In 1984, with a fresh turf degree in hand, I dove into the budding sports turf management industry. Back then, I was a greenhorn sports field manager in a 100-year-old craft that had only recently been professionalized into the Sports Turf Managers Association by a handful of pioneers. Already sharing ideas and techniques with each other, these sports field visionaries had two great ideas.
First, they realized that sports turf management was distinct within the larger turfgrass umbrella because there was an athlete safety component. Field safety, however difficult to characterize, was the first industry pillar raised. This quickly led to their second great idea, which was the industry ethos of an open and shared transfer of knowledge. These guys were open-source 20 years before anyone knew what that meant.
My first STMA conference was early in 1986 at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. As I remember, the entire conference consisted of a two-hour general assembly with 100 or so attendees, a Tour on Wheels, and a trade-show only pass to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America conference, which we glommed on to in those days. I attended alone and can remember the speakers getting their slide carousels together before their presentations. The slide had to be oriented just right and set into the carousel upside down to project correctly on the screen.
The STMA was around five years old at this time. It was a little more than a set of names mimeographed in blue ink on a single sheet of curled white paper (located in Steve Wightman’s Mile High Stadium turf office) and a set of shared ideas. When a groundskeeper needed help, we would call someone on the landline phone, maybe getting one of those new-fangled answering machines where you could leave a recorded message. The local golf course superintendent and the turfgrass extension agent for your state were your best friends. We hand-wrote letters to each other.
The Tour on Wheels was a career-launcher for me; perhaps that’s why it has endured as an STMA conference hallmark to this day. It’s a great concept: load up several buses of sports field managers, teachers and commercial leaders for an entire day, touring three or four field complexes. I can remember the bus rides between sites, always making sure to sit next to a different future STMA legend on each leg of the tour. For me, this memory is the sports turf equivalent of seeing U2 play in a Dublin garage in 1976. I can remember the bus being so loud with conversation that we literally had to yell at each other to be heard. There was a palpable energy of creating something good.
If memory serves, our tour went to Golden Gate Park to see the new concept of sand-based soccer fields. We visited venerable groundskeeper Barney Barron at Candlestick Park and stopped by historic Kezar Stadium, with its then-kikuyugrass surface, made even more famous by the climactic scene of the first Dirty Harry movie. I remember talking turf with legends like Harry Gill from Milwaukee County Stadium; Dr. Bill Daniels of Purdue; Dr. Kent Kurtz of Cal Poly Pomona; Dick Ericson from Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota; Dale Sandin from the Miami Orange Bowl; Lynda Wightman with Hunter Industries; David Frey from Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium; Tony Burnett from RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. and of course Steve Wightman. Surely, I have omitted a few deserving names, but there I was, among many future STMA legends, literally taking notes. True to form, these industry pioneers shared all their knowledge, gave me their phone numbers and said, “Call anytime if I can help,” knowing I could do little to return the favor at that point in my career.
Today we enjoy many tremendous technical, scientific and communicative advances, like PowerPoint and social media. We realize these pioneering sports field organizers galvanized a lasting professional guild that for more than 30 years has educated, propelled and enriched the careers and lives of tens of thousands of field managers, myself included, as well as every athlete that plays or trains on an athletic field. They literally created and elevated untold thousands of good jobs in a seemingly perpetual American growth sector — the world of sports. That’s how you get an STMA Founders Award named after you.
We can’t thank them enough.