George Toma

I’m excited by all of the technology now available to sports field managers. When I get the opportunity to walk the trade show at a conference, I’m as happy as a kid in a candy store. There are still times, though, when we need to go back to the basic methods to get a job done.

We used some of those basics when resodding the Notre Dame football field this past November. Poa annua had invaded the field. It’s an aggressive grass and so shallow rooted that it doesn’t give the stability needed for football play. The most effective way to get rid of it is remove it and resod.

To start, Assistant Athletic Director Mike Danch and Athletic Facilities Manager Dan Brazo checked out several sod producers and selected Graff’s Turf Farms of Fort Morgan, Colo., as their supplier. Notre Dame chose the late-season installation, shooting for a play-ready surface for their spring game. During the same period, Randy Graff and his son Jim were coordinating end-of-season resodding projects for the St. Louis Cardinals, Wrigley Field and the Colorado Rockies.

The weather cooperated for the first few days of preparation at Notre Dame. Stripping off the old sod, adding soil amendments and rototilling them in went according to plans. Then, cold weather moved in, bringing 1 inch of rain and 4 inches of snow. The chance of more ice and snow was in the forecast daily. It’s hard to laser-grade when the dirt is wet, and we knew it was going to freeze overnight. So, we made an old-fashioned, 12-inch nail drag and a ripple board. We worked the field with the nail drag before going home at night. The next morning there was loose material in the upper layer of soil, but not all the way down to the frost line. I called that loose material “freeze-dry dirt.” We were able to move it with the ripple board, using it to level off the high spots and fill in the low spots. Then, we ran string lines across the field in both directions to verify the leveling. We were right on the money, ready to put down the sod.

Jim Graff came from the wrap-up of the Wrigley Field sod installation to work with us for a couple days. At the first break in the weather, they topdressed and put on the field cover. That should gain them that early spring grow-in time and a great surface for the spring game.

Eyeballing a field isn’t good enough. That simple double-string verification is well worth the time it takes. It’s the sports field manager’s method of checking for accuracy, even after laser-leveling. I’ve seen some variances of up to 3 inches in turf areas, and even in the skinned areas of baseball fields. 

The same attention to detail is needed when selecting a sod supplier. You’ve got to look at the grass you’re getting. It has to be right for the sport that will played on it. Grass can be great for baseball, but not at all workable for football, and once it’s selected, you need to coordinate the maintenance procedures to fit your needs. You can’t verticut aggressively and in multiple directions before overseeding the sod for a football field in season. I’ve seen sod treated that aggressively fall apart as it comes off the truck—the players won’t even get a chance to rip up that grass.

The sod producer and sports field manager should be working together through the cutting, delivery and installation processes, too. There should be no surprises for either party. The sod producer needs to be as dedicated to delivering the best product for the specific field and its use as the sports field manager is in receiving it. With that kind of cooperation, there should be no need for resodding because of “bad sod.”

Reach out to other resources when you need help.  In 1999, sod was put down on the concrete floor at the Louisiana Super Dome for the preseason game between the Saints and the Packers. It was the best sod I’ve seen in my 66 years in the game. We knew we’d need to water the sod and paint the playing field and would have problems getting the blades to dry. I went on an early morning radio show and asked for help, mentioning airboats. One hour later, a gentleman showed up with four airboats.

When Louisiana State University was also hosting the New Orleans Saints after Hurricane Katrina, we did reach out. The Saints were playing on Sunday afternoon following a Saturday night LSU home game. The humidity was so high, we knew the paint for the pro game wouldn’t dry without help.

We were fortunate to be working with excellent people like Todd Jeansonne and Jeff Kershaw.  They knew the university had a swamp education environmental project located right across from the LSU stadium that had airboats. They asked the professor in charge of the project about using them. He agreed and volunteered to come operate them overnight. That’s “and then some” at work, in asking for help and in giving it.

George Toma is an NFL Hall of Fame inductee, founder of the Sports Turf Managers Association and mentor to hundreds of sports field managers over his 66 years in the profession.