There’s no turf involved, but ice hockey is one sport that puts a premium on assists. The way statistics are kept, those assisting on a goal get as many points as the goal-scorer does. There are many sports turf managers out there who place a similar value on their assistants.
Their actual job titles vary – assistant sports turf manager, assistant field manager, assistant groundskeeper, etc. – but that’s beside the point. “You can pretty much just call them lifesavers or godsends,” says Michael Boettcher, director of grounds for the Milwaukee Brewers.
“There are things going on at our parks every single day – our assistants are the only way that I, or most head groundskeepers, can stay sane.”
Pete Benevento, director of grounds for the Washington Redskins, has two assistants – one at FedEx Field and one at Redskins Park (the team’s training facility) – and they each have one assistant under them. “So we have four full-time assistants,” says Benevento. “To be honest, without them, we could never get the job done…they’re priceless.”
“Assistants are the life blood of any turf department,” concludes Kyle Slaton, director of athletic turf management at Florida State University.
The role of the assistant
“I spent five years as a second-assistant and first- assistant. I think you try to work your butt off as much as you can for your boss…I think, as an assistant, my idea was always to try to make his life easier,” says Boettcher. Now that he’s a head groundskeeper, he values that same attitude in his assistants: he tells them specific things that he needs or wants them to do, but if they have an overall drive to try to make his job as groundskeeper easier, that transcends some specific tasks.
Assistants are in a tricky position. They are there to make their boss’s life easier and also simultaneously learn the profession. But some also find themselves in a role of responsibility.
In certain situations, an assistant has others who look to them often, particularly if the head groundskeeper isn’t available. “I hired an assistant here during the last season, and the biggest message I tried to convey was that he was going to be looked at as someone who knows what is going on every single day,” Boettcher explains.
“I told him that I was going to rely on him, and that he was crucial to the day-to-day operations, whether that’s simply communicating to our grounds crew, or to the organization that’s using the field.” In that regard, an assistant groundskeeper is an extension of the head groundskeeper and is viewed by others as a representative of the head groundskeeper.
If the assistant is going to be expected to know what’s going on, then they need to be well-versed.
At Victory Field, home of the Indianapolis Indians (Triple-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates), head groundskeeper Joey Stevenson involves his assistant in nearly every phase of the field’s management. “The two main duties of our assistant are managing our grounds crew, which involves hiring a pool of 10 to 14 individuals, developing a schedule one month in advance for the grounds crew and overseeing day-to-day duties of the grounds crew (including game mound and bullpen mounds),” Stevenson explains. “On top of that, our assistant is involved with budget planning, implementation of maintenance practices, offseason planning and day-to-day activities.”
Rob Julian, groundskeeper for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, takes a similar approach.
“With a small staff of two assistants, we need everyone to be well-versed in all aspects of operations and be able to competently operate all equipment in the fleet (tractor, field mowers, landscape mowers, edgers, hedge/line trimmers, field stripers etc.),” Julian explains. “This provides us with the most flexibility in day-to-day operations.”
He notes that having assistants who can handle all duties also ensures that operations can continue even if he can’t be there.
“Assistants are the ones that get the work done,” says Slaton at Florida State. “I’m often pulled into meetings…so my assistants are trusted and responsible for getting the job done. This includes teaching and leading the crew.
And when a last-second meeting or something in your personal life comes up, it’s nice to know you can relax and not worry because you have someone you trust who can do anything with little or no guidance.”
Boettcher says that trust is an essential part of the head groundskeeper-assistant relationship. “When I was an assistant, my boss, who had been a head groundskeeper for more than 20 years, pulled me aside one time and said, ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever trusted an assistant the way I trust you.’ And I think that’s the greatest thing that you can ever hear as an assistant,” says Boettcher.
It’s one thing to develop a good, natural rapport early on, but how does a head groundskeeper come to know they can trust – and rely on – an assistant to get the job done, both daily and in crucial situations?
