I am the… Research Leader
For the… University of Tennessee Center for Athletic Field Safety
What’s your favorite sports movie and why? “Field of Dreams.” I was born and raised in Iowa and that movie reminds me of Iowa.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned on the job? If I have a question, I just ask my network of athletic field experts, and I would say that should be the case for anyone. Sports turf managers and university professors are willing to help; they just need to be asked to help. Also, I always learn something new from attending educational seminars.
What led you to this career? I worked for Mike Andresen on the grounds crew at Iowa State University as an undergrad, and it was under his direction that I realized how much I enjoyed working on athletic fields and trying to optimize performance, while still being safe. After graduation from Iowa State, I started graduate school at the University of Tennessee, working for Dr. John Sorochan. In 2010, the University of Tennessee Center for Athletic Field Safety was built and I became the research leader.
What are some of the current research topics at Center for Athletic Safety? There’s a huge interest in hybrid (natural and synthetic) turf systems, and we’ve been conducting several studies on these, ranging from how to establish them, hybrid system management and their safety and performance under simulated athletic traffic. We’re also looking at new cultivars of bermudagrass and management of them, along with new synthetic turf systems — including synthetic turf with organic infills and various base pads.
What types of fields and turf areas are at your facility? We have both cool- and warm-season natural grass athletic fields (bermudagrass, Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue and perennial ryegrass) grown over USGA sand-based, ASTM sandbased, native soil with a 6-inch sand-cap and native soil athletic fields. We also have 57 small synthetic turf experimental plots.
What are the biggest challenges at your facility? Being in the heart of the transition zone, it’s often a battle against the weather to keep the test plots in optimum condition.
What’s your favorite part of traveling to industry events, such as trade shows and conferences? Meeting new people. I really enjoy hearing about each person’s unique field situation. I always enjoy hearing how they maintain athletic fields on small budgets and high levels of play. Athletic field managers can be so creative in their maintenance, it’s always interesting to hear what worked and what didn’t to improve their fields.
How do you predict the sports field industry will evolve in the future? I hope the research being done at places like the University of Tennessee Center for Athletic Field Safety will drive the sports field industry to get the money necessary to make athletic fields safer. Parents are beginning to be more vocal on social media about athlete safety, and I think this will help lead to places to put more money toward field maintenance and testing to make sure they’re safe.
What are some of the more frequent questions you get from field managers? What should I use, natural turf or synthetic turf for my new athletic field? How do I care for my new synthetic athletic field? What bermudagrass is the best for my athletic field? What seeding rate should I use when overseeding?
Who have been your biggest influences/mentors? From the educational side, Dr. Nick Christians, Dr. Dave Minner, Dr. Jim Brosnan, Dr. Tom Samples and Dr. Sorochan. I also need to recognize Mike Andresen and Bob Campbell for being mentors to me on how to manage athletic fields and introducing me to countless other athletic field managers.
Note: Since completion of this Q&A, Thoms has accepted a position as an assistant professor of commercial turfgrass management at Iowa State. He will continue his research at the new sports turf research center at ISU and work with commercial turfgrass managers in Iowa.