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Turf Officials Prepare For Natural Grass in Stadium 

The State News

The future field of Spartan Stadium, the north end zone in the foreground, sits growing at the Hancock Turfgrass Research Center on Farm Lane. The field is scheduled to be complete June 1, but the date could be sooner because of the advanced progress of work in the stadium. this sentence is a little kooky to me...but didn’t have background info to clarify it. MSU will be only the third stadium in the country to have this turf system.

Natural turf hits close to home for Jason Henderson.

As a former offensive lineman for Pennsylvania State University in the 1990s, Henderson would hit his opponents with his massive frame. Now, he hits the books, working on his doctoral degree at MSU in crop and soil science.

Although he faced an opportunity to turn pro after his senior season in 1996 at Penn State, Henderson decided he might have found a better opportunity in graduate school.

“It was a tough decision,” he said. “I had some injuries that were becoming chronic - I had shoulder and knee problems, and I broke my foot at the beginning of senior year and missed five games right off the bat. The doctors told me it would really set me back.”

So Henderson, who studied agricultural science at Penn State, decided to look into a postgraduate program that would best suit his interests.

Since then, he has found himself back on the college football field, but this time as a researcher developing the new field for Spartan Stadium.

“It’s a marriage between the agricultural interest and the sports interest, and that just led to turf management,” he said.

This summer, grass will grow in Spartan Stadium for the first time in 33 years. Having roots as an agricultural school with a well-respected turf management program, MSU still had artificial turf in its stadium.

But all that is set to change this May, when the new field is installed.

Researchers in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences have developed a portable field similar to the one they designed in 1993 for the World Cup. The field, which was installed in the Pontiac Silverdome, provided the first indoor match play for the international soccer tournament.

The new field, made up of 4,800 modules that contain soil and grass seeds, will be assembled by forklift in the stadium this summer.

The 4-square-foot modules are unlike those used in the World Cup, which were octagonal pieces that varied in size.

The field costs $2 million to build plus an annual $200,000 for operations and upkeep. MSU spent more than $1 million along, with a $5,000 for yearly upkeep, when it had artificial turf, officials say.

Despite the price, MSU administrators say they are looking forward to the natural green in the stadium, praising the project as a good meeting of the institution’s athletic and academic sides.

“I always think it’s nice when the academic and athletic parts of the institution can come together and enhance one another,” said Trustee David Porteous, a football season-ticket-holder since 1974. “The grass field is something that all of us at the university can take pride in.”

Watching grass grow Watching grass grow

Kentucky bluegrass, according to researchers, is the best grass in Michigan for athletic fields. Out of the 200 varieties available, researchers chose a mix of nine.

“It offers good weather tolerance and recovery from wear,” said John Sorochan, a crop and soil sciences graduate student who was one of the researchers who chose the types of grass.

The grass also is found to be more stable and aggressive than the other varieties researchers considered.

But most importantly, it grows back quicker - which, after being pounded into the ground by a 250-pound linebacker, is very important, Sorochan said.

Sorochan has been involved with the stadium grass project from the beginning, working under Trey Rogers, a crop and soil sciences professor.

“I’ve been fortunate to be involved with Dr. Rogers from the very get-go,” he said. “From filling the modules to selecting the type of grass that we’d be growing. It’s a pretty labor-intensive thing.”

Sorochan, who is preparing to take a job as the only turf management professor at the University of Tennessee in May, has been working with Rogers on turf experiments since he came to MSU in 1991.

He worked on the modules for the World Cup field, and did research on a field heating system used by the New York Giants and New York Jets. The system pumps hot air underground and through the soil of the field during cold weather so the grass continues to grow.

This technology also will be incorporated in Spartan Stadium’s new field, he said.

Members of MSU’s turfgrass management program have served as consultants for soccer stadiums in Spain and the new arena for NFL expansion team Houston Texans. But despite their accomplishments, they never have been looked to for a turf system in the university stadium until 2000.

“Better late than never,” Sorochan said.

More than a sandbox More than a sandbox

Jim Crum, a crop and soil science professor, and Henderson took on the task of creating a soil mixture that would produce the optimum growing environment for the stadium’s new grass.

Henderson, for his master’s thesis, took on the role of investigating the soil mixtures himself.

“We challenged Jason with his master’s thesis research to look up and develop a mixture of sand and top soil to blend at different proportions to determine their strength and how fast they drain,” Crum said.

