in “The SportsTurf Interview,” we
meet Jeff Fowler, this year’s Harry C. Gill Memorial Founders Award from STMA.
Recipients must exhibit dedication to the improvement of sports turf and
outstanding ability and commitment to the sports turf industry, among other
professional qualifications. Jeff is Senior Extension Educator-Horticulture for
Penn State, based in Venango County in western PA. Fowler has been an extension
educator for more than 30 years. He is on the board of directors of the
Keystone Athletic Field Managers Organization and has been a board member of
the national Sports Turf Managers Association.
is known for his many years of service to the Little League World Series in
Williamsport, where he annually organizes a group of 30-40 volunteers to help
prepare and maintain the playing fields during the internationally televised
SportsTurf: Working in a university extension
program you meet a lot of turf managers. What are they saying are the biggest
obstacles to overcome for them to be successful today?
Fowler: Remember I work with every level
of field manager, from the volunteer at the local rec field to the highest
level of athletics. The discussions I have with sports field managers that
repeat themselves over and over are about money, human resources and
cooperation/understanding of field users. Most of my clients/customers are
volunteers that went to a meeting and someone found out they liked to mow, so
they were put in charge of the fields. Budgets are made based on the amount of
stuff donated to the concession stand, and on workdays the same two or three
people show up. Certainly, this is different for higher levels of athletics but
nonetheless many of the same struggles exist. The solution? It all comes down
to communications, with parents, coaches, players, board of directors, GM’s,
owners and staff! Communicate your wants, needs and desires to anyone that will
SportsTurf: What advice would you offer
managers at lower-budget facilities to make their fields safer?
Fowler: Learn as much as you can about
field care and then prioritize your spending. Network with other sports field
managers on social media, at field days, meetings, events sponsored by
organizations about making fields safer. Ask questions, research answers and
then figure out what needs done first. Some people say spread out your
resources to improve all the fields. I have long been an advocate of putting
your resources into a showcase field to allow people to see what you could do
if you had more money and/or more resources. Make it shine and have people
asking “hey, why don’t you do that to my field?” and be ready with a quick
reply, “I can, but I need enough money and support to make it happen.”
SportsTurf: Please tell us about the roles you
and your father have had in establishing the Little League World Series crew as
a much sought-after volunteer position.
Fowler: In 1994, Little League decided
they wanted to renovate Lamade Stadium for the 50th LLWS. Dad (Don Fowler) had
just retired after 32 years working for Penn State Extension. Little League
reached out to a newly formed group, the Keystone Athletic Field Managers
Organization, to see if they would lend support to what was a monumental
renovation at the time. Alpine Services Inc. (Grove Teats) had been hired to
redo the stadium. Dad volunteered to go be the “clerk of the works” for Little
League. After the renovation they didn’t know what to do with this “gem” of a
field, so Dad put together a fertility and maintenance plan, and then he was
asked to put together a few helpers to prepare the field for the LLWS that
year, and thus the beginning! My first year would be 2 years later. The event
became bigger and more popular on TV, and went from 8 teams to 16 teams and
from one week to two.
for crew outgrew the handwritten invites that dad would send. He asked me if I
could type out a letter and keep a mailing list on my computer. After all I had
an apple 2E in my office that used 5.5-inch floppy disks! After a few years of
my writing that letter and printing it on a dot matrix printer and shipping it
to him to sign and send, he said “Jeff why don’t you just take care of this
from now on!” Since that time, we have
more than 100 people in the database from 21 states that have come to
SportsTurf: Is there a favorite on-field
maintenance task that you enjoy performing at LLWS?
Fowler: While not field maintenance tasks,
there are two on field events that I don’t like to miss. Opening Ceremonies,
when all 16 teams are still winless and the coaches, players, umpires and fans
see the fields for the first time all polished up and ready for televised play.
But more special to me is the early morning of the second Saturday of the
series. That’s when the crew and I move from the TV cameras of network
television on Lamade stadium to prep the field for a game on Volunteer Stadium.
This game has two teams from across the globe participating in the Challenger
Division. A game just like the tournament, to show off their talents, in front
of a stadium full of excited fans! The Little League Challenger Division gives
special needs youth the opportunity to play baseball. If you haven’t ever seen
or been a part of something like this, I would encourage you to find an
organization in your community that offers such a program. It’s truly humbling.
SportsTurf: How do you think the profession
and industry will change in the next 10 years?
Fowler: Think about where we were 10 years
ago and multiple the change by ten! Technology has and will continue to lead
the way, making us better and more efficient at what we do. The demand on field
usage will increase and we need to position our fields to be ready to meet that
demand. We need to continue to work hard to increase salaries and work even
harder at reducing work hours for our industry. We can’t continue to have
people working 100 workweeks for little to no pay and expect them to stay in
SportsTurf: How has your career benefitted
from being a member of STMA?
Fowler: I certainly feel I have received
more benefit than I have given to the association. I have a 2700 + person
network of STMA members that I call friends from all over the world. Each of
them has the same passion, providing safe playing surfaces for athletes and in
many cases on limited budgets that are made up of registration fees, donations
and hot dog sales! People that would rather look at your “shop” than watch the
game. People that hate rain on game days but pray for it when the team is out of
town. People that share their solutions and their failures. People that want to
be “Experts on the Field and A Partner in the Game.” These friends are the very
things that have made my career so very enjoyable.
SportsTurf: How do you think the natural turf
vs. synthetic turf issue will play out over the next decade?
Fowler: There are many readers sitting on
the edge of their seats waiting for the @Trfguy to answer this one. I have met
with thousands of field managers over the course of my career, and I am yet to
meet one that doesn’t have a passionate answer to the synthetic vs. natural
we have room for both in this discussion? Both play a valuable role in our
success. I have visited places that don’t have space except for a field that
serves ALL sports, practices, and school activities and is open for public use
from sun up until someone turns off the lights at night. I have visited fields
that are under maintained and over used. I have seen fields being used in
seasons that we have no business even being played on! If you don’t believe me,
look at the lacrosse schedule for the BIG 10.
On the other side of the coin, I have seen even more natural grass
surfaces that tolerate wear, over use, and still look and play incredibly well.
In my humble opinion it comes down to the priorities of the users. I have seen
towns, schools and universities that don’t budget $10,000 for seed and
fertilizer suddenly find $750,000 dollars to put in a new synthetic surface.
@Trfguy scratches his head a lot!
believe that more research on traction, lower extremity injuries, concussions
and larger health issues will help us in the future. I believe this research
will bring the picture more into focus.
SportsTurf: What are your passions and
interests outside of work?Fowler: You should probably ask my wife this
question! When I am not at work, golf,
home improvement projects, kayaking, bike riding, and travelling take up my
time. Oh yeah I almost forgot, I love working on our local Little League