Meet Tim Van Loo, CSFM, 24th President of the Sports Turf Managers Association

For the third consecutive year, STMA members elected someone raised on a farm. There must be something about growing up in an environment that requires a strong work ethic and dealing with Mother Nature that breeds leadership traits.

Tim Van Loo, CSFM, was officially installed as STMA’s 24th President at last month’s Annual Meeting in Orlando. Tim is Manager of Athletic Turf & Grounds for Iowa State University in Ames. SportsTurf emailed Tim some questions late last year:

SportsTurf: Where did you grow up and what were your interests then?

Van Loo: I grew up in a small town in Michigan, Gregory, and I graduated from Fowlerville High School in 1997. My interests were mostly basketball and golf. School was simply a way to compete in sports!

SportsTurf: What things did you learn from your parents that still stick with you?

Van Loo: I am blessed with fantastic parents; I am who I am because of them. My mom is a giver/care taker. She deeply loves people and wants to serve. I learned the value of volunteering your time to things that are important to you. She continues to give time to their church and sacrifices many hours to volunteering on committees and leadership roles. My father taught me that hard work is a choice, not an ability. My father has been a farmer his whole life and he worked midnight shifts for 17 years on the weekends to help support our family. He also taught me how to manage people. He was always so patient, understanding, yet demanding when necessary. Those that worked for him always respected him. My hope is that I have used the lessons from both my parents and will continue to apply it to all that I do in my life.

SportsTurf: How did you decide where to go to college and what your major would be?

Van Loo: When I first graduated high school I started working for a country club golf course. The superintendent was a Michigan State graduate, so that was a huge part of my decision. Also, having grown up in Michigan, Michigan State was the agriculture school, so where else would I have gone?

SportsTurf: Now that you’ve been working in turf management for awhile, are there any changes you’d like to see in how the major is taught at the collegiate level?

Van Loo: I think the biggest thing that allows students to be successful is the experiences they have before they graduate and enter the turf industry. Sometimes I think the image of this business is more appealing than the actual grind it can be on some days. It’s a must to work in this industry while in school to make sure you have a passion for it. Without a passion, one won’t last.

After that, I think combining the school knowledge with the real world is the biggest struggle for recent graduates. The weather and schedules on athletic fields doesn’t always allow you to do what is best for the field. You will have to be able to compromise some book knowledge and make it work with what you have learned from being forced to do things on a different schedule or with challenging weather. Sometimes, you have to fake it until you make it!

SportsTurf: What was your first job out of college, and what were the most memorable things you learned from that job?

Van Loo: Northwestern University was my first job out of college. I was finishing up my Master’s degree from Michigan State and thought I was ready to take on the world managing athletic fields. I learned so much at Northwestern, and am still grateful for my three seasons there.

First, it’s where I learned to work with coaches, staff, and co-workers. It allowed me to apply some of the things I had learned from Amy Fouty, CSFM, while working for her at [Michigan State’s] Spartan Stadium. Second, it allowed me to figure out “my style” of growing grass. While in graduate school I did many different research projects while also working at Spartan Stadium. I have tried to marry the two worlds in how I manage the fields that I am responsible for.

SportsTurf: What other jobs did you have before your current position and what did you take away from them?

Van Loo: In the time after high school and before I left Michigan State I had managed to work on a golf course in some capacity for a total of 10 seasons, Spartan Stadium for three seasons, Hancock Turf Research Center [at MSU] for 7 years, and help install the Olympic soccer pitch for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. I had an unbelievable experience at Michigan State and tried to be a sponge during the ride. The research allowed me to not fear “killing grass”; if you kill it enough, you know how to bring it back. Establishing turf after you killed it allows you to not fear damaging the turf. It allows you to freely manage knowing you can always get it back!

SportsTurf: Describe relationships you’ve had with mentors.

Van Loo: I will only comment on a few of them, but there have been so many people that have molded me in who I am today. Dr. Trey Rogers was my major professor at Michigan State. I got to know him on a much more personal level than most students; I helped him coach his daughters basketball team, for example. Through many conversations with Dr. Rogers I learned how to think big picture. Seeing situations from 10,000 feet has helped me to step away from the immediate issue and see the big picture.

Dr. James Crum was another one of my professors at Michigan State. We had a lot of discussions about passions outside of work. The way he approached work, family, and his passions was life changing and impactful. Amy Fouty was always a boss first, but also was always a friend when you needed one. Her approach to dealing with coaches, administrators, and co-workers while still creating world-class playing surfaces is something I have always tried to imitate.

Mike Andresen, CSFM, is not only my current supervisor, but also a man that I go to often for many things. The way he thinks through everything in life has taught me much. Many times what he says is so far from what I was thinking I am surprised and in awe of the wisdom he has to offer.

SportsTurf: What’s your philosophy on hiring and training in your current position?

Van Loo: My current staff is all students. I try and find students that I think have the passion to be field managers someday. I try to also find students that aren’t afraid to work.