That mixture turned out to be about 10 percent clay and silt, and 90 percent sand.

Sand is the largest particle that makes up soil, Crum said. The sand used in the stadium field modules is a coarse sand, rougher than the sand found in an ashcan or a child’s sandbox.

The remaining silt and clay in Henderson’s mixture provide the most hospitable environment for the grass to take root, researchers determined, not to mention its stability.

“Football fields in the Big Ten are primarily 100 percent sand,” Henderson said. “As a player, it was very frustrating to get up there and be pushing clumps of sod out of the way to get a better position.”

But Henderson believes his soil mixture will be firmer than the rest of the fields he’s played on as a college athlete.

“We had a real nice field at Penn State, and I began to notice that other schools didn’t have as nice of a field as we did,” Henderson said. “So that’s where the questions started, as I began asking, ‘Why?’”

Although he says it’s rewarding to have the opportunity to develop a stronger, safer field that keeps players safe from slipping, he still misses being able to see the field from the gridiron.

“It’d be nice to be out there and try it,” he said.

Keeping off the grass

Athletics department officials say access to the field will change from what it has been in the past.

Rogers compares it to buying a new vehicle.

“You don’t want anyone to eat or drink anything in the car, so nothing gets ruined,” he said. “It’s like that.”

Researchers are concerned heavy foot traffic might damage the field, as they are unsure of the field’s stability. They might encourage more access in the future, though.

“I personally believe that once they begin to understand what the field can handle, that could change,” Rogers said.

Along with the installation of the turf, a new artificial turf track and field complex will be built near the stadium, where other sports and events will be held.

Women’s field hockey will be moved to the new artificial field. NCAA regulations require the team to play only on artificial turf.

Other club and intramural sports would have to be located elsewhere as well, said John Lewandowski, assistant athletics director.

The football team will have less access to the stadium. Its weekly practices on the field will be canceled, being relocated to the practice fields behind Duffy Daugherty Football Building.

But the biggest worry people have is over the talk of completely displacing the Spartan Marching Band.

“It’s good to be in there for the younger kids, the freshmen, to see what it’s like,” marching band President Adam Gumbrecht said. “Now the first time they’re going to be in there is on game day, and it’s gonna be a shock to them.”

Band members made use of the stadium to prepare to perform in front of large university crowds, especially since a large number of marchers come fresh from high school.

“But we are gonna do whatever we have to,” Gumbrecht said. “If they say we have to rehearse somewhere else, so be it.”

Athletics department officials are trying to keep things in perspective, though.

“The only thing they won’t be able to do is, in the past they had a Saturday morning walk-through on game day, and they won’t be able to do that anymore,” Lewandowski said. “If that’s for six to eight dates a year, then I don’t consider that as much of a displacement.”

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Karl Named Teaching Fellow 

Karl Guillard has taught at UConn in one capacity or another for fifteen years, beginning as a lecturer and currently as Associate Professor of Agronomy in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He teaches courses and mentors students on both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Karl took the initiative to develop the Turfgrass Science program in the Department of Plant Science nearly five years ago, because of student interest and a general increase in recreational turf sports. Developing two new courses and co-developing a third took much time, not least because Karl was not formally trained in this area; but he invested the time and effort to benefit the students and the department, increasing his undergraduate advising in the process. He also initiated the UConn Turf Club. Teaching courses outside of his specialty makes him a valued member of the department.

His teaching is known for its variety. Karl reinforces his lectures in many fashions, from using overheard projectors and PowerPoint presentations to bringing guest lecturers into the classroom. Guests help students to understand first-hand what their professional careers may entail. Similarly, Karl expects students, even undergraduates, to perform research tasks based on in-class lectures, allowing students the opportunity to contribute to the course while at the same time broadening their skills as well as their knowledge.

Students appreciate Karl’s dedication and attention to them as individuals, even in large classes. He meets with students very often outside of office hours, and he leads field trips and extra-curricular activities which allow for more personal interaction than can be found in the traditional lecture setting. His dedication to his students pays off in the form of glowing recommendations from students to each other about his courses, as well as respect and admiration from students and colleagues.

For his innovative and energetic teaching, Karl previously received the Donald M. Kinsman Award for Excellence in CANR/RHSA Undergraduate Teaching by Junior Faculty from UConn’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
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