“I think every situation is different,” Boettcher says. “The grounds manager I hired this year has earned trust so quickly…he’s one of those guys who shows up every morning ready to work, whether we’re here until 1 a.m., and he’s never once done anything that’s led me to believe that I shouldn’t trust him.”
He says another way that trust is built is through good, and constant, communication. “We’ve only worked together for about eight months, but I don’t think there’s a single day that’s gone by where we haven’t had some sort of communication, whether it’s in-person, over the phone, email, or just a simple text message,” says Boettcher.
Hiring the right assistant
When it comes time to fill an assistant field manager position, what personal and professional attributes are most important? “We look for some background in turf management, either on the golf course side or in sports turf,” says Benevento with the Redskins. “And we look for familiarity with certain equipment we use on a daily basis.
“We also look at education, but we don’t put a huge onus on education; even though we do like if they have an educational background, if they have a hands-on background and have learned in the field, that is just as good.”
Boettcher placed a higher emphasis on turfgrass education when he hired an assistant this summer. “At this level, I do value education. I did look for a grounds manager who had a bachelor’s degree because I think that shows they can step in at a very high level in terms of the scientific side of our jobs,” he explains.
“Secondly, I looked for good references – with every candidate I talked to, I contacted every single one of their references, because that’s the only way I had to get to know that person better from a working standpoint before they walk through the door on day one on the job.” Finally, he looks beyond an applicant’s recent job history to try to find out where they grew up and where they learned a work ethic.
It’s those sorts of personal characteristics, the things that don’t always show up on a resume, which can be crucial in a good assistant. “I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know everything, so it’s important to me to have assistants who share their opinions and ideas,” says Slaton.
“I look for someone who shares similar philosophies and fundamentals as myself, but I don’t want a ‘yes man.’ I need to be able to throw ideas off my assistants and get feedback. I look for an assistant with diverse experiences who could help us grow our turf program.” He also wants someone who wants to grow in the sports turf industry and who has strong communication skills.
Julian with the Buccaneers says that when it comes to an assistant, he looks for someone who is “dependable and has the ability/willingness to learn, and they must have passion for the work.” Perhaps most important in this profession, they must possess an attention to detail, he adds.
We asked members of our Editorial Advisory Board to weigh in on why good assistants are crucial to any successful field operation. Here’s what they had to say:
Brian Winka, CSFM
Parks supervisor for the city of Chesterfield, Missouri, and president of the Gateway Chapter of the STMA
“In my experience, having reliable staff members is crucial to a successful operation because as a manager, I rarely can spend time on just one project — I’m being pulled in multiple directions with daily meetings, reports to file, paperwork, personnel issues, etc. and I need to have reliable staff. I know I can explain the task at hand and I have the confidence that they’ll get the job done. Our complex has been very successful over the years, and I give all the credit to my staff, they do outstanding work and they make my job easier. I can’t thank them enough!”
Superintendent, Camelback Ranch (Phoenix, Arizona)
“Whether it be at a single-field professional stadium or a multi-field recreation complex, having a staff that operates and performs tasks with like-minded results is vital to the success of any grounds crew. At our facility, this is no different. Having multiple fields maintained to a professional standard requires an elevated level of trust between the individuals performing most of the crucial tasks involved. While variables may change daily, the field quality needs to remain the same. I believe that inside of this truth is where the most value lies with the quality of individual that you instill your trust in. This person needs the ability to recognize how and why the scenarios are different and what the proper steps are to provide a similar surface to the one that the athletes have become accustomed to. Having this asset for your fields is invaluable.”
