Teaming Up for Renovation

When a top college football team swarms onto the field at a freshly renovated stadium, there is one feature every fan sees and appreciates: the turf. A strong, consistent playing surface is crucial to football programs at the Division I level, as sports turf managers know. For many programs, the optimal surface is natural turf, like the bluegrass the University of Iowa grounds crew installed last fall at Kinnick Stadium (Iowa City, Iowa), home to the Hawkeyes.

Jane Meyer, Ph.D., senior associate director of athletics at The University of Iowa, is in charge of the $87 million renovation of the 75-year-old stadium that included new turf. A state-of-the-art press box and scoreboard, more inside seating and an entirely new section and entrance beyond the south end zone are among the major improvements.

SUNNY DISPOSITION

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While new turf was expected near the end of the two-year project, sunny days intervened. Grounds directors can't control the weather, so all they can do is be versatile and be prepared to supply their organization with suitable options when weather makes life difficult for the key people using a facility. Meyer explains that the turf replacement done last October became necessary after a very hot, dry summer of 2005 in Iowa City.

“We didn't get the growth out of the turf that we wanted to last summer,” she says, noting that there were more than 40 days where the thermometer topped 90 degrees. With a maturing bluegrass field in place, the heat simply compromised the root system. It's an impossible balancing act with a mature field when the weather doesn't cooperate because if it's watered too much, the roots don't grow deep enough; too little, and it can't survive the scorching summer. Either way, the field is coming up in chunks on game day.

Ted Thorn, director of grounds, agrees that the stress from the excessive heat weakened the root system, leading to the decision to replace the turf with three kinds of bluegrass. The new field is maintained at 2.5 inches and gets about 1 inch of water a week from a traditional pop-up irrigation system. The turf is expected to be in play for about five years.

GOING NATURAL

The $150,000 installation in October took just over a week and was wedged in between the third home game for the Hawkeyes and their fourth, two weeks later. Cale Doyle, the University of Iowa's sports turf manager, led the crew and contractors during the replacement effort.

“It was a roaring success,” Thorn says, recognizing the new turf's performance in the final three home games for the Hawkeyes. He commended Doyle's crew on its high quality installation, noting that people installing the turf were a mix of the normal grounds crew, some contractors and some grounds employees “loaned” to the contractor. The hybrid crew provided the best mix of talent at the right cost.

The decision to go with natural turf was a no-brainer, Thorn adds. First, the coaching staff, led by 2002 AP Coach of the Year Kirk Ferentz, was heavily in favor of natural grass. The coaches prefer grass to artificial surfaces because it's cooler on hot days and safer for players, he says. Artificial surfaces are not as forgiving and are sometimes a factor in the injuries players experience. The team has one artificial surface practice facility that it uses so the coaching staff has experience with the pros and cons of the two types of playing surfaces. Thorn said the coaches' experience with various surfaces factored into the final decision.

Another big factor was the time involved. As you might guess, an artificial surface takes much longer to install. With nature not cooperating during the sizzling summer in Iowa last year, there would have been no time to replace the grass with an artificial surface during the football season. If all that were not enough to tip the scales, an artificial surface would have cost about $600,000 more, Thorn says.

A WHOLE NEW LOOK

The new turf will have a slightly different atmosphere than before as a new section of seating went in along the south end zone, which was open prior to 2005. That part of the big renovation changes the airflow in the stadium.

Sunshine and shadows will also influence the new turf, Meyer says, due to the final phase of the renovation which includes a new, taller press box and additional indoor seating that stretches all along the west side of the stadium. In years past, there were shadows on the field by 1 p.m. The structures along the west side are much taller, but it's very hard to predict how the new shadows will fall with the new press box, Meyer adds. It will mean some reduction in sunshine for parts of the field.

Beyond the turf, new locker rooms are part of the renovation as well. For fans, seating will top 70,000. Additional landscape work around the stadium and some parking is also being added. Concession stands are increasing and concourses on all sides of the stadium will be renovated by the time the project ends later this year.

But none of that makes any difference to the players when it comes to gaining ground. All that's required for a first down is solid footing — on new turf of course.

Michael Coleman is a freelance writer who resides in Olathe, Kan.

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