldTurf, an artificial turf industry leader and subsidiary of the Paris-based flooring manufacturer Tarkett, estimates that installation for a football-field sized surface (Pitt’s practice field is only 80 yards long) can run around $700,000. A Forbes study from 2014 estimated synthetic turf can cost more than $1 million per field and installing a natural grass surface can cost between $75,000 and $500,000, depending on the soil and type of grass used.

Mr. Barnes said the durability of synthetic turf is a big draw.

“You think about the wet, moist, even in the fall and summer mornings, [natural grass] can get pretty slick late in the year,” he said. “It gets torn up pretty good. Inclement weather, just a little bit, where you get to a certain level of weather and you’ve got to head in [to the indoor field]. We’d like to be outside more when we can and have the opportunity to do more on synthetic.”- By Sam Werner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette