Turf Science
Prepping stadium field for Big Game takes know-how, teamwork, perfectionism

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs

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Workers prepare the Memorial Stadium field for the Big Game. Peg Skorpinski photo

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14 Nov 00 | Mowing, mulching, fertilizing, watering and fighting weeds: they're the bane of many a lawn owner's existence. Imagine, then, this labor-intensive task: maintaining 100,000 square feet of turf in a state of verdant perfection for the safety and pleasure of hundreds of high-stepping band members, scores of cleat-wearing linemen and 72,000 Big Game fans.

Voted best playing surface in the league by the Pac 10 coaches - above even the Rose Bowl and Los Angeles Coliseum - Memorial Stadium's stellar field is maintained by an eight-member crew versed in the fine points of turf science.

"We're all real nit-pickers," says athletic crew supervisor Mark Lucas, pointing out the stretched string used to align the two "a's" in "California" painted across the end zone. "We're all picky in different areas. That's the strength of our crew: we critique each other."

Made of fast-growing Kentucky blue grass and perennial rye grass, the turf grows over a sand base - a state-of-the-art design known for good drainage and high maintenance. Water that hits the field drains through the sand to a grid of pipes sitting in pea gravel. Below that, a large box culvert carries Strawberry Creek, which once cascaded over the hillside between what are now stadium sections Q and AA. Turf maintenance is a year-round chore that kicks into high gear prior to each of the five home games of the regular football season. If it's a rainy week, the crew is on alert for windows of opportunity to paint the field.

"We're kind of like farmers," Lucas says. "I watch the weather channel like other people watch 'Friends.'" For a Saturday game, painting typically begins on Wednesday. Two days and 100 gallons of paint later, the crew has finished all the large white numbers, five-yard lines, side lines, end zones and center logo - using "little weird tricks" developed with experience, as Lucas puts it.

"Normally we have a piece of cardboard or pattern to do those corners," says Tavi Rodriguez, who's spent five of his 19 years on campus perfecting a technique for painting the tight curves of the center "Cal" logo with an airless spray gun. "I started fooling around and figured out how to do it without."

The logo takes two coats. On a windy day, the paint gun nozzle must be held close to the ground to help keep the paint from drifting outside the lines.

Field painting, says Lucas, is far more "sensitive" than painting the side of a building. "If we overpaint, and it doesn't dry, we're up a creek."

Meanwhile, the grass keeps quietly growing.

The job of mowing it once a day, though repetitive, can be a pleasure. "It smells good, feels good, looks good," says crew member Miguel Vasquez, after a two-hour stint grooming the huge green floor of an empty stadium from the seat of a John Deere mower.

The point is not just to clip the grass, but to define the field - by alternating the mower's direction, and thus the nap of the turf, with each five yards.

Torn spots, or "divots," in the turf are re-seeded with a fast-growing mixture of sand and pre-germinated grass seed. "On Thursday it comes up; by Saturday it's green," Lucas says. In a pinch, the crew will perform an emergency procedure, using hexagonal-shaped plugs from the sideline, like a hair transplant, to repair blemishes in the stadium's much-admired turf.

When game day arrives, the crew is on hand, hours before kickoff, to set up the sidelines and the field. And once the last fans have straggled from the stadium, the turf scientists go to work again.


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