Tips From The Pros
as a head turf manager in professional football. He graduated from Colorado State University’s Turfgrass Management program
and now operates and owns Championship Sports Turf Systems.
BELOW THE CLEATS – TALES FROM A SPORTS FIELD LIFE: CONFESSIONS OF A LYING GROUNDSKEEPER
In order to transcend from good to superb, you’ve got to know how and when a little deception can get a team effort off of a distraction and back solely focused on the objective. Please don’t misunderstand me, honesty and integrity are of utmost importance to a true professional (and all people) and they can’t and don’t waste time trying to hold up a series of lies. Whether in politics, business, social groups, sports teams or sports field management operations, honesty and integrity are foundational to success. Still, an honorable and caring doctor might sometimes tell a patient a little of what they want to hear just to get them off a distraction and bring their focus back to the task at hand, healing.
Used only sparingly and after ensuring there is no real harm done to anyone, yourself, your team or your profession, these “embellishments” can be a positive. Consider the parent enjoying a child’s eagerness for Santa Claus to arrive. Where’s the harm?
Great coaches do it.
After two straight snowy and cold November practices outdoors on the grass fields, the storm had quickly cleared after the Friday practice. There were still several hours of daylight left and we had a morning walkthrough practice scheduled the next day, Saturday. These kind of nights after a snowstorm, cloudless and windless, often happen in Denver. Because of radiation cooling, the temperatures can plummet on these kinds of nights.
I went to see coach Shanahan to find out where he wanted us to set practice for the next morning, indoors or out, secretly hoping he would decide on an indoor practice, which he rarely did. Outdoors was on natural grass, indoors was on artificial turf. “What’s the forecast?” he said, without looking up from what he was reading at his desk. With the clearing skies it was forecasted to get down to around 9F (-12.7 C) by early morning and only slowly warm up until the afternoon sun mixed out the cold air.
I didn’t bother telling coach how heavy, cleated traffic on such a strong canopy frost would damage the playing surface in the longer term, he knew. He got up from his desk and looked out through the full sized glass windows and over the porch railing to the 2 grass practice fields, a bit chewed up from a season worth of practice and surrounded by 5-foot tall piles of plowed snow. The late afternoon sun was shining.
I could see he was thinking two, three steps ahead of me. They didn’t call him “The Mastermind” for nothing. “Here’s what I want you to do. Go out and set just the one heated field for tomorrow so that the players will see you doing it as they leave for the day. We’re going to practice inside tomorrow, but I don’t want them to know that yet.” You learn early on that a game-week football coach isn’t interested in explaining the hundreds of decisions they have to make every single day, so I simply replied “You got it coach” and walked out.
My guess is he knew Sunday’s home game would be cold. He wanted the players to have a mindset that playing in cold is no problem, it’s what we do. Then, for a simple Saturday walkthrough, he would move practice indoors at the last minute as a small bonus to the players for a good week of practice.
I’ve never seen a coach that put such a big emphasis on the quality of each practice. The speed and expectations in execution were set just as high as a Sunday game, maybe higher. I remember a few poor practices when coach Shanahan didn’t just tell the team to start a period over again, he started the entire practice over again from the very beginning. It wouldn’t matter if we were 90 minutes into a 2-hour practice, he wasn’t ever going to let the team have a bad practice.
At the end of each practice, once it was good enough to go in the books, he’d just say “Everybody up.” That meant everyone, players, coaches and the support staff of trainers, equipment managers, video managers and field managers could relax their focus and there was a small sense of relief with those two words. “Everybody up.” Those of us on the support staff would listen in to the all-team huddle at the end of practice as coach spoke, it was the quickest way to find out about any weekly schedule adjustments so that we could have our departments ready. The first thing coach would talk about was the quality of today’s practice. He evaluated everything from “tempo” to “pace” and “focus” among other things. It was an amazing thing to watch this daily glimpse at genius. How Mike Shanahan is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is beyond me. His body of work more than speaks for itself. Hall of Fame coach Bill Cower agrees with me, as do many others. “Mike Shanahan belongs in the Hall of Fame. I’ve said it, the two toughest coaches I had the hardest time preparing against were Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan.”
