Laying the Foundation for Excellence at “The Swamp”
Just the name evokes a visceral reaction from every college football fan in the south. Florida Gators beam with pride at the mention of their legendary stadium. Other SEC teams’ fans may respond with less enthusiasm, but no one can question the fact that Steve Spurrier-Florida Field is an iconic place to play college football.
The statistics don’t lie – three national titles, eight conference titles, three Heisman trophies and many winning seasons attest to the Florida Gators’ dominant football program. And for every football team that plays on such a big stage, there’s always an unsung hero, a hero that endures the elements, is pushed to its limits, yet expected to perform week after week, year after year – the field.
Most fans never give it a second thought. Even players and coaches seldom notice this integral part of the game unless it isn’t performing. But turfgrass managers recognize the field as the very foundation of a top-tier NCAA football program. It is this recognition of the importance of playing surface that drives sports field managers across the country and beyond to seek the most functional and attractive turfgrass available for their sports fields.
A surprising find
In November of 2018, when Jason Smith, director of sports turf at University of Florida, saw the events calendar for spring of 2019 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (a.k.a., “The Swamp”), he knew it was time to start planning a field renovation. To accommodate a concert and graduation, flooring would be covering the field for nearly a month beginning in April. With field renovation on such a large scale looming, he began his research.
After researching and narrowing the field to three varieties that might uphold the standard expected of a high-level SEC stadium, Smith made a visit to the university turfgrass program’s research site. Dr. Jason Kruse, University of Florida assistant professor and turfgrass specialist, showed Smith research plots. Nematodes are a major challenge for turfgrass managers in Florida, so when Smith saw that TifTuf had such a low incidence of nematode growth, his interest was piqued.
“The one that really caught my eye was the nematode resistance plot that I saw. It looked like nematodes hadn’t even touched it,” said Smith. “It looked like a control plot. That’s what really caught my attention.”
Upon learning of other features of TifTuf – staying green later in the season than other bermudagrasses, excellent wear tolerance, increased drought tolerance – Smith was certain he’d found the right fit.
The road to excellence
It is easy to recognize what makes a turfgrass variety a great choice for certain uses, but we rarely get a peek into how that specific variety came to be. As new cultivars are introduced with increasing regularity, it is important to understand what goes into the making of that brand, especially when the stakes are this high.
Developed by the experts in Tifton, Georgia, TifTuf was 20-plus years in the making. “It’s important that we studied this in Georgia, but we had bigger plans for TifTuf,” said Dr. Brian Schwartz, associate professor at the University of Georgia and TifTuf breeder (alongside Dr. Wayne Hanna). “It’s very important to do a lot of testing to make sure you don’t release a product that gets out to the public and fails.”
After a painstaking breeding and development process, it was clear that this turf would be a success if it was brought to market properly. Enter The Turfgrass Group, a licensing and marketing company made up of turf professionals. The team at The Turfgrass Group began implementing its strategy to ensure that this variety would provide the exceptional performance it had shown in trials.
For the high quality that is demanded at “The Swamp,” it is essential that the variety chosen perform consistently and predictably under intensive management strategies. That’s where single-sourcing and meticulous crop inspection come in.
With its initial release, all TifTuf plant material was sent directly from Georgia Foundation fields to licensed and certified sod farms, ensuring unprecedented consistency in sod production. A second source was later added in California, a first for any UGA variety. This source continues to follow the rigorous standard set in the eastern United States, while allowing wider-spread distribution in the western part of the country. Every one of the 60 U.S. sod farms and 42 Australian farms that produce TifTuf get it from one of those two sources, guaranteeing purity in more than 6,000 acres of TifTuf grown in the U.S., plus hundreds more in Australia.
Prior to planting, a state inspector sees every field and must approve it before TifTuf is planted. The history of the field is reviewed, and if it meets standards, approval to plant is granted. But this is just the beginning of the quality assurance process. Once planted and growing, every square foot is visually inspected by The Turfgrass Group three times per year.
“With our continuous inspection of TifTuf, we’re ensuring genetic purity,” said Bill Carraway, VP of sales and marketing at The Turfgrass Group. “We’re going to spot anything that’s not TifTuf, but our focus is on off-type bermudagrasses. At times, it’s like looking for a needle in a stack of needles.”
TifTuf has been licensed to more farms in less time than any licensed proprietary cultivar in history, and in its first three years in the marketplace has earned recognition in two Field of the Year awards.
Choosing the right turfgrass is only the first step of many in field renovation. After the sod was removed at “The Swamp,” material had to be removed to correct the field profile and drainage and to create the best possible foundation for the Gators’ new field. Smith hired Laser Turf to complete the field construction and worked with Pike Creek Turf Farm to get the sod.
The looming deadline for having a usable field was the annual youth football camp hosted at “The Swamp” in late July. Smith and the Laser Turf team worked quickly to ensure the field was bulldozed, leveled, and sodded in plenty of time for rooting to begin, and for the field to be ready for action ahead of the 2019 football schedule.
Smith has been quite pleased with the performance of the new field. After hosting four home games in five weeks, recovery was excellent, and Smith did not plan to rye overseed at the end of the season.
“After the game, repair is minimal compared to what we were doing,” said Smith. “I wanted something that, when you got into the fourth quarter, it didn’t even look like you’d played four quarters. I’m just super excited to have this much bermudagrass this late as a base going into the offseason. Where we’re going to be at next season – I’m very excited.”
While the collective efforts of more than 80,000 Gators fans may be called the 12th man on game day, a solid foundation of an exceptional playing surface may just be the ultimate champion.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Julie Holt, content director of TheTurfZone.com, and was created in collaboration with The Turfgrass Group.