The training aspect is something I am still figuring out. The students have such a difference in experience when they get here, I have to almost start at different points with each student. A lot of the time I let the more experienced students train the new students. My goal with all my students is that they are prepared to be a turf manager when they leave here. I try and put all of them in a position to lead before they leave. It’s the only way they learn how to lead in their own way, making mistakes while they are here. Allowing mistakes to happen is important in learning how to do it right the next time. I also don’t hide anything; if they have a question I try and answer it. I try and also learn from them, this might be the most difficult thing for me. Accepting new and better ways to do something that we have been doing for years a different way, sometimes the “old dog” doesn’t want to change.

SportsTurf: What are your current job responsibilities and how do you approach both on-the-field issues as well as off-the-field ones?

Van Loo: My current responsibilities are Jack Trice Stadium, three and a half practice grass football fields, softball, practice soccer, track and field throws areas, cross-country course, indoor and outdoor artificial fields, athletic facility landscaping, and grass parking lots. In total it’s about 55 acres. We also assist with indoor and outdoor track set-up and other miscellaneous events. We also seem to be the muscle of the department, so we tend to move offices, equipment, or simply move things that others can’t.

On field issues are solely on the crew and me. We have great coaches that are very understanding of what we do. We try and work with all the teams to make sure they have what they “need” with every attempt to get them what they “want”! We are in the service business; the fields aren’t mine, they belong to the teams. They use the fields whenever they want, it’s their call; I only say something if I am asked. As long as the field is safe it’s a green light to use.

Off-field issues in our business usually are with personnel. Fortunately for me, I don’t have a ton of them. Usually a face-to-face conversation is all that is needed.

SportsTurf: What qualities do you think a sports turf manager must possess today to be successful?

Van Loo: The ability to communicate clearly. Again, we are in the service business, understanding clients is a necessity, and that takes communication. They also need the ability to adapt on the fly; a plan is good, but if that falls apart you need to be able to adapt and proceed. Most importantly, stay positive about the service you provide. When the days get long and the job seems thankless, you have to keep positive and stay the course. Find the pride in a job well done, even when you’re exhausted and stressed.

SportsTurf: How do you think the profession will change in the coming decade?

Van Loo: We continue to raise the bar on athletic field maintenance. Some of the facilities and fields I see are truly unbelievable. I think the move toward artificial will slow as people see the benefits of well-maintained natural grass. As well-maintained grass is the answer, there will be a greater need for sports turf managers.

SportsTurf: When and why did you join STMA?

Van Loo: I was a student member, but really didn’t get involved until I became a sports turf manager. I was fresh out of school, and needed help from my peers. Sports turf managers generally don’t keep secrets, which allows us all to learn from those that have been successful. The STMA is full of people that want all fields to perform at the highest level. Being a part of STMA allows you to learn from the best, and take those practices to make your fields perform at a higher level.

SportsTurf: In your experience, what are the benefits of being an STMA member?

Van Loo: Access to the best sports turf managers and sports turf researchers to better prepare safe sports fields. If it is watching presentations or reading this magazine, learning from the experts is easy to do when you are a member of the STMA.

SportsTurf: What are most important issues facing STMA members today? And how do you think the Board can best address those issues?

Van Loo: As our fields increase in quality we are being asked to do more and more on the fields. With outside events and extra play sports turf managers are being asked to do a lot more than in years past. Continuing to train our members in how to “unplug” when they can I think is being addressed with many of the professional development courses held at Conference every year. The increased awareness on safety will ultimately change how our job is viewed. Being ahead of these protocols and training our members on how to use the tools properly is also very important as we continue to make fields safe for the athletes that use them. The Board continues to try and spread awareness and importance of our profession. Jumping into social media is another way to spread our message and this will continue.

“Tim is very thorough and professional in everything that he does, and likes to make sure every angle to a discussion item has been fully vetted. Tim wants everyone to have looked outside the box for the full picture. These qualities will serve him well as the next President of STMA.”-Jeff Salmond, CSFM, STMA Immediate Past President

“Tim Van Loo is an sport turf professional that is a natural leader. He is a resource for support, critique and guidance for all turf managers. Tim has been instrumental with the local Iowa sports turf chapter. His commitments to hosting, speaking and organizing activities has developed the chapter into a sustainable affiliate. Tim is a humble individual that offers friendship, guidance and expertise. As the President of the STMA he will be an influential leader with 100% commitment.”-Troy McQuillen, Iowa STMA Chapter President

“I have really enjoyed working with Tim as he has ascended through the various board positions to the office of the President. When he first joined the board, I contacted Mike Andresen, CSFM, who was actually on the Board when I was first hired. I told Mike that he really has mentored Tim well and that Tim is always so well prepared and has a calm leadership style. Mike let me know that he came that way to Iowa State, no mentoring required!

I know that 1-year terms for Presidents can be challenging. However, each President lays such good groundwork for the next that it really is a seamless transition from my perspective. Jeff has done an excellent job prepping Tim, and I know Tim will be successful in leading STMA through 2017, and beyond.”-Kim Heck, CAE, CEO, STMA