What do we call ourselves? This question has gone unanswered ever since we began the professional development of our craft back in the early 1980s. “Groundskeeper” has been around forever. Although, I have never liked that term for myself much. No disrespect for anyone holding or using that title, it’s just not my personal preference, too much “outdoor janitor” connotation, maybe. Besides, it’s too general. I don’t keep the grounds.
In many parts of the world, they use “groundsman.” Maybe they don’t yet have accomplished females in the industry like we do. Again, with respect, no good for me.
I used to use sports turf manager, but that causes too much confusion. Those of us who prepare sports fields use the word “turf” as short for turfgrass. Athletes, especially professional ones, use the word “turf” as short for artificial turf. To them, the game is played on either turf or grass. Sports grass manager won’t work, as many of us manage skinned areas and artificial surfaces along with our grass.
John Elway once called me “our grass guy” on his weekly TV show. Our kicker, Jason Elam, the venerable one, was hurt in the previous Sunday’s game. In practice on Wednesday, Elway came out early to practice some placekicking. If Elam couldn’t kick this Sunday, Elway wanted to be the guy. I was holding for him, and he was pretty good; old-school style “toe-on.” That evening he was describing the situation on his TV show. He stumbled a little, as he tried to think of what to call me. “Our grass guy” finally came out. Well, you know this name stuck, and that was it. I was “the grass guy.” The next day at work, that’s all I heard. John later told me that he couldn’t get the word “agronomist” to the tip of his tongue, and grass guy came out. I gave him credit, most people don’t know what an agronomist is. John respected our work, like most of the athletes respect the work we do, and he tried to think of a title that showed that respect. You have to love those Stanford grads. Well, Elam was a warrior and kicked the next Sunday, Elway never got his chance as a placekicker, and I was left with a new nickname.
In the early 20th century, those who maintained and prepared golf courses called themselves greenkeepers. In 1926, they formed the National Association of Greenkeepers of America (NAGA). By 1951, in an industrywide effort, they shelved that word in favor of golf course superintendent. They must have felt the new preference sounded more in line with the professional nature of their work. NAGA changed to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) in the early 1950s. This change was part of a larger industrywide push to promote the professionalism and image of the craft. This was, after all, highly skilled work requiring education in several scientific disciplines. The early greenkeepers realized that they needed to change their titles to help improve the public and organizational image of their profession.
Our craft is now professionalized beyond the title of groundskeeper. It’s time we all started using sports field manager. Maybe someone knows a better title, but I remember long discussions about this in our early meetings on the STMA certification committee. Sports field manager is what we decided on, and CSFM was born. It’s much more descriptive, it befits our jobs much better, and has two less syllables than golf course superintendent. It doesn’t go overboard either.
At many of our great universities, the “groundskeeper” who takes care of the athletic fields has been professionalized and brought under the athletic department with the title of sports field manager. And now some of our most-talented SFMs and some of our best sports fields are in the collegiate ranks. There are smart people on university campuses. They are realizing more and more that the people tasked with managing a sports field, or a complex of them, need a unique skill set and advanced education to perform well in their responsibilities. They are managers, not groundskeepers. Again, don’t get me wrong, no disrespect for anyone who uses groundskeeper as their title, but it just seems to me it would be like a surgeon calling himself a hospital worker.
Look up “groundskeeper” on Wikipedia and read what it says. Tell me this describes your responsibilities. Look up “sports field manager” or even “turf manager” and it will be a short read, no results found. There is a very nice page about golf course superintendents, imagine that. Wouldn’t it be great if some bright, young SFM got a wiki page started for us SFMs, one that could be added to by others when they have some time?
I have had the great privilege of meeting and getting to know so many fantastically talented sports field managers over the years. They come from all walks of the industry in parks departments, schools, municipalities, universities and professional facilities. It’s not easy, but they make it look that way. Yet, they are not marketers. That’s a whole different discipline, a whole different species of organism if you ask most sports field managers. But they do sell, and that’s hard to do. Ask anyone in marketing if a name matters. It means nothing if you don’t walk the walk. The marketers will also tell you that while a name is important, it’s your brand that really matters. What is your “brand” within your organization? Whatever we call ourselves, and whatever we are called, it’s what we do, and how we conduct ourselves as professionals that will bring the perceptional change we seek, not just a title.
Ross Kurcab, who holds a bachelor’s in landscape horticulture/turfgrass management from Colorado State University, has 26 years of turf management experience and is the first Certified Sports Field Manager). You may reach him at email@example.com.