at Spartan football team photos day, August 25, 2015. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)

Fouty delivers off-the-field value to Michigan State

By Steve Grinczel

The best compliment Amy Fouty, CSFM, could hope to receive as Michigan State University’s sports turf manager came to her in the form of an unspoken vote of confidence.

Six inches of snow had blanketed East Lansing during the days before MSU’s Nov. 22, 2014 home football finale, and Fouty’s crew worked around the clock to get the field in Spartan Stadium ready. With a major bowl bid hanging in the balance, it would have made sense for a detail-oriented coach like Mark Dantonio to call for updates on footing or anything else that could affect his game plan.

“There was snow, ice, we plowed the field and we shoveled the stadium in single-digit-temperature conditions,” Fouty said while sitting on bench overlooking 72,000-square feet of impeccably manicured turf in Spartan Stadium on a warm, sunny day. “It was an incredible undertaking and the hardest working week in my life.”

But the connection between Fouty and Dantonio’s phones remained idle right up to kickoff.

“I never got a call from the football office, so they weren’t worried at all about what was going to be waiting here on Saturday for the team,” Fouty said. “Personally, that meant the most to me of anything—not getting a call.”

Fouty and her crew’s contribution to a 45-3 victory over Rutgers helped propel the Spartans into the Cotton Bowl where they defeated Baylor to complete a fourth 11-or-more win season in 5 years and finish with a No. 5 ranking in the national polls.

In her 11 years as the caretaker of MSU’s sports fields, including competition and practice, natural and artificial, Fouty has earned the trust of Spartan coaches through her innovation, diligence and leadership.

“Amy and her staff do a tremendous job with the turf,” Dantonio said. “This is like her baby, so there’s never a question in my mind that she’s going to do everything she can to make sure the turf is in a playable condition, and I really think we have one of the greatest fields in the country. I really don’t worry about it because she’s a perfectionist and that gives me great peace of mind. I’ve been that way since I’ve been here.”

Nevertheless, Fouty never took her role or the trust of Dantonio and MSU’s other coaches placed in her for granted.

“I think you have to earn that every day in the trenches with them,” she said. “Just like an athlete, you earn the right to be the starter every week in practice, and it only takes one major screw-up to destroy that trust. Coaches want to know that their turf managers see the large picture of success for the program and makes a conscience effort to be a part of that.”

Michigan State’s turf manager position has reported to Greg Ianni, deputy athletics director for facilities and sports management, since its inception. He ranks MSU’s venues among the best he’s toured across the nation and said it’s important for turf managers to realize they don’t just grow grass. They must have an understanding the mindset of the people they work with whether it’s a coach, administrator, student-athlete or support staff.

“She’s responsible for some pretty heady things around here that are really important to our coaches and our student-athletes,” Ianni said. “She gets it. She doesn’t have the type of ego where she can’t take criticism and if something’s not right she wants to know about it. Her ability to build relationships with our coaches is really, really important. Amy embraces that and wants to be a part of those programs and staffs that make those teams successful.”

When Dantonio arrived in 2007, all he asked Fouty to provide was 100 yards of “firm, fast field” to facilitate his running attack.

“I explained my philosophy to have this field play consistently from game to game and year to year so when the kids come over here to play, mentally they’re confident that what they’re walking out onto will give them the best opportunity to be the best athlete they can be,” Fouty said. “It is important that as a turf manager you understand the game, can speak in the language they understand, not just ‘grass talk.’

“It is important to show up to practice, events, and in the office to just see how things are going. We have to all relate, contribute to benchmarks for success, and achieve goals. We do this together. The turf manager sets the stage for greatness.”

As a graduate of Michigan State’s world-renowned turfgrass management program and the holder of a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Fouty also has an abiding understanding of the bigger picture at a university whose heritage is inextricably linked to agriculture.

“One of the most important things about this field is that this is a representation of our university, our agricultural roots, our history and our tradition,” Fouty said.

Many say it’s just too hard to grow grass fields anymore and have consistent quality and every location has its challenge. Providing championship-level fields in a climate that isn’t conducive to maintaining turf—East Lansing is home not only to highly ranked sports teams but is also one of the top-five cloudiest municipalities in the nation—is a challenge that must be addressed 365 days a year and Fouty and her staff pull it off without many hitches.

“We plan, we prepare, we are supported in our efforts and we achieve the standard set,” she said.

“You start with the stadium field,” Ianni said. “That’s more than a football field to the institution. There’s a great deal of pressure to produce a product that’s representative of many aspects in the institution. A lot of people watch that and want to see how that field looks and how it performs.

“I think we have the best fields in this part of the country and that impacts those student-athletes. In football, you’ve seen statistics from the NFL Players Association that 93-94% of those players would rather play on grass, but they want to play on good grass and that’s important. Our student-athletes know that No. 1, the surfaces she provides are safe and they can play on them with confidence they’re not going to get injured by bad turf, and No. 2, they’re in such pristine condition it maximizes their ability to be successful, and that’s the bottom line. We want to make sure the fields are as good as they can be so those athletes can be the best they can be.”

Michigan State’s one-of-a-kind football field was updated to the specifications formulated in a MSU doctoral student’s thesis and the Spartans’ synthetic practice fields perform more like natural grass thanks to a composition of sand-granulated rubber topdressing created after consultations with the school’s kinesiology and human performance departments.

“Collaboration at an academic institution is important,” Fouty said, adding that managing personal stress positively is something turf managers do not often think about. “Having other important areas in my life provides perspective and life balance, which translate into confidence and focus on the job.”

Fouty, her full-time staff of three, two retired lawn-mower operators and small legion of part-time student employees, are responsible for a lot of acreage Spartan athletes depend upon for their success, but the team concept extends well beyond the white lines at MSU.

“The way I view leadership is I believe you need to be as good a follower as a leader and everybody leads from where they are,” she said. “I believe in making sure my staff has everything they need to do what they do every day without frustration or hesitation. I feel it’s my job to develop my guys just like I’m a head coach and I’ve got my own team. I jump in where I can to assist when time is of the essence, but allow the team to also make choices about what is needed and the best way to accomplish those tasks. The only way we learn is to make the decisions and be accountable for them.

“We take immense pride in what we are able to contribute. It’s really special to have so much passion for doing what you love to do, doing it for your alma mater, and then watching those programs become part of a national stage. Every piece is so important. I tell the guys, every time you pick up a piece of trash or make something better, we’re contributing to that success because you never know when a recruit’s going to stop by and be awed and amazed by the opportunity to play at these facilities.”

Steve Grinczel is an award-winning journalist who covered Michigan State Athletics for more than 20 years with Booth Newspapers who has been writing exclusive content for since 2011.