Tribute to late Tennessee icon and STMA leader Bobby Campbell

Last November Bobby Campbell, CSFM, former Sports Turf Managers Association President and long-time University of Tennessee turf manager, died after fighting an illness; he was survived by his wife, Toni, a former UT math instructor, his son Peter, and daughter Tracy Pollock.

Here is an excerpt from a November 20 column written by Marvin West of KnoxTNToday.com:

Bobby Campbell, Tennessee’s guru of grass, has died.

The legendary groundskeeper of Shields-Watkins Field and other turf playing surfaces at the University of Tennessee finally lost a fierce fight with a long illness. He was 72.

“Bobby was a professional at what he did,” said Phillip Fulmer, Hall of Fame football coach for UT (and current AD). “I loved the man. He took so much pride in being a part of the team.”

Fulmer said he and Campbell often disagreed about the stadium field.

“We went nose to nose a lot of times about use of the field. I wanted the team to practice there and Bobby wanted to protect the grass and give it a chance to heal.

“He won a lot of those arguments because he was right,” said Fulmer.

Nurturing sports fields was far more than a job for Campbell. It was love at first sight. He studied grass to determine which best meshed with the regional growing season and team usage. He learned how much water and fertilizer the baseball, softball, soccer, football practice fields, track infield and golf facility needed.

“He was an artist with a great, green canvas,” said Tom Mattingly, once a UT co-worker and now a Vol historian. “He and others celebrated the end of plastic and the return of real grass to Neyland Stadium.”

At UT, Campbell did or directed everything about the care and feeding of everything that was green. He wanted all the Vols to have the best possible playgrounds but he clearly understood the attention and pressure focused on Shields-Watkins Field.

“Tennessee people care a great deal about this field,” he once said. “People want it to be the best field anywhere. That’s our charge.”

Campbell had the proper background for understanding.

“You think about all the great players who have played on this field and the great games played there. This field belongs to everybody who identifies with Tennessee tradition. It’s a special place. It isn’t just a place you work. It’s sacred ground.”

History? In Campbell’s little office under the south end of Neyland Stadium was an old black and white photograph of a man in bib overalls, Deanie Hoskins, field caretaker when Robert R. Neyland was coach.

Campbell enjoyed reciting the story of a classic conversation between the two.

“Coach Neyland stopped by one day, in the middle of the summer, and asked Deanie if the field would be ready for the start of the season. ‘My field is always ready,’ said Hoskins. ‘Can you say the same thing about your football team?’”

Kind words for a kind man

“Heeeey Grady, it’s Bob Campbell. I have a question for you.” I have dozens of phone messages on my cell phone from Bob that start out that way.

I met Bob in 1995 at an SEC Sports Turf Managers meeting. It started a long friendship that I really cherished. The truth is that I probably asked Bob as many questions as he asked me. I learned a great deal about sports turf-specific management from Bob. It was a rare national STMA meeting that I did not look out in the audience and see Bob Campbell and AJ Powell sitting next to each other; I knew they were both going to give me a hard time about something I said during the talk during the questions period.

Bob always was trying to make his fields better; later he translated that into his lawns. As he once told me, “I guess you figured I would stop calling you with questions after I retired. You did not realize you adopted me for life.” Sports turf or lawns, it was always great to visit with Bob. A great guy, a great friend. – Dr. Grady Miller

STMA has definitely lost one of its most passionate ambassadors. Bob hired me 13 years ago, and when I stepped into the role, I was amazed at the amount of work he did personally on association business. He continued to support the association and me in every way possible, and his passing leaves a huge hole.” – Kim Heck, CEO, Sports Turf Managers Association

“I met Bob Campbell at my first STMA Conference years ago, in Colorado Springs. I didn’t know a soul there, but Bob, AJ Powell and Bucky Trotter immediately pulled me over to their breakfast table and made me feel welcome and included in the group. From that moment on we were friends, and I saw him collect many more friends along the way with the same inclusive method. He was an advocate for the sports turf profession, and certainly the STMA. He was a leader and president of the STMA during a critical time in which difficult decisions were made to advance the association. We as STMA members are now the beneficiaries of those trying times.

I was able to work for Bob at the University of Tennessee as a contractor and he certainly set the bar high for any task or project. He had no problem calling you out for anything less than best, and he kept looking for better ways to get the job done. He had a knack for building working relationships with coaches and administrators, and collaborated with a nationwide pool of educators, research scientists, industry leaders, and field managers to gain and share insight on a subject. I have heard many times from young groundskeepers how Bob gave his time and counsel to their cause, and was accessible to anyone.

After Bob retired from UT, he worked with us at Carolina Green for several years. He was able to help our customers and our employees with constructive encouragement and sound advice. I appreciated Bob’s advice, even if sometimes I didn’t want to hear it. He always called it the way he saw it, and always sided with the groundskeeper.

