No problems with Tech's 'field of dreams'
By Jimmy Robertson
April 18, 2002

Last summer, Tech built it. And the fans came and the players played on it.

Now everyone seems to be wondering what happened to the Hokies' new GreenTech ITM natural grass sports field system - i.e. the playing surface on Worsham Field.

More than a few Tech alums expressed dismay after catching a glimpse of the field during a scrimmage the week before the spring game. The field looked, to the untrained eye · well · like dirt, with only a few noticeable patches of green grass. The appearance left Tech fans wondering if the $1.5 million spent on the system - a permanent bermudagrass surface installed on movable trays, complete with an air and vacuum blower system for drainage and irrigation system - was a wise investment.

Not to be alarmed, said David Chalmers, a Turfgrass Extension Specialist in the Crop & Soil Environmental Sciences Department at Virginia Tech who advises the Athletics Department on all turfgrass management issues.

"Actually, the field's in great shape," he said. "It's just not green right now and everyone expects grass to be green.

"The bermudagrass has been dormant, but you can have some play on a dormant field and be fine. The field has good footing and the bermudagrass is starting to re-grow. The warm weather we've had the past week is exactly what the bermudagrass turf needs."

Last summer, the Virginia Tech turfgrass specialist researched bermudagrass varieties as to which would be most suitable and elected to go with a new variety developed by the University of Georgia and named TifSport. TifSport is a dense strain with a tight canopy. Bermuda is the best playing surface according to most college coaches and this surface accentuates the speed and cutting ability of the Hokies' players.

But Bermuda flourishes in warmer climates, particularly those in the Southern part of the nation. Thus, trying to grow Bermuda in a town with an elevation of more than 2,200 feet presents some challenges. In fact, for it to thrive, it needs bright sunlight, soil temperatures above 60 degrees and night time air temperatures above 55 degree. Soil temperatures in Blacksburg eventually reach 60 degrees by May, not really in time for Spring practice and the Spring game.

Tech's Bermuda grass surface actually started browning after the first killing frost in October. So to give the field a green color, the school overseeded the TifSport surface with perennial ryegrass.

"We actually overseeded twice," Chalmers said. "First, we overseeded about six weeks before the first expected frost and then a second time later in the fall. The ryegrass peeks above the canopy and makes the field look green. By overseeding, fans sitting in the stands never see the bermudagrass turn brown."

After the final game of last season, Worsham field was covered with 4 inches of straw to protect the bermudagrass from winterkill. This also served to kill off the ryegrass overseeding which is what folks at the spring game are used to seeing green! This is actually a good thing since ryegrass tends to hold back bermudagrass spring and summer re-growth. Eliminating ryegrass competition is extremely important in managing the bermudagrass for maximum summer growth so the field will be ready for the football season. The straw served this purpose since Chalmers found an abundance of bermudagrass in the canopy this spring. The surface will begin to grow even more as the weather warms up and night-time temperatures stay above 55 degrees.

One way to speed up the growing season in the spring - and extend it in the fall - would be to add a subsurface heating system that pumps warm air under the surface. This almost Ītricks' the TifSport bermudagrass into thinking it is growing in Richmond or Williamsburg and may eliminate the need to overseed with perennial ryegrass.

"We're evaluating proposals now to add a subsurface heating system," said Tom Gabbard, Tech's Associate AD for Internal Affairs. "We already have the piping and duct work in place, having installed the air and vacuum blower system. And we have a place in the South end zone to put it. It's just a matter of going through proposals and making the decisions on what we want to do."

Using "grow covers" is also part of the strategy to encourage bermudagrass spring recovery. These specialized sports turf covers allow sun to come through and enhance soil warming by creating a "greenhouse-like" effect.

"We have a new field system and we are doing everything necessary to grow the best bermudagrass turf possible in our climate - it is not easy and it is not what the fans are used to seeing come Spring, but it is what is in the best interest of Worsham field and the team," Chalmers said. "So the turf is in good hands. I am confident that we are absolutely on course to have an even better field this year and it will certainly be ready by August."

In fact, by next August, the field should be green and the surface fast. And safe. Many Tech fans continue to blame the new field for the torn anterior cruciate ligament injuries suffered by tailback Lee Suggs and recently by quarterback Grant Noel. However, that is not the case.

"It had nothing to do with it," Tech trainer Mike Goforth said. "There's two types of surfaces - yielding and non-yielding. We have a yielding surface in comparison to artificial turf and that's what we want. It has some Īgive' to it. Grant's injury had nothing to do with the field. In fact, the field is probably safer.

"Artificial turf is harder on a player's legs. And injuries occur when a player can't function at a high level because of fatigue."

So when August rolls around, Tech fans can rest assured that the athletics department has invested the time, research and money to put the best field underneath this football team.

"We're not going to have our team handicapped by the field," Gabbard said. "Without question, we want to have the best field and the best stadium in the nation for this team."