I visited Seattle, Washington for the first time in late March. During the trip, I encountered several people who told me, “It doesn’t really rain here as much as people think.”
I’d like to disagree — it’s a wonderful city, but I was there for several days and it rained every day. (Full disclosure: I didn’t measure with a rain gauge and maybe it rained less while I was there than it usually does in late March. In any case, it was constantly wet.)
Needless to say the climate in the Pacific Northwest makes athletic field management a whole different ballgame. Tyler Clay, the facilities manager at the University of Washington (UW), knows this all too well as it’s a way of life for him and his staff.
“We like to say, ‘How do we get visiting teams and coaching staffs to comment positively on our [athletic field] facilities to others?’ ” Clay tells me on March 23 during our wet, rainy tour of the university’s athletic fields. “We pride ourselves on getting our fields in great shape after hearing people say, ‘There’s no chance we can play in this weather.’
“And then we play.”
A unique background
Clay’s path to the home of the Huskies is a nontraditional one, to say the least.
Originally from the Seattle area (eastern suburb of Sammamish), Clay began his career in sports turf as a high school baseball player at Eastlake High, assisting with field maintenance. During this time, Bob Christofferson, head groundskeeper for Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners, was brought in to consult on Eastlake High’s baseball field renovation. Clay observed the staff, helped and subsequently learned clay work during this process.
Clay wanted to go to college for landscape architecture, but decided to play baseball at Rockford (Illinois) University, where he ended up earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting. It was during Clay’s senior year at Rockford in August 2009 that the sports turf industry came calling.
“So that year, the grounds crew for the Rockford River Hawks (semi-pro baseball team; now the Rockford Aviators) walked off the job,” Clay explains. “The head coach, who I had gotten to know, knew I had experience and asked me call the team’s general manager. I did, and I took over that job with no help – it was just me out there with six weeks still to play in the season. I ended up working there for four years.”
His next move, while working for the River Hawks, was to earn a master’s degree at Rockford, which is when another opportunity in the sports turf industry came calling.
“I was three classes short of that master’s degree, when I got a call from my former high school baseball coach, who was then an assistant softball coach at the University of Washington,” Clay recalls. “The groundskeeper in charge of softball at UW had passed away, and my former coach knew I had field maintenance experience and was from the area.”
Clay — a member of the Sports Turf Managers Association and its local chapter, the Pacific Northwest Sports Turf Managers Association — ended up getting the job and started at UW in February 2013. Two and a half years later, he was promoted to facilities manager, a position where his accounting background now comes into play. Clay supervises the maintenance of the UW football, soccer, baseball, track and field and softball playing surfaces (natural and synthetic) and their respective facilities. As facilities manager, he also has budgeting and financial responsibilities for these areas, as well as for the indoor athletic facilities at UW.
“[The facilities manager job responsibilities] marry up well,” Clay tells me during this busy, March morning in his office, as spring sports are well underway. “Getting promoted, part of my job now is doing all of these budgets, which is perfect given my accounting background. But I still love being outside.”
Clay and his crew maintain 500,000 square feet of synthetic turf playing surfaces, and close to 1 million square feet in total, counting ornamental areas on campus. All of Clay’s staff has a background in synthetic fields, but there are natural grass playing surfaces as well at UW. The staff receives assistance from university personnel for maintenance tasks like field painting and fertilizer applications.
The athletic fields at UW that Clay and his staff maintain include:
Husky Softball Stadium
In use since 1993, this field features 30,000 square feet of natural grass, with synthetic aprons. The outfield – mowed at about an inch – is perennial ryegrass, overseeded with some Kentucky bluegrass.
“Our outfield drains like a dream,” Clay explains. “We never have standing water issues out there. When we’re anticipating inclement weather, we’ll usually open up some holes where our tarp might sit. We’ll preemptively localize and treat spots on the field, as our alleys tend to hold water during heavy rains. We don’t start irrigating until mid-to-late April, keeping in mind the amount of rainfall and precipitation we get.”
UW hosts 24 softball games per season and the team reports for practices in early January – a challenge for Clay and his crew. “This is an older facility that’s only been completely re-sodded once in the last 20 years. So it’s in pretty good shape, considering,” Clay marvels. “We have an early playing season, so something we have to deal with is how to make this field fully alive and plush in the beginning of January. If the sun is out, and it’s 35 degrees, they’re coming outside. We have to have the dirt ready by Jan. 5 and the grass has to be in playable condition because by March 1, we’re hosting TV games. We have to keep that in mind when we’re controlling our Poa annua.”
