Any college student who complains about having to take four or, brace yourself, even five courses per semester should consider this: there are more than 45 different NCAA-sanctioned sports (most of them with separate men’s and women’s teams). So, consider the Herculean job that’s facing athletic field managers working at the college level. Having to provide a wide variety of different venues isn’t the only challenge – the expectations for field conditions at the higher education level are themselves pretty high. Also, keep in mind that when you work for a college, you’re part of a large organization, which can present its own logistical and bureaucratic intricacies.
So how do they do it? A few college sports turf managers were kind enough to give us a look at how they operate their maintenance programs:
Nick McKenna, CSFM, assistant athletic field maintenance manager at Texas A&M and the higher education representative on the board of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA), says those maintaining fields at the college level have a lot in common with those working in other segments of the industry. “We’re all fighting weather, we’re all fighting usage, trying to balance the use with the recovery…those are the same battles from high schools all the way up to the pros,” says McKenna.
Of course, there are some key differences as well. “We’re probably a little bit more under the microscope than your average park or high school just because of all the big TV contracts,” says McKenna. “We’re trying to be TV-ready year-round, just the way the pro guys are.”
Particularly at colleges with high-profile athletic programs, there can be real pressure knowing the number of people who will be seeing the fields in-person and on TV. “We treat every game the same – every game is a big game to us. But it is in the back of your mind when you have a national TV football game,” says Casey Carrick, CSFM, director of athletic grounds and turf management for the University of North Carolina.
What TV viewers don’t see are all the other fields that must be maintained at colleges, from practice fields for men’s soccer to game fields for women’s field hockey…the list goes on. While there’s plenty of pressure to keep fields looking and playing great for a wide variety of different sports, Carrick says that challenge is part of what keeps the job interesting. “Working in college sports, we get to be hands-on with everything – from soccer to lacrosse to football and so on. Sometimes people working in different venues only get to focus on one sport,” he explains. “It’s nice to be able to change things up. Sometimes by the time baseball is over, we’re a little burned out, so it’s fun to switch to another sport.”
Budgeting and bureaucracy
Different colleges take different approaches when it comes to where the athletic fields maintenance team falls in the organizational flow chart. At Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, for example, the grounds department cares not only for the general college landscape, but also the athletic fields. And everything is part of a single budget. “So anything we do maintenance-wise to the athletic fields comes out of the grounds budget,” explains Michael Wade, CSFM, athletic field manager (who is also responsible for snow removal). His immediate boss is the supervisor of grounds and then there are also the leaders of facilities operations management. In other words, multiple approvals are needed, especially when it comes to bigger ticket items.
“I think when you’re working at a college setting, sometimes…when you’re using products or buying equipment, there’s a little bit more paperwork and more people who have to sign off on that,” says Wade. He compares that to jobs he’s had in other segments of the sports turf industry, where there was only a single facility owner or a small board of directors to seek approval from. “Sometimes at the college level, you have to get bids and you have to convince or sell more people on your maintenance plan or whatever you’re trying to do,” he explains.
At UNC, Casey Carrick is part of the outdoor athletic facilities department, which is part of the athletic department. That means that budget requests are handled by people in the athletic department who have a close connection to and interest in the maintenance of the fields, perhaps an advantage versus a scenario where the sports turf manager is part of an overall buildings and grounds department.
Carrick says that as part of his budget process, “We sit down and try to figure out what we’re going to spend on each field each year – it doesn’t always work out that way, unfortunately, but sometimes that’s good – we may not spend as much money as we thought we would on a certain thing and we can reallocate it toward another project or field.” He makes any requests for one-time expenditures and capital improvement projects to his supervisor, who is the director of outdoor facilities, “and things like that he’ll take up the chain, all the way up to the athletic director,” Carrick explains.
Texas A&M has one overall budget for all its fields. “We’ve never broken it down by field,” McKenna explains. “We want all of our fields to be top-notch, premier-level. By lumping it all together, we have a little more flexibility.” This approach (and the fact that over the past 10 to 15 years, all the school’s fields have been transitioned to sand-based construction with similar drainage) allows for bulk ordering. For example, he figures out how much fertilizer will be needed on all the fields for the entire year and puts that out to a bid process, which results in a better price than specifying different products for different fields, he says. “It helps us to maximize what we’re getting for our dollars.”
Communicating with coaches
Regardless of which department field maintenance falls under, each of the college athletic field managers we spoke with emphasized the importance of communicating with coaches. McKenna says the level of interaction he has with coaches varies from sport to sport. Football, especially at a high-profile Southeastern Conference program like Texas A&M, is so big that the grounds department typically works through the director of football operations rather than directly with the head coach, “but with every one of our other coaches we’re pretty much interacting with them daily. It’s give and take,” he says of these relationships, where the maintenance staff and the coaches each share information about schedules for the week and what each need to get accomplished.
When in-season, NCAA student athletes are required to have a minimum of one day off from sports each week. “Those are important days for us because those are our maintenance windows where we can do some bigger [projects],” says McKenna. There is a little more flexibility in maintaining the fields during the offseason, when coaches are limited to 20 hours of active contact with the athletes, but even then, there is plenty of activity on the fields to schedule around. There are occasions when certain maintenance practices need to take place, and McKenna needs to ask coaches to keep athletes off the field or to avoid certain areas. “We build the relationships beforehand for those days, when we really need something,” he says.
Carrick and his team at UNC work hard at educating coaches about how they can help make the fields better by moving around, shifting practices, or taking days off – if requested – in advance to accommodate maintenance practices like aerification.
“I think we’ve earned their trust enough so that if we tell them we need to do something like that, they generally get on board and help us out,” says Carrick.
At Dartmouth, Wade makes a point to talk with individual coaches at least once a week. “Sometimes it’s just catching them when they’re out at practice or before a big game, just to get their feedback about how the fields are playing and whether there’s something they want us to do differently,” he says. “Or if I’m going to do something like topdress or aerate, I try to let them know ahead of time.” If Wade sees wear spots develop, he might talk to the coach about moving to a new practice area, or flipping the orientation of the field.
At all levels of college sports, as with professional and youth sports, the expectations are rising when it comes to field conditions. “I think the industry as a whole is growing, and from what I’ve seen, the level of maintenance is always increasing on athletic fields,” says Wade. “Professional fields from 10 years ago wouldn’t be acceptable at the professional level today. And college fields today have become what professional fields were 10 years ago. We’re really following the professional lead, which is great,” says Wade. “The level of maintenance and the expectations are increasing at all levels.”
There are also a growing number of non-sports events, like concerts, taking place at college sports venues as schools look for ways to cover the costs of operating the facilities, says McKenna. In big-time college athletics, there’s a lot of pressure for fields and look and play perfectly. “A lot of schools are now having to resurface their football fields every year,” he points out. Sometimes a music festival is scheduled prior to replacement to help bring in the revenue to help cover the costs of the project. “It seems like we’ve seen that shift over the last five to 10 years in college athletics, sort of toward the professional business model,” states McKenna.
While the expectation game places added pressure on college field managers, it also creates a greater appreciation for the important role they play. “I’ve heard a good analogy that college athletics is the front porch for a university – it’s the thing that everyone is exposed to and sees,” says McKenna.
“One of our former coaches said, ‘Well, then, our groundspeople and facilities and fields are the front lawn on the way up to the porch.’ How our fields are presented is the very first impression that people get.”