The SportsField Management Interview: John “Trey” Rogers III, Ph.D.
In this edition of the SportsField Management Interview, we meet John “Trey” Rogers III, Ph.D., professor of Turfgrass Management in the Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University (MSU). He has been a faculty member at MSU since 1988. During that time, he has advised and graduated more than 1,100 students. His current turfgrass research interests at MSU include performance turf renovations, turfgrass establishment and soil modification. He served as the lead scientist for the indoor turf project at the Pontiac Silverdome for the 1994 World Cup Soccer matches, and as the project leader of the Spartan Stadium turfgrass conversion in 2001-02. He was a turf consultant and project leader for the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympic Games and the 2008 UEFA Cup. His consultations on golf course, athletic field, and turfgrass matters are extensive throughout United States and internationally. His national and international lectures and presentations total more than 270, with more than 230 publications and one book. He is the senior author of two U.S. patents.
SportsField Management (SFM): Please tell us about your background and your career path. What attracted you not only to the turfgrass industry, but also to your role as an educator?
Rogers: I’m a native of Fort Smith, Arkansas. What got me involved in this was golf. I began to enjoy golf as a teenager, and I started off working on a driving range. I was eventually asked to work on the course, and I really enjoyed it. I initially went to college to be an engineer, and kept working on the golf course in the summer. I eventually changed my major [to Agronomy]. I graduated and became an assistant superintendent. There was a professor, now retired, from the University of Arkansas, named John King. Dr. King was instrumental in convincing me to come back to graduate school. He tells the story that, in his class, he would ask the question, “Can you spot the error or the issue with this paper?” He said nobody ever saw the error, but I saw it inside of 30 seconds. So he thought I might be the type of person who would enjoy the challenge of graduate school.
So I went back to the University of Arkansas, not knowing anything about graduate school. I had a great experience teaching a soils laboratory with Dr. Duane Wolf, and really dove into my projects with Dr. King. That really got me thinking that I would like academia. I like the autonomy. I like the challenge. After I graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1985, I then went to Penn State, and that is where I got my Ph.D. I often tell people that I learned to do research (the scientific method) and to love teaching at the University of Arkansas; I learned turfgrass at Penn State. Both of those things prepared me to take a position that I had no idea that I was going to take – and that was to run the two-year turfgrass program and do research at Michigan State. I started here in 1988. I remember telling my father that I would be at Michigan State for one or two years. I just finished year number 33.
SFM: Please tell us about your typical day or typical year – both the courses you teach and the research with which you are involved – and what your overall role entails.
Rogers: I have what is called a research teaching appointment. So a big part of my role is teaching and advising students – both in the two-year and four-year programs. At Michigan State we have an undergraduate program, we have a two-year golf program, and we have a two-year sports turf program. I don’t know a lot of universities that have a specific two-year sports turf program, but we started one in 1988. I was not the coordinator of the sports turf program until 2014. First, Eric Miltner and then David Gilstrap ran that program. When they stepped away, I took both programs, which I’m still doing today. I teach two classes in the fall, and two classes in the spring – an introductory turfgrass class, a seminar class, a sand-based construction class, and then what I call a capstone class, which attempts to synthesize all turfgrass issues and classes the students have taken while at MSU.
I remind the students in the capstone class, “We have taught you everything we know, now forget it all, because everything is gray. It’s not black and white – it’s gray when you get out there.” So we try our best to prepare our students through this class. We teach our students – both two- and four-year – in the same room, which makes us very unique in my mind. We’ve never felt the need to separate them – there are other classes that will do that.
The thing about teaching turfgrass is that you rarely teach somebody who isn’t “all in,” totally enthralled with working in the turfgrass industry.. These people, because they have prior experience in the industry, know why they are coming to school, and man are they enthused. So, as I have said many times, this is one of the great teaching jobs in the world.
I have had a lot of great graduate students, several of whom are running turfgrass programs – John Sorochan, who eventually taught Adam Thoms; Alec Kowalewski at Oregon State; Jason Henderson at the University of Connecticut; John Stier, who is also at the University of Tennessee…I don’t want to leave anyone out. Tim VanLoo, Matt Anderson, Thomas Green, Ryan Bearss, Jeff Dunne, Jacob Bravo, Mark Krick and Tim Vanini were all graduate students of mine. They all contributed to this program.
Research-wise, for the first 20 years of my career, we did a lot of work with regard to anything that was sports turf related – looking at new grasses, how to manage turf under reduced light or shaded conditions, establishment of turfgrasses, wear tolerances of turfgrasses, etc.