Clay incorporates a variety of aerification techniques, including core aerifying, slicing, air injecting and shatter tining. (UW and nearby Seattle University share equipment, including a shatter tiner.)
As far as the infield, a high clay content is typical on fields in the Northwest – and that’s the case at UW, as Clay estimates the softball infield has about 70 percent clay. As one would expect, the Seattle climate dictates what Clay ultimately can do on the field.
“So the tarp has been on five of the last eight days,” Clay says of the recent activity on this field, which included a home series against the University of Oregon the day before my visit. “It’s just the nature of us having to get all of these games in. So we have some tarp burn. We’ll bubble up the tarps with air; I’ve worked on this field under tarps made into a 10-foot dome, to accommodate wet weather.
“A typical day of Seattle weather in March is you’re in a mist all morning, it burns off by lunch, and then it’s blue sky and sunny the rest of the afternoon.'”
Husky Ballpark (Baseball)
This two-year-old facility – which hosts 32 baseball games per season – is entirely synthetic, aside from the pitcher’s mound and bullpens. At the previous UW baseball facility, there was natural dirt on the home plate area, which didn’t mesh well with the rest of the synthetic field, Clay explains. “When we had natural dirt on home plate at the old facility, we couldn’t keep up, so much dirt would get into the synthetic … 10 feet up both foul lines, you couldn’t even see the lines.”
Clay’s team replaces the batter’s boxes every two years due to wear, and after every game, crumb rubber and sand get added to the area. Clay has found that adding more sand and topping off with crumb rubber in high-traffic areas, like the batter’s box, helps with maintenance.
Luther Martin, a member of Clay’s staff, is the one who primarily maintains most of the UW synthetic fields, including the baseball field. “I’ve been here since 1997; on my watch I’ve been able to see some of our players go to the Major Leagues. It’s great to see them there,” Martin says.
Husky Soccer Field
This 90,000-square-foot natural surface – which hosts 24-plus UW men’s and women’s soccer matches each season – was renovated last summer after experiencing drainage issues. Drainage specialist Greenshield Systems was brought in and installed 10,000 linear feet of new drainage in between all the existing lines on the field of play. “This made the field perform better, it was like night and day to what it was before,” Clay explains.
Poa is pesky on this field, and other natural surfaces at UW, but chemical use is restricted on the university’s grounds due to the proximity of the campus to Lake Washington and several natural wetlands. “This is a challenge when treating diseases,” Clay says. “We have to be delicate on our softball and soccer fields with products and the frequency in which we use them. Ultimately all of this has ties to sustainability, which is what this region is all about. It’s ultimately beneficial, it just takes a little more legwork on our end.”
Another pest Clay and his staff face is geese. During the season, they clean up several gallons of goose droppings just to get the fields to a point where maintenance is even possible. In terms of prevention, Clay has explored many avenues including geese lights, flagging, cardboard coyotes, grape extract spray, the Goosinator, border collies and even an overnight staff of UW students to chase geese out in the middle of the night. “We’ve recently been working with the United States Department of Agriculture to eradicate them as best we can within our financial limits,” Clay says. “We’re just now starting to track our labor hours put into cleaning up after these geese. It’s a real issue.”
Husky (Outdoor) Track
At the time of our interview, Clay was preparing the UW outdoor track and field facility for the Pac-12 Conference Championship Meet, slated for May 7-8 and 14-15. “This facility will turn into a mini-stadium,” Clay explains. “We’ll be painting new logos, installing bleachers and setting up huge video boards.”
The facility – which has 50,000 square feet of natural ryegrass – was relocated in 2013 in conjunction with the renovation of Husky Stadium (football), where the original outdoor track and field was located. But after the relocation, the track and field facility began to sink wherever the surface wasn’t supported by pylons – the competitive surface is supported by pylons buried in the ground, though, the entire footprint of this facility isn’t supported by these pylons, hence the observed settling.
Clay is constantly trying to play catch-up, as areas of concrete have separated from the turf. “We can combat the natural settlement in our natural landscapes, though this is more of challenge in many of the facility’s hardscapes,” Clay says. “It’s turned into, ‘How can we make this look like a good thing?’ We have a lot of cosmetic work to do, to cover up these separated areas of concrete. It’s a new challenge for us.”
Husky Stadium (Football)
Few scenes in college football are as picturesque as Husky Stadium – flanked by Lake Washington with the Cascade Mountains in view – at dusk on a Saturday in the fall.
This all-synthetic facility, which underwent a $280 million renovation in 2013, has a capacity of 72,500. The field, a FieldTurf installation, features a sand and crumb-rubber infill and can drain 60 to 70 inches of water per hour.
