Investing in natural grass

Dr. Grady Miller of North Carolina State University discusses “Investing in natural grass” from the November issue of SportsTurf:

Q: I heard that last season that the University of North Carolina used their stadium football field for all their football practices and home games plus for lacrosse. How did they manage to have their field look so good for the TV games when they only had that one field to use for everything all season?

A: This is a great question. If you happen to be attending the STMA Conference this January, you should go to “One Field, One Season: Maintaining Kenan Stadium” by Casey Carrick, CSFM, and Chad Price CSFM, CFB (Wednesday January 23). You can then hear all the details from the two guys that made this undertaking such a success. I do not want to spoil their story, but I will mention some aspects because it provides some great lessons in organization and teamwork.

I say teamwork because the successful outcome from this story was because of more than two guys. These sorts of decisions are usually made by high-level administration and require buy-in from the coaching staff. Everyone through the organization and the contractor(s) need to be on the same page and willing to be flexible if there were issues. I am sure that Casey and Chad were left to consider all the potential field-related problems so that a plan of action could be implemented as quickly and effectively as possible. So, let’s dig a bit deeper in this story.

As for some background context, UNC had plans to build a new practice complex that would re-configure and re-build all the practice football fields. It just so happened the adjoining area used for lacrosse practices was also in the equation. Without practice fields, the game field became the field of choice for everything—all practices (offense and defense) and home games.

Due to the anticipated wear, a strong argument could be made to install a synthetic surface. This is an excellent use of synthetic turf since the surface can easily handle a season of repetitive practices and game-day activities with almost no perceived wear. But in this situation, a decision was made to consider the possibilities of keeping their natural grass and the implications once it began to show symptoms of wear.

There was never a question if the field would begin to degrade from excessive use. It was what to do about the damage when it did happen and could it be remedied during the season given its continued use and resulting time constraints. First, someone had to decide what steps would be necessary to bring the surface up to the high standards that everyone at UNC expected. Second, someone had to determine what labor, materials, and logistics would be required to carry out the plan. Third, someone had to calculate what all this was going to cost UNC. That “someone” had to be a collective effort of many people.

I am sure it took months of calculating from several perspectives just to decide if it was feasible while considering all the pros and cons of either decision. At some point someone had to decide it was worth the investment into an intensively managed natural grass system rather than to take what would likely be the easier solution of using synthetic turf. I should add here that this decision might not be the best solution for everyone. If any one group (administration, field managers, or coaches) thought that the field-building contractor and on-site field management staff working together could not succeed with their plan, then it could have been disastrous.

By now you know that the decision was made to replace the natural grass surface “as needed” during the season. Replacing a game field during a season has been done many times (in the NFL and/or in association with college bowl games) since the development of thick-cut sod. But that is very different than planning for multiple replacements within a season for a football field that is serving as the only available practice field and as weekend game field. Plus it was being used for other competitive sporting events.

I applaud the people’s resourcefulness and ingenuity to pull everything together to make this work for the season. Because once the decision was made mid-week that a new field surface was needed, so many details had to be in place for a change-out to be successful, while keeping the field in play and available for practices. I will leave it to Casey and Chad to outline all the logistics in their talk. I think you will find that Phil Knight’s comment, “There is no drama like the drama on the athletic field” equally applies to this performance.