This football season, TV coverage has shown some great fields, some mediocre fields and some bad fields. I don’t want to ever bad-mouth any sports field manager—no one can know all the details of a situation unless they’ve been part of the process or have been told the whole story of the process. However, we can’t deny the reality projected on all those TV screens. Commentators have ripped football fields this season—including those of the Chicago Bears, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs. When the NFL took the Dolphins and Giants game over to Wembley Stadium in England, those 200 and 300-pound football players almost demolished the field.
Football is a different game from baseball and soccer. It’s played in the turf, not on it. Sports field managers need to understand that, and be prepared for it. We need to do our homework, check out all the details, consider all the situations that might happen. Yes, we’ll all make mistakes, but when we do, we need to learn from them and make sure they don’t happen again.
When a field fails, it’s a slap in the face to all of us. Being in the game for 66 years, it worries me and it hurts me. People hate to hear this from me, but we have better fields today in parks and recreation systems, high schools, colleges and the minor leagues than some on the pro level—but it’s at the pro level where they have the man power and the money to get the job done right.
We’ve lost something along the way. Maybe we forgot how to grow grass. Maybe we don’t care enough. Ask the old-timers how they handled multiple sports and concerts, yet found ways to keep the field in shape—somehow without resodding. At Old Municipal Stadium in Kansas City, we had the Kansas City A’s and Royals baseball, the Chiefs football, the Spurs soccer and the Beatles rock concert, and all were on the natural grass field. We only resodded once in 15 years. That was in 1969, after we’d had no baseball in 1968. Players and the press said it was the best baseball and football field in the pros. Pelé, the world-famous soccer player, said it was the second best field he’d played on.
Now, teams are sodding up to three times a year. Once the athletes start calling a field pavement, a swamp or a pasture, the playing of the game will be second rate. Unfor-tunately, those kinds of fields are out there.
We have to stop complaining about the TV commentators. Many times, those commentators are ex-football players who excelled at the college and professional levels and know a lot about the game. They walk the field before the game and talk to the players. They have a pretty good handle on what the conditions are.
When we meet at the conferences, we should seek out those with the best fields and find out what they’re doing. And, just maybe, the younger sports field managers should sit down with the old-timers and have them relive their experiences.
Maybe we got too sophisticated for our own good. We need to go back to the basics of how to construct fields and how to maintain them. I don’t remember how many times over my career I called on Dr. James R. Watson for technical advice. He worked for Toro, but it didn’t matter what kind of equipment you had, when you asked for help, he would give it. And, talk about honesty and integrity, Doc Watson always called a spade a spade. When that doesn’t happen, who suffers? The field does; the players that use the field do; and so do the people footing the bill and the groundskeepers.
The news coverage has exposed many within the sports industry that have lost a lot of the honesty and integrity in the game. We, as sports field managers, should never let that happen to us. We need to be able to look in the mirror and ask ourselves if there is anything else we can do to improve our fields, and be honest with ourselves in the answer. That’s what distinguishes a great field from a mediocre one.
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. If you have questions for him or would like to hear his take on a topic, drop an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org . We’ll make sure it catches up to him during his frequent travels.