The next summer, the now defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos returned to Greeley, Colorado and the intramural athletics fields at the University of Northern Colorado for the opening of team training camp. Back then, almost every team held summer camp away from their training facilities. While the UNC grounds staff maintained the fields by contract, I would visit a few times each spring to monitor the progress of the fields and coordinate camp schedules and club field standards to the UNC field manager.
After a year of intramural sports, these fields were not always in the best shape, but the local staff got them up to par as best they could before the Broncos arrived each July. One chronic complaint from coaches and players was the length the grass was mowed at, or height of cut (HOC). Elite level athletes are used to short HOC’s and the tight feel that comes with mowing short. But for several biological reasons, you don’t want to be making rapid drops in your HOC. This is called scalping and can severely stress the grass plant.
Back then, we were mowing our bluegrass practice fields at 1-inch (we would eventually settle on a .75 inch HOC). Most campus intramural fields growing cool-season grasses are cut around 2-2.5 inches. You have to mow less frequently and it’s just better for grass health and traffic tolerance.
Back in April when mowing usually starts up along Colorado’s Front Range, I talked the UNC staff into lowering the height of cut of their fields to 1.5 inches. I felt this was a good compromise between the needs of the Broncos and the host university. They would never have the resources to manage these fields at 1-inch like we do, but if they carefully brought the HOC down to 1.5 inches each spring, I felt they could run things at 1.5 and the team we be OK with it.
Summer camp in July started off with two-a-day practices back then. There would be about 2-3 hours between the morning practices and afternoon that would allow for lunch and film review of the mornings practice. I made sure to attend the first day at least so I could make sure coach was good with everything on the fields. Then I’d head back to Denver and work like heck to get the damage from spring camps repaired at the team’s training facility before they returned in August. After the morning practice and before coach Shanahan went over to “Media Row” to do his daily series of interviews, I walked off the field with him, asking if everything was OK with the fields and playing surface. “Yeah, it’s good, but we have to mow it shorter.”
“No problem coach, I’ll have them re-mow it before the afternoon practice.”
Walking over the UNC maintenance shed to inform the groundskeepers that they needed to lower the HOC a bit and mow again, I knew this wouldn’t work. A quick drop in HOC scalps turf and these bluegrass fields had just entered their summer heat-stress period as well. And when I say bluegrass I mean mostly the annual types, Poa annua, even weaker than the desirable perennial, Kentucky bluegrass, in summer stress. It had been a bit of a negotiation to get them to lower the field mowing heights already and now I had to go beyond our agreed HOC and tell them we had to go lower. What to do, I thought.
The morning pre-practice mow was a bit wet with dew, as it usually is this time of year, and had left a few clumps of grass clippings over the 24-acres holding 6 full-sized fields and several other “workout areas” for drills and such. Kicking a few of these clipping clumps out to disperse them as I walked toward the head groundskeeper at UNC, I got an idea.
“What’d they say? Everything good?” he asked. “Yep, were all good” I said “just one little thing. We gotta mow again before the afternoon practice to disperse some of the grass clipping clumps now that they’ve dried. Other than that, coach was happy with things.” “No problem Ross”. I started to walk off toward lunch, but stopped and said “Let me show you a little something that will really help prevent clipping clumps even when the grass is dewy in the early mornings.” I had him lift up the mower decks on the large, multi-deck rotary mower. We safely locked out the blades and I showed him how keeping the deck under-housing clean from clipping build-up really helps air-flow and clipping dispersal. I knew coach would see me there working under-the-hood, so to speak, with the UNC groundskeeper. After we had scrapped all the “grass adobe” as I like to call it, off the mower deck housing, the UNC groundskeeper began mowing the 24 acres a second time in a few hours. As he drove off he said “Phew, for a second there I thought you were going to ask us to lower the cut again, see ya”.
After the second practice I got with coach again. “How’s that lower cut on the field coach, I had them re-mow it.” I asked coach “Yeah that’s better.”
“Do your job” is a common football axiom. The superb field manager knows she is in a technical profession. She is likely the only one in her organization that truly understands the agronomy behind field management. Now and again she uses some “smoke-and-mirrors” to get the job done and the team over a distraction. So if an unreasonable coach tries to ignorantly stop the field manager from overseeding with ryegrass because he has an impression it is slick, just pull the tags off your seed bags and tell him its bluegrass. He’ll never know and he can then get back to doing his job and you can get back to yours.