The SportsTurf Interview: Steve Wightman

This month in “The SportsTurf Interview,” we feature Steve Wightman, former head groundskeeper for the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos, and a Past President of the Sports Turf Managers Association.

SportsTurf: You were president of STMA some 30 years ago. What are the most significant changes you have seen in the association over that time?

Wightman: There have been so many changes over the past 30 years within STMA. The association certainly has had a rich history of positive growth from its infancy in the late 1970’s to today.

However, I think the most significant change has been the leadership of the association. All of the dedicated sports turf managers who volunteered their time to organize and run the association in the early years really need to be commended. Without their dedicated efforts and the support of the commercial members, STMA would not have survived.

As with most organizations starting out, the leadership is made up of professionals first and volunteers second. STMA was no different … sports turf managers first and association volunteers second. I think everyone in our association would agree that our profession is a 24/7 job that requires a tremendous number of hours and we’re always “on call.” It is difficult to run the day-to-day operations of a national association when one’s time is so very limited.

Because of a small membership and limited resources, both in time commitments and finances, STMA grew very slowly in the early years. The important thing is that it did grow, due, in large part, because the leadership at the time covered all of their own expenses (airfares, hotels, meals, etc.).

STMA struggled financially until we hired a management company to run the daily operations of the association. Trusty and Associates helped take STMA to the next level of professionalism by helping to increase both commercial and sports turf membership which improved our financial status, as well.

Within about 10 years, being in a financial position to hire its own employee, STMA contracted with Kim Heck to serve as the association’s CEO running the day-to-day operations. This was a monumental move within STMA. It was the first time in the history of STMA that the association hired its own full-time employee to run the association. I remember it being a very nervous time for the Board, not fully confident whether or not the association could afford this bold move. As it turned out, it was the best thing for STMA.

With Kim’s leadership, the leadership of the many sports turf managers that have volunteered for Board and committee service along the way and the support of the many commercial members, STMA has now grown into a financially sound professional association with a very active Board of Directors and numerous committees all promoting the education and professionalism of STMA … something that all of the old timers envisioned in the beginning.

SportsTurf: What are the most important changes you’ve seen in sports turf management over those 30 years?

Wightman: Wow! Looking back to 1973 when I joined the sports turf industry, it’s amazing to me to see all of the changes that have come along.

We used to use gasoline and a match to dry out the pitcher’s mound and wet infield areas before a game (certainly not OSHA approved)! Now we have drying compounds and calcined clay.

We used to over-seed everything and hope and wait for the turf to establish. Now we sod areas the morning of a football game without the fear of sod movement.

We used to use heavy mill tarps with large portable heaters that were positioned underneath to heat the field surface in the winter. Now we have sub-surface heating systems that keep the rootzone at the proper temperature preventing frozen fields in cold weather climates and extending warm-season turfgrass growth in other climates.

There were no domed stadiums and most stadiums were combination baseball/football. Now there are many domes and fewer multi-sport venues.

Every field was natural grass constructed with whatever soil was there on site. Consequently, nearly all fields were worn out halfway through the season. Now, most all fields are engineered with specified rootzone mixes that promote optimum drainage and turfgrass growth. Also, many fields today are 3rd and 4th generation synthetic surfaces that support numerous types of field events in open-air stadiums and inside domed stadiums.

There have been many changes in sports turf management over the past 30-40 years, for sure. However, I think the most significant change that I have seen in managing sports turf has been in the academic world. Colleges and universities now have degreed sports turf programs. And, most of those colleges and universities have applicable ongoing research focused specifically on sports turf.

Along with increased formal educational opportunities in sports turf management at the college level, I, also, feel that the computer age has opened up a whole new world for the sports turf manager in educating one’s self with easily available information. Anyone can now go online and find information on virtually any subject matter with just the click of a button.

There were no computers when I first got into this business. That’s hard to imagine! It’s scary thinking about that because now I feel much older than when I started answering these questions!

SportsTurf: If you watch old footage from NFL Films what memories are stirred up when you see some of the turf situations from “back in the day”?

Wightman: Seeing old footage of football games 20-30 years ago does bring back memories of how we used to manage fields back then. There was very little information available to a field manager in the “old days.” It was pretty much up to the field manager to figure it out himself.

There were no scientifically engineered rootzones and many fields did not have tarps because they did not have the manpower to move them. Consequently, the field managers were left to battle the elements with very little help in terms of manpower and equipment. As a result, the fields became quagmires during rain and snow events making it hard to recognize which team was which by the end of the first quarter.

However, there were many innovative and enormously talented field managers who did figure out how to effectively manage fields in the early years. They made many of the tools necessary to do their job better. They educated themselves in the scientific aspects of turfgrass growth. They became meteorologists, climatologists, soil scientists, agronomists and engineers. They succeeded because they wanted to be the best at what they did and created the means with which to accomplish it. They were our industry’s pioneers, for sure.