Head groundskeeper, Comerica Park (Detroit, Michigan)
“Having reliable assistants is crucial to our operation. I have a full-time assistant and a crew supervisor. They share some of the same duties, as my full-time assistant has more administrative tasks. They’re both incredible individuals who have been with me for a long time and I appreciate everything that they do to help our operation run like a well-oiled machine. They also help keep the peace if there are tensions with the crew — working 80 hours a week together can sometimes put strains on the crew’s patience with each other. They are my barometers when it comes to the crew. They know when to push and when to let up. In addition to our full-time grounds crew, we have a large part-time staff on game days. I can barely remember having to manage them on my own (years ago). I can’t imagine doing that today, and thanks to my assistants’ hard work and dedication, I don’t have to.”
Brett Tanner, CSFM
Head groundskeeper, Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati, Ohio)
“Having a reliable assistant and staff is absolutely critical to being successful. A team that you can trust in your absence is vital to the overall performance of the department. It allows for issues to be addressed promptly. Also, certain things that may have been accepted as normal can be looked at differently and adjusted to improve. Being able to set goals and reach them is completely dependent on the team. Employees that understand the end result but can see and/or take different roads to get there is imperative. Many times, we work with individuals who don’t want to disappoint and might not speak up if there’s an issue in the way we approach a daily task or problem. I personally encourage openminded discussions on our day-to-day practices to ensure that we are being as efficient as possible to achieve an outstanding product. Suggestions might not always be implemented, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t welcomed and considered with respect.”
As assistants work to make the job of head groundskeepers easier, it’s important to remember that it should be a two-way street, where the boss is helping the assistant to learn and grow within the sports turf management profession. “I’m a realist. I realize that, more times than not, assistants want to become a head groundskeeper someday,” Boettcher says. “I learned from my old boss that you want to do whatever you can to make them a better assistant so that, hopefully, in the long run, they do become a head groundskeeper.
“I feel that the more responsibility they have, and the more involvement in the inner-workings of our department that I can give my assistants, the better.”
Stevenson, with the Indianapolis Indians, points out that assistants sometimes end up being promoted within the organization, and that helping them to develop professionally pays off for everyone. “If you look at the history of the Indianapolis Indians, the last two head groundskeepers were assistants [with] the Indians.
“That’s important for us to have consistency from year to year and allows our entire organization to be comfortable with our future,” he states.
Regardless of where an assistant’s career path takes them, “We want them to be armed with the knowledge and tools to be ready for the next level – whether that be as a head groundskeeper or an assistant in the Major Leagues, we want them to hone their skills here and be ready for their next move,” says Stevenson. To that end, he feels that it’s particularly important to help assistants develop skills in the areas of budgeting, managing people and developing overall field maintenance plans.
“Not only do I believe it helps the industry to foster an assistant, but I believe we owe it to our assistants to develop them professionally and give them the resources and experience to one day move up,” says Slaton. “I try as much as I can to occasionally involve my assistant in meetings and administrative duties.” He says involving assistants in the administrative side of things is one way that he can reward them for all the work they put in on the field. “It’s the least we can do for them,” says Slaton. “It’s one of the most rewarding parts of the job when one of your assistants moves up in the industry. It’s bittersweet. Selfishly you want them to work with you forever, but it’s rewarding to see them develop and move up.”
“We try to keep our assistants as long as possible, but we understand that they have to improve and climb up the career ladder,” agrees Benevento. “It’s always a hard pill to swallow when they leave.” He says he feels a special responsibility to play a role in the professional development of his assistants. “I try to guide them and talk with them and keep an open line of communication with them about what their goals are, where they see themselves in one year, in three years, etc. And I try to do anything I possibly can to help them reach their goals…whether it’s phone calls or emails or whatever they want me to do. I want to play a role in their advancement.”
He says that helping assistants reach their professional goals is only fair, given the difficult job they do.
“They’re key to the success of the fields, and they’re key to my success on a personal level,” Benevento adds. “They don’t always get a whole lot of recognition from others, but they get a lot of recognition and support and praise from me. I know how much they care and I know how much time and hard work they put in. It’s imperative, in my opinion, that they know how much I appreciate their work.”