When The Lights Go Out

This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences. 

The last touchdown of the season has been scored. The parks and rec football players, coaches, and fans who support their teams have left the park for postseason victory parties. A chilly wind blows through the stadium, propelling red Solo cups and hot dog wrappers across the field.

As the lights are turned off, a glimpse of the field reveals the consequences of another heavy recreation-league football season.  Thousands of little—and not so little—feet have trampled, ripped, and turned to mud what was once a gorgeous field of natural turf.

It’s enough to break a parks and rec maintenance professional’s heart. Any facility manager or parks supervisor responsible for the care and maintenance of natural-turf fields knows what I mean. They nurture a field in the off-season as best they can and watch it mature into a respectable stand of turf only to watch it slowly deteriorate over the course of the season.

Often, there is little or no turf left between the hash marks. The goal areas are ripped to shreds. There may be other bare patches around the field from where teams practiced drills because there was no other place. In most cases, there isn’t any “spare” field, so there is no rest time for the field being used. From July to December, the field, quite literally, gets beaten to death.

So, under these circumstances, what are the best practices? After the season ends, what should maintenance crews do to give the field the best chance to revive come next year? Can something be done even during the season to give the field a leg up for the next year?

Manpower And Funding

According to one expert, it’s generally not a matter of maintenance crews not knowing what to do; it’s a matter of manpower and funding.

“In many instances, turf managers have a good idea what they need to do to provide good field conditions, not only heading into the winter but throughout the year,” says Thomas J. Serensits, who writes “From the Field,” a column on the Sports Turf Manager’s Association (STMA) website. “However, resources like money and labor are often lacking, so they sometimes cannot perform the needed maintenance practices. It is important for organizations to make a commitment to provide the turf manager the resources needed to produce the safest and most playable fields possible.” 

Serensits bases his advice on background and experience. As the manager of the Center for Sports Surface Research at the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, he delves into the science of turf care. But the Ph.D. candidate is also a partner in an athletic field soil-testing company, the Coordinator of Independent Gameday Playing Surface testing for the NFL, and for three years previously was the assistant sports-field manager for the Philadelphia Eagles.

In all of his roles, he sees the mistakes that are made during and after the season, but he recognizes the resources are central to success. “It may sound simple, but increasing the frequency of mowing can often, just in itself, improve field conditions,” he suggests. “The other things that are part of a successful maintenance plan are fertilization, constant overseeding during field use, and soil aerification. These practices should be done according to grass type, climate, and local conditions.”

Ask For Help

Field-maintenance crews may sometimes feel like lone rangers trying to keep up with all of these variables, but there is help. 

Many colleges, universities, and local extension agencies across the country are available to help local parks and rec departments on a wide range of turf issues, including how to treat a damaged football field after the season. 

When I was a parks and rec director in Georgia, I had the turf guru at UGA (University of Georgia) on speed dial. I developed a relationship with him in which I could call him on any turf issues my department faced, and nine out of 10 times he would jump in his car and drive down to walk the fields with me and the maintenance staff. I can’t tell you how many times he saved our bacon. He brought other experts in field turf with him, and together we worked out solutions to the problems.

If you haven’t developed such a relationship with local experts, I advise you do it soon. It can be overwhelming to wade through all of the variables involved in maintaining healthy natural turf on an over-used football field. There’s no reason to go it alone. 

In the vast majority of cases, the advice from these sources doesn’t cost a cent—though I always made sure to offer lunch to anyone who came to help. It actually benefits them as much as you because as publicly funded entities, they have an outreach responsibility. It also provides them with an on-the-ground application of the science they develop in the educational environment. So everyone is a winner.

Vast resources are also available online. There is usually open-source information about common turf issues.

For example, the Michigan Turfgrass Foundation (MTF) is a product of combined efforts of Project GREEN and the Michigan State University extension service.

The MTF is a nonprofit organization that supports research at the university to find better turfgrasses and better methods of turfgrass maintenance. Incorporated in 1957, the MTF has achieved success in fulfilling these needs through research and education. It is only one example, like scores of other resources out there just waiting to be tapped.

An Eye To The Sky

Of course, even under the best conditions, there are certain things a field manager can’t control. One of the most prevalent challenges parks and rec turf managers face in the post-season is the weather. Generally, November and December are not known as pleasant months and normally feature higher precipitation, either as rain, ice, or snow (with some exceptions). However, watching the weather and anticipating climatic conditions should be part of the process of planning for post-season turf restoration.

“Trying to renovate a field after the season when soils are too wet can make things worse,” Serensits says. “Full-scale renovation after the season may not be a good option depending on location. Larger renovations may be better to hold off until spring. However, more routine maintenance practices like those discussed above should be considered if conditions allow. It is important to be proactive in the fall in order to produce the best possible fields for the following spring.”

In the final analysis, this reminds me of what an architect once said when I asked if he could accomplish a specific project. He said, “Give me enough men, money, and machines and I can accomplish anything.”

I think that particular philosophy applies here. As Serensits notes, the capability to properly care for the post-season football field often isn’t a measure of a parks and rec maintenance pro’s knowledge, skills, and ability; it’s a shortage of men, money, and machines.

Post-football season is the time when a myriad of other projects that have been put off during the busy summer and fall agenda have come due. It is a time when seasonal help is cut loose, so a maintenance crew is down to bare bones. Resources are spread as thin as butter on hot toast. Money is consistently short, and the men and machines are often juggled from one project to another.

Oftentimes, the battered football field is put on the back burner, not forgotten but not a priority.  Weather can promote this situation by covering the field with snow, ice, rain, or a combination thereof.

Start With A Plan

The key, as Senensits suggests, is to perform the basic four (mowing, fertilization, overseeding, and aerification) as diligently as circumstances allow, and to develop a plan of action as early as possible in the spring. The plan needs to be specific, with deadlines and goals and someone who is going to ramrod it through to completion. The best plan is nothing but a paper tiger if it isn’t overseen to ensure it will be carried out.

The other key element is ensuring there is ample funding, manpower, supplies, and materials in place to support the plan. Again, the plan will not work if these elements are not physically available when needed.

If things go well, resources are made available, and the plan is well-developed and administered, football players, coaches, and fans will be greeted the next July by an emerald-green sea of gorgeous turf grass just waiting to be played on. 

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.