“A lot of people here in the Northwest will say, ‘Don’t groom in wet weather.’ Well, if that’s the case, we aren’t grooming September through April,” Clay explains to me as we walk the field. “So, we won’t be as aggressive with downward pressure. We’ll put fingers down instead of brushes, in terms of low spots and moving infill around and fluffing it up. We adjust our grooming in wet weather, there’s no other way to maintain this field.”
In-season, game preparation and maintenance includes a heavy grooming on Friday followed by a hand-picking on Saturday mornings prior to kickoff. “To make the field look better when we’re grooming, we’ll drag it with an empty piece of upside down FieldTurf, less the infill, just a spare piece. We use it as a drag mat – it really cleans up the field and knocks everything down and stands up the synthetic leaf blade. We picked up that trick from John Wright at Century Link Field (home of NFL’s Seattle Seahawks).”
During football games, Clay is out and about around the facility, making sure things are running right. Two groundskeepers are on the sidelines in case of a turf emergency and are constantly checking for rips, or seams, in the turf. They now keep an emergency turf repair kit on hand. “We want to be ahead of the game in terms of safety,” Clay says. “We never want to hear, ‘You let an athlete get hurt because they were on an unsafe playing surface.’ Safety of our student athletes is the ultimate goal. We’d love to make the fields look as beautiful as possible, but it never comes before safety.”
Aside from at least six UW home games throughout the year, Husky Stadium is also the site of the university’s commencement, Washington high school football state championship games and other special events, like a Google event – that included a 100-foot zip line – last summer. Commercials are also filmed here, including a recent PowerAde ad involving Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham.
“Special events are part of the job,” Clay says. “One time, our marketing department wanted to bring two horses on the field during halftime of a recent game. But I had to shut it down. I had nightmares of a horse ripping a seam in the turf and us trying to fix it while the game is being shown on national TV.
“That wasn’t going to work.”
Clay explains that the key to success in hosting special events is “understanding the field, what it’s there for and how to use it best for each event. Student athletes essentially become stewards of these fields. They know what they’re looking for and they know what causes problems or what poses a potential threat for injuries. The student athletes are who we’re ultimately taking care of.”
And of course, frequent nationally-televised games are a challenge Clay and his staff faces.
“We pay extra attention to detail to all hardscapes a camera could pick up,” he says. “We’ll meticulously hand-pick the field. Look, we’re in the public eye constantly. Attention to detail becomes even more important when you’re at this level – when I get home from a softball or football game, the Pac-12 Network will typically show a replay late at night. I’ll flip it on and check out the field and see what it looks like. This is used as a tool to adjust what we need to adjust.”
Football players – and other UW athletes – train at the Dempsey Indoor Practice Facility and the East Practice Fields. Both are high- traffic, high-use synthetic surfaces that Clay and his staff maintain on a daily basis.
Clay and the UW grounds work with several different vendors and manufacturers for both their synthetic and natural surfaces.
As far as heavy equipment, UW works with John Deere and Toro. Fertilizer and seed needs are filled by Wilbur-Ellis‘ Auburn (Washington) regional office and a dedicated turf rep for UW, Matt Wilkinson. “He’s a great resource to have. He’s just a phone call away and helps us with soil samples, adjusting our fertility programs and lots of other stuff. Finding a good rep like that has made a huge difference for us,” Clay says.
The Air2G2 aerating machine, made by GT Air Inject, is a favorite of Clay’s. “I’m a big fan of this machine,” Clay says as he takes me around the equipment shop. “It limits the amount of core aerification we do on our fields. It’s a great tool with a lot of science behind it.”
Learning on the job
Clay’s experiences, both working for the Rockford River Hawks and now at UW, have given him some unique perspectives on field management that help with any number of tasks every day. Count time management as something that’s been learned over the years. “This is one of biggest things I’ve learned,” Clay says. “How do you stretch your resources? How do you make it last? Going back to working in Rockford – how do you make a pallet of 40 bags of Turface last for a whole month of games? Also, you have to get creative with staffing – we used front-office interns as needed to supplement labor.”
Clay’s advice to career-minded groundskeepers and field managers is simple: Provide yourself with challenges to solve along the way and never stop improving. “Immerse yourself in this industry and put yourself up against challenges,” Clay says. “Don’t say no, find a creative way to say no: ‘We can’t do this, but we can make this happen.'”
“We’re in a service-type industry. Where we gain ground and trust with our athletes and coaches is doing the little things that make a big difference.”