We’ve had a lot of projects that have been high profile. And, while high-profile projects have lots of pressure, they also have big budgets, providing learning opportunities. We’ve done a good job providing information from these projects. I always tell graduate students that the information from high-profile jobs eventually trickles down to everyone. There are a lot of things people use every day today that came from the fact that we were doing the Olympics in Beijing or the Olympics in Greece. We would learn techniques that we would then pass on to everyday field managers.
A typical day for me is never typical. What has kept me the most enthralled about doing my job is that any given day it is going to be different. The only thing I can always count on is that class starts at 9:10. After that, I don’t know what is going to happen.
SFM: What has the last year been like for you and for your students with regard to COVID-related challenges?
Rogers: I saw one of my students, just by chance, in March. This was a student who had enrolled in the turfgrass program in August of 2020. His first comment to me was, “It’s nice to finally meet you face to face.” There are 15 students I’ve never met face to face. So they have had a very difficult job.
For me it has been pretty easy. I have enjoyed the 31-second commute to teach from my kitchen table. I’ve had some extra time to redo every lecture I have ever given – brand new pictures, brand new thoughts – a lot of things I might not have been able to do had I been going to the office. But the students are the ones this has been most difficult for these past months.
Last October, I’m sitting there on Zoom, staring at those kids. I had sent every student 16 grasses that we were going to study, the seeds we were going to study, and the soil we were going to use to do an establishment project. But they are in their basements; they are in their mom and dad’s houses; and they are miserable. This is not what they expected.
I knew we were going to do the same thing [remote learning] in January, despite what we were hearing. So I called my department chair, and said, “Do you trust me? Because I’ve got an idea, and I need to get these kids out of their basements.”
I called nine golf courses throughout the United States, and I asked them if they would be willing to take these students and let them work on their golf courses from January through March. I told them (the superintendents), “Before you say yes, I have some rules. First, I need the students to take 12 credits online. It’s going to be synchronistic. They are going to meet Tuesday and Thursday mornings; so they need Tuesday and Thursday mornings off – maybe even the whole day. But the rest of the time they will work, and I’m going to expect your technicians to help us teach the labs of the classes of the particular semester sequence that we are in.” And they all said yes.
So the students went to those golf courses January through March (see sidebar article on page 18). We had a few bumps in the road, but by all accounts they enjoyed it, and they loved the hands-on experience that they got. We would talk about the theory in the morning, and they would go out that afternoon or the next day and apply it.
It’s not easy to go to class 12 credits and work 40 hours a week. So that was a big move for us. That was a way to make it more palatable for our students – particularly our first-year students. We encouraged our seniors to stay at their internships and do the same thing. Many of them did stay at their internships in the fall, but by winter I could tell many were back in their basements. It was just awful for them. It wasn’t what they expected. It wasn’t what they paid for in so many ways. It wasn’t what their maturity level was even ready for either. It’s not their fault. None of this was their fault. I tried to keep that in mind. And we got through it. But I sure hope we are going back to face to face this fall.
SFM: What is the key to getting young people interested in the turfgrass industry?
Rogers: We don’t have very many students at MSU who don’t love this work. By the time they have gotten to school, they already know they like it. People in the sports turf industry are telling me that they can’t find good help, and I agree. But maybe the interns are not treated the same as other interns in the organization. If you have a marketing intern, you might find them housing through the marketing department. But I never hear that with grounds. In golf, they learned a long time ago that the more they can make an internship turnkey, the more kids will jump into that fire. A lot of times it is their first time getting out of the house, and their first time going away. That’s the thing I did with the “great experiment” during COVID – I made sure it was turnkey. When they walked onto that golf course, they had a place to stay, they had a place to study, and they had a place to go to work. The more that that can be done in this world, the easier it is to get people attracted to your particular facility.
Sports turf has always lagged behind golf in terms of education and resources, but it is catching up rapidly. Now people need to remind their bosses that they have to be able to provide opportunities. If you can, there are a lot of students who enjoy the idea behind sports turf. There are a lot of things that are attractive about it, but the opportunities have got to be there, and it needs to be turnkey.
SFM: What are the challenges that you deal with on a regular basis and how do you approach those challenges?
Rogers: Most of my challenges are personal. I want to do a good job and stay current. I want to be sure the students get what they need.
The other day someone asked me if I could give a 45-minute lecture. I said, “Anytime. Any subject. It doesn’t matter.” That has become automatic.
I feel very strongly about remaining current so I can relate to students. One of the questions I get all the time is whether I think students have changed in the last 32 years.
Do I think the 18 year old has changed? Not necessarily. Do I think they’ve been out of their home by the time they get to MSU? No. Do I think they are afraid of getting out of their comfort zone? Yes, I do. Do they have different technology than someone had 30 years ago? Sure.
30 years ago, I could ask the class how many spots are on a giraffe. The way they would have answered would be to pick the youngest guy or girl and send them to the library, and tell them to come back with the answer. Now, everybody can answer this question inside of five seconds.
