Summer to Saturday: Neyland Groundskeepers Ready for Gameday

Sept. 3, 2009

Early Wednesday afternoon, the trademark checkerboard end zone inside Neyland Stadium is green and white.

The yard lines are marked with white paint, but the hashmarks and numbers aren't down yet. The Power T at midfield is a barely visible outline left over from the Orange and White game in April.

By Thursday evening, the field should look the way it will for the 100,000-plus fans who'll gather there Saturday afternoon to watch Tennessee face Western Kentucky.

But for those who tend to Shields-Watkins Field on a daily basis, painting the lines is the least taxing step in a months-long process to prepare the playing surface inside Neyland Stadium for another football season.

"This is the easy part," says Bobby Campbell, UT's director of sports surface management. "It's like icing on the cake. If the cake's no good, you can't live on icing. Everybody sees this, and we take it seriously. But to appreciate what these guys do down here - and it's the guys, not me - a person needs to be here in June and July and see what they're out there doing."

And why they do it.

Holding It Together

In Neyland Stadium, it's officially the Tifway 419 Bermuda Hybrid. And it's the true glue.

Built to USGA specifications for putting greens, the stadium turf rests on sand and pebbles for drainage, a fact that's not lost on Campbell.

"If you lose the grass on that field -- stop and think about it for a minute -- you're on the beach," Campbell says. "You're playing beach volleyball out there because you don't have anything out there to keep it together but the grass.

"So from a groundskeeper's standpoint, me and all my other colleagues in this business, I think that is all our greatest fears. That happens sometimes. You've seen it happen. You see it on TV in pro stadiums where they have lost the grass, and they've got a terrible mess on their hands."

Most of Campbell's days -- and those of the five other full-time employees and six student workers -- are spent making sure Tennessee avoids that kind of nightmare scenario on a Saturday afternoon.



It begins after the spring game, when groundskeepers spray to kill off the rye grass that is planted each fall.

It continues into the summer months, when the Bermuda is fertilized and watered to encourage the most growth possible.

"With a football field, you pretty much wear it out," Campbell says. "You've got to grow it back in every year. That's the challenge. We spend all summer encouraging the Bermuda grass to grow, to cover all the bare spots on the field and to get thicker and grow healthy."

That proved a little more challenging this summer than most. While plenty of East Tennesseans enjoyed a milder summer, the Bermuda grass - which needs temperatures in the 90s to really take off -- didn't.

"The actual field, what you're playing the games on, is determined by what the summer's like and what we're able to do during the summer," Campbell said. "Can we get it tough enough and strong enough to take this beating it's going to take? And you never know."

Once the games start, it's difficult for to get much growth on the field.

And while the season opener takes place Saturday, the games started a month ago.

`A Downhill Slide'

Walking on the field Wednesday afternoon, Campbell points out that the field has already experienced nearly a season's worth of play before the season even began.

By Campbell's estimation, four UT scrimmages and two nights of high school jamborees equals about 6 ½ games worth of play in consecutive weeks since the beginning of August. That's significant because the Bermuda typically takes as many as five days to resume growth after a game.

"Tuesday or Wednesday it looks its worst," Campbell says. "What that's convinced me of, it's gotten bruised up and it's showing the bruises Tuesday or Wednesday. So really and truly, the grass does not start recovering from that game on Saturday until Thursday. It'll kind of start saying, `OK, I'm ready to grow again. They beat me up, but I'm OK. They're away for a while.'"

By the time Tennessee travels to Gainesville for its Sept. 19 game against Florida, Neyland Stadium will have had back-to-back regular season games. And the grass will have been without a recovery period for six weeks.

And by then, the Bermuda will nearly be finished growing anyway.

When the Ohio game rolls around on Sept. 26, Campbell and his crew will have begun overseeding rye grass, which helps keep the turf looking green throughout the fall.

"That's to get something growing. It's not the best thing in the world because it's tender, but at least it's green and you can paint it and play the games on in," Campbell says. "It won't really recover, but it doesn't tear up as bad and you can keep throwing seed out."

`Keeping the Lines Right'

Campbell, a teacher and baseball coach at Knoxville's Doyle High School before joining the UT staff in 1990, has a meticulous side.

Each week before lining the field, he and his crew measure the field and string lines to guide the paint. Starting from a fixed point in the back corners of each end zone, they'll measure the exact lengths and place a flag at every five yards.

All the on-field traffic - both game related and marching band related - will actually cause the yard lines to move subtly. So instead of just repainting over the previous line, it's measured anew before each game.

On Wednesday, parts of the field are a maze of string and stakes, with a few flags marking key spots on the field.

"In that week that you're off and you're mowing, that line will move," he says. "So you re-measure to make sure you keep your lines right."

That's not all that Campbell and his crew want to get right, though.

`A Special Place'

The first time Myron Roach saw Neyland Stadium, he was 6 or 7 years old. And it was love at first sight. "It was breathtaking," he said. "They started the press box when I was first here. I remember going up on the elevator and walking out there on steel, the platform."

Like his grandfather and father before him, Roach makes his living making sure the turf is ready for another Saturday.

Both men were head groundskeepers, and Roach joined them on staff since 1978, but exactly what Neyland Stadium means to Roach is hard to put in words.

"It means a lot," he says. "It's hard to describe. My main goal right here is to make it the best."

That's a goal Roach shares with his co-workers.

"What it boils down, the guys that take care of this place, it's special to them," Campbell said. "It's more than just a job to them. I don't think they get enough credit for not only football, but other sports, the pride they take in making it look right and making it look good."

If they happen to forget, there's always a reminder. And, believe it or not, that reminder doesn't come on Saturdays.

"We get used to it -- and it's a shame -- because we're here every day. It's kind of like a job," Campbell says. "And then you get reminded of it, not on gameday so much, but you get reminded of it when you're fixing to go home one afternoon or you're over here on a weekend checking on it and there's a man and his wife and three kids looking through a fence trying to see it."

So Campbell will nearly always extend his day for a few more minutes, even if it means his supper is getting cold at home. He'll open the gates and let someone else take a look for the first time.

"That's good for us, for me and the guys," he says. "It's a reminder that this is a special place to a lot of people."

Check Drew Edwards' blog, The Inside Source on Friday for a look at how Campbell and his crew put the turf back together following Tennessee's landmark victory over Florida in 1998.


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