By Ken MacLeod
Unlike a golf course, the playing surface at a football stadium usually only draws attention if something goes awry.
With millions watching Super Bowl 50 this Sunday, you can bet the local crew and the specialists sent in from the NFL will be watching intently to make sure the troubled field at Levi Stadium is standing up the ravages of huge, incredibly fast athletes colliding, sliding and skidding across it, not to mention the stress of week full of activities and a massive halftime show.
Jeff Salmond, the Director of Athletic Facilities at the University of Oklahoma and the president of the Sports Turf Managers Association, a nationwide organization of 2,600 sports field and turf managers, knows what it’s like to have the national spotlight on your field and facilities. He oversees management of Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium where the Sooners play six or seven home games annually, most of them on national television.
Salmond and his crew of six are responsible not only for the field conditions at the football stadium, but manage more than 25 acres of athletic turf including track, rugby, soccer, softball and cross country facilities, as well as 100 acres around the rowing, gymnastics and coaches’ complexes (the baseball field is the only synthetic surface.)
Memorial Stadium is one of three natural grass fields in the Big 12. Many players prefer playing on natural grass, though whether it is actually safer than the latest artificial surfaces is a matter of great debate and numerous studies within the industry.
Like his counterparts in golf, Salmond has issues with growing grass in the transition zone. He has to find just the right break in the fall football schedule to add a perrenial rye grass overseed to the Latitude 36 Bermuda base which goes dormant with the first hard frost. Weather can be a factor. In 2014 against Kansas, the day that Samaje Perine ran for an FBS record 427 yards, there was a constant downpour. The field held up beautifully.
The rye grass is maintained through the end of spring football practice, then transitioned out chemically before commencement in late May, allowing the Latitude 36, a hardy Bermuda variety developed at Oklahoma State University, to regain control.
"We essentially play football on top of a golf green," Salmond said. "If I told the guys in golf that I wanted to bring a football team with 300-pound guys in football cleats instead of 180-pound guys in soft spikes, and play on their greens they would be horrified. But that’s what it is. We’re on a USGA sand base over gravel with turf on top."
Salmond credits his fertility program, using the right mixture of fertilizers, irrigation, sun and air flow, with keeping the turf robust. The current field has been in place for more than two years, the previous field, thick cut Bermuda grass grown on plastic, lasted more than five years dating back to a 2009 U2 concert that destroyed the surface.
Salmand earned his undergraduate degree at Missouri and a Masters degree at Iowa State. He worked on athletic fields for the Baltimore Ravens, the University of New Mexico and Northwestern before coming to OU in 2007.
"When I was in school I couldn’t see myself working on a golf course 10 hours a day because I liked to play golf and knew if I worked there all day I wouldn’t play," Salmond said. "Now I don’t get a chance to play golf at all."
Like his counterparts in golf, Salmond wears a lot of hats, from farmer to scientist. One of the most crucial roles for he and his team is keeping the athletes safe. This role involves everything from the placement of goal post pads, fence pads and other safety items to the hardness of the fields.
The NFL uses a hardness factor rating system for its surfaces that Salmond has adopted and the OU fields fall well within its range.
"As for his role as President of the STMA, Salmond said the organization created a certification program in 2000 and there are currently more than 200 certified sports field managers. STMA held its annual conference and exhibition in San Diego two weeks ago and it was very well attended, breaking attendance records. The Conference is filled with educational, networking opportunities and innovative equipment, products and services. It is attended not only by his counterparts in college athletics, but many who work for municipal parks and recreation departments as well as an academic category for professors and teachers.