So, who needs to make the adjustments – the students or me? Obviously, me. I’m the guy who has constantly needed to adjust to the idea of teaching and the idea of getting something across. It’s not the students that need to adjust. Recognizing that I’m the person who needs to make the adjustment has been key. I’m very cognizant of that.
I also enjoy consulting, and the challenges of projects, chasing perfection. I take on certain things, and that becomes my focus. I’m not afraid to change my focus. Those are my biggest challenges.
SFM: Can you give us an idea of the types of projects you for which you serve as a consultant?
Rogers: For the past 11 years I have been working with the Mortenson company whenever they build a stadium with natural turf. They have been fun to work with, and I have learned so much. Right now I have two projects with them – one in St. Louis and one in Nashville. My job is to make sure nothing goes wrong turf-wise for these billion-dollar stadiums. I make sure the raw materials are up to specs. I make sure the specs themselves are written correctly. A lot of times the superintendent or sports field manager hasn’t even been identified yet in these projects , so I will contribute in that role until they arrive.
In the last year or so, I have taken on the challenge of turfgrass racetracks for Thoroughbred racing. I find that fascinating. I’ve been working in Kentucky with Keeneland. Also, in a separate endeavor, the turf track at Churchill Downs will be rebuilt this July, and I’m happy to be involved with that.
Those are things I really enjoy. I’m very big on challenges, rather than just doing the same thing over and over.
We hope to be involved with the FIFA World Cup coming to North America in 2026. John Sorochan and I are working toward that right now. We would like to be involved with the research that is necessary for any of the stadiums that will be environmentally challenged. I don’t believe we will be building any new stadiums in North America for the World Cup, so the idea will be to retrofit and/or make sure that any stadiums that will be reduced light or indoor can meet the standards that FIFA requires.
It’s a huge undertaking. It’s 48 teams for the first time, as opposed to 32. FIFA has a requirement that each city (16 total, I think) has to have four training sites, and each of those training sites has to have two fields. So that is a lot of FIFA-standard fields that have to be in and ready to go in 2026. It’s going to be in three countries across three time zones. Nothing like this has ever been done before, certainly in the United States..
SFM: On the flip side of challenges, what are your biggest accomplishments, or what are you most proud to have achieved?
Rogers: There are different ways to look at that. All of my graduate students, and all their success, has made me extremely proud. My undergraduates and two-year students are off at great careers at top-100 golf courses and MLS stadiums and NFL stadiums. When they call you back to say “thank you,” or to ask a question, or just to give you an update, you can’t help but have a real sense of pride.
From a project standpoint – the World Cup in 1994 at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit was something I don’t know we will ever match. We had a ton of pressure for that project. We knew we had pressure, but we were too young to know how much it was, and that was probably good. If we had failed, who knows how much we would have set back the idea of sports turf in reduced-light conditions. But I know that we helped propel that part of the industry with what we could do and how technology can help us with sports turf. We’re very proud of the role we played in that.
The one thing that has allowed us to do very well at Michigan State is the fact that we have had a team approach for a lot of years. I am watching some of my teammates retire, which has got me a little concerned as to how things will go in the future. One in particular is Dr. Jim Crum, soil scientist. None of these projects were ever possible without him. You can have the greatest plants in the world, but if you don’t have the right soil, you’ve got a problem. It has been a team effort, and that has been important to me.
SFM: Please tell us about your family, as well as any passions or hobbies outside of work.
Rogers: I’ve been married to my wife, Michelle, for 31 years. None of this is even remotely possible if she doesn’t carry the big load. She is a passionate, fun-loving woman, who I am forever indebted to her in this lifetime. We have three grown children – Rebecca, Evan and Miranda (Evan and Miranda are twins) – as well as one grandson (Miranda), named Miles. We are so very proud of these children and what they have grown to become. Each of them graduated from Michigan State University, and have many memories of these students we have talked about in this article. I purposely made them a big part of my classroom, and so past graduates always ask me about their whereabouts. My son, Evan, was even in the Turf Program for a while (graduated with a Turf minor), so I got to teach him in class. Talk about pressure; he had already heard most of my stories! I still remember hearing him whisper to a classmate, “Let’s see how he does with this one.”
My hobby list is quite short, and maybe some of that is because turf is a big hobby of mine. I play a lot of golf and this job afforded that in many ways. And I like playing gin rummy with my gang during the long Michigan winters.
But here’s the thing…everyone asks me when I’m going to retire. I say, “I don’t think I can, because I love what I do.” I think I will always be involved to some level. Academia allows that to happen.
One of my big goals is to travel with my wife going forward. She has lots of places on her list. I am glad there is turf at most of them.
I feel very fortunate, and I have always felt very fortunate.