At Bob’s funeral I heard several of his friends and family speak of his life, and the reoccurring theme was familiar with the Bob Campbell I knew. Whether it was in reference to golf games, tennis matches, repetitious coaches, or young grandsons, Bob was a competitor committed to making the best out of a situation, and making the best out of those around him. – Chad Price, CSFM, CFB

I knew Bobby more as a STMA Board member than as a turf manager. I knew that he was great as a turf manager being that he was at the University of Tennessee and how great that field always looked and played. When I joined the Board Bob was on it, working his way to become President. Bob was always thoughtful of the decisions that the Board made in an effort to best represent the association professionally. He always reminded us that we needed to be champions of the association and help draw members and promote the industry. Many times Bob would have a camera at a Board meeting and randomly take pictures; I wonder where those are today?

He was most instrumental in helping lead the association to hiring our own CEO. I can remember walks with Bob and other members the mornings of Board meetings, sometimes talking about association items but mainly sharing life things. I always looked forward to those walks. I enjoyed all that I learned from him professionally and personally, mainly how to better represent the association as a sports turf manager. When I last talked with Bob, in early October, again the topic of professionalism was brought up; how could we champion the relationships with athletes and sports turf managers to better raise awareness of the profession. Bob, you will be missed and thank you for all that you did to raise our profession and our association. Thank you, my friend, for everything. – Abby McNeal, CSFM

Simply, Bobby Campbell was a very special person and friend. Bobby’s family was always his first priority. We in the sports turf industry were blessed by his wife, Toni, son Pete and daughter Tracy’s generosity in sharing Bobby with us. I could go on for days about what Bobby meant to me and to others in our profession and we will surely make time to do that when we convene in Ft. Worth in January. Bobby always looked forward to the STMA Annual Conference and in catching up with the many friends he had in all facets of the sports turf industry. His love and passion for our association and the friends he had in it was obvious to anyone that met Bob.

I knew Bob professionally as having the best looking and playing bermudagrass football field. As we became friends I soon realized his fields were seemingly flawless because Bobby, more than anyone I knew, had the ability to take complex issues, boil them down to a basic few core issues, then focus on a simple and systematic solution. Bobby could break complex problems down into manageable chunks better than anyone I’ve ever known.

As so many others rightfully do, I catch myself saying Bobby was “a great friend.” Bobby was considered that same “great friend” to more people than maybe anyone else I know! He was such a superior listener, and what allowed him to be such a great listener was the fact he truly cared about you. When you had his attention he wasn’t as interested in what was going on in your work life as he was in knowing what was going on in your life. He wanted to know what you were thinking about and where your head was. Bobby wanted to make sure you were doing well and if there was anything he could do to help. If there was anything he could do he did it! You took things to Bobby because you knew he would give his undivided attention and he’d hear and understand every word you said.

We were all so privileged to share a parallel orbit with Bobby Campbell. I’m not the only one who’ll be sharing that Bob Campbell positively impacted their life and made them a better person. He’s one of those guys that when you were around him you knew in real time your life was being enriched. It felt so good to be in the company of Bobby Campbell. I’ll miss feeling that emotion but I can reflect now and feel so blessed to have had him in my life. – Mike Andresen, CSFM

Bobby Campbell, it cannot be stated enough, was the definition of a fine gentlemen. He epitomized what each and every groundskeeper should strive to be: a dedicated professional, a kind human being, and a generally great person. In all the years in the sports turf industry, I can’t think of one other individual whom I have a greater respect and admiration for than Bobby.

In my early career, I remember reading with great interest in the process he used to replace the field at Neyland Stadium when they converted back to grass in the mid-90’s. As a young groundskeeper, I was amazed at the science and attention to detail that he took in making sure every aspect of that field installation came out as close to perfect as possible.  I remember talking to him over the years at multiple STMA shows about a variety of subjects, but at least a few times, we discussed that very project, and I walked away from those conversations always a little bit smarter thanks to him. I guess you could say he left a lasting impression on me before I even really knew the man, as in 1994 when Neyland was resurfaced, I was still in college and I hadn’t even met him yet!

Over the years, I got to know Bobby through STMA conferences, phone calls and occasional emails. I can tell you that, for a youngster starting out his career, there wasn¹t a better person to make your friend.  After I wasn’t a “youngster” anymore, he was still a great guy to have as a friend! And a friend he was. I am proud to say I knew the man, a man that touched so many people’s lives in such a positive manner during his career. He was truly a giant in our industry; one that I know cannot be replaced.

I’ll miss my friend. I’m sure we all will. Rest in peace, Bobby, and may God bless you. – Mike Boekholder