Many of those shared information with others in the industry and the industry began to grow and field conditions began to improve. And, because of these pioneers and their willingness to share their experiences and information, STMA was born.

Those that were influential in helping me at the beginning of my career included the founding fathers of STMA: Harry Gill, George Toma, Dick Ericson and Dr. William Daniels. There were others that were very influential, as well, including Dr. Jackie Butler, Dr. James Watson, and Dr. Kent Kurtz, among others.

“Back in the day,” field conditions were every bit as important as they are today. Seeing old footage only reminds me of how far we have come as an industry in managing sports fields. We have so much more information available to us today.

Sports today have become a much larger business than it was in the old days. Professional and collegiate sports are now a multi-billion dollar business. Field expectations are greater today. Resources available to the field manager today are greater and the industry, as a whole, is stronger.

I see a bright future of continued grow and prosperity for the sports turf industry.

SportsTurf: You know a lot of sports turf managers. What are they saying are the biggest obstacles to overcome for them to be successful today?

Wightman: The biggest obstacles, or challenges, of the sports field managers that I’ve talked to is the number of events being held on game fields. With the advent of new multi-billion dollar stadiums that promote the ultimate sporting experience for the fans, the owners are constantly looking for additional revenues to help pay for it.

The sports turf manager has to figure out ways to minimize field damage from numerous other sporting and non-sporting events that take place.

The successful field managers will require a comprehensive understanding of the science and the art of field management. This would include both, natural grass and synthetic surfaces. In that same vain, another obstacle, or challenge, facing the sports field manager today is the ability to communicate with all of the various stakeholders of the stadium or facility. All stakeholders have their own goals and objectives that will make them successful.

Whether it is the team, the city, the county or whomever, understanding that communication and compromise is a big part of our job. And, our ability to communicate our concerns and challenges to the stakeholders is as important as proper field management. Success comes to those who can come to a compromise that yields the least detrimental effect to the field.

SportsTurf: What wisdom can you share with younger turf managers about being successful in the profession?

Wightman: To answer that question, I looked back to when I first became a sports field manager, in 1973. Not knowing many people in the industry and not having much experience managing a sports field, the first thing I did was contact the head groundskeepers, as we were called back then, at the various stadiums that had both baseball and football asking for information they could share with me on field management. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone I spoke with was willing to share their experiences and help guide me toward academic information that could further enhance my knowledge of turfgrass management.

So, for those new young turf managers seeking more information on sports field management, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone or send an email to the sports turf managers at major facilities. I’m certain they can and will share their experiences and information with you. It will help you be more successful.

Also, young sports turf managers need to get involved in the STMA. I was reading through a landscape magazine in 1976 and came across an article about sports turf managers getting together to form an association where it would be easier to share information. I called the number and became a part of that organization.

I can say that I would not have had such a wonderful career in sports turf management had I not made that call. Being a member of what would later become STMA has given me the tools, information and friendships that help shape my 39-year career in sports turf management.

Of course, it also helps to get a degree in Sports Field Management where the technical and scientific knowledge of turfgrass management and soil science is paramount for your success, especially, in today’s world.

And finally, STMA offers a certification program for Sports Field Managers. Become certified. It will validate your professionalism in the industry and help make you even more successful.

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

Wightman: Within the next 10 years I think the profession of sports field management will grow into an even more scientific approach to the management of sports turf.

At the professional sports level, having a formal education and experience will be a requirement for the sports field manager. Because of the complexities of field construction, all of which help promote a safer surface, the field manager will be required to manipulate field systems and management practices that ensure the optimum playing conditions in all types of weather and multiple-event schedules.

In addition, I see the industry continuing to expand and develop various types of multi-use fields, as well as, portable fields that can be moved in and out of stadiums (as in Arizona).

Research on natural grass will continue to improve its ability to withstand greater usage. Rootzone construction, subsurface drainage, field heating and cooling systems, innovations in lighting, fertilizers, pest management and equipment will all continue to improve.

Synthetic surfaces will, also, continue to improve. They have come to be because they provide for greater weather and multiple event field usage than many natural grass surfaces exposed to the same or similar usage. I think synthetic field research will continue to improve on the playability and environment issues and will continue to be a part of our industry.

SportsTurf: How are you keeping busy now?

Wightman: Well, I’ve been retired now for nearly 3 years and have not had one moment where I became bored (something I was worried about).

Most of my time is now spent playing golf and babysitting my 3-year old grandson one day a week. He is teaching me many great things like, how to get what he wants from grandpa with just a smile or an all-out crying fit (both seem to work). He has also taught me the art of feeling bad about doing something wrong without saying a word. He just simply drops his head down.

I’m also staying involved with STMA, which has given me so much over my career. I’m currently volunteering on a couple of committees and serving on the board of the SAFE Foundation.