STARKVILLE — Joe Moorhead and many of his Mississippi State football players have barely had time to gather their things and leave Davis Wade Stadium by the time maroon-clad men take the field again.
This time, they are the members of the turf management crew. By the time one mounts the mower, it’s barely been two hours since the field cleared after MSU’s 13-6 loss to Florida; the crew is already preparing for the next game.
The process of tending to the playing surface at Davis Wade Stadium is one that almost never stops — such is the standard for what is widely regarded as one of the finer playing surfaces in the Southeastern Conference, if not the nation. The head of that crew, MSU’s superintendent of sports turf Brandon Hardin, let The Dispatch see some of the process.
“Safety is always No. 1. We do a field hardness test on this field to make sure that it’s where it needs to be,” Hardin said. Playability, those are always the top two. Then you get to looks.
“Fans always tell me, ‘Oh the field looks great, you make it look great.’ That’s not what we’re shooting for. We’re shooting for safety and playability first, then all the paint stuff comes in.”
They test the hardness of the grass with the help of Dr. Eric Reasor of MSU’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. They use a Clegg hammer, a tool that reduces the hardness of the surface to a single number. MSU’s staff shoots for a number between 40 and 60; the NFL requires its fields be under 100 to play, and concrete is 300. Hardin said no standard for a Clegg hammer rating exists in college football, but he believes one is one the way. He takes pride in limiting head-to-ground concussions and, as several SEC schools transition from artificial turf to grass, a standard to meet could be produced.
For the most part, they trust the natural abilities of the tifway 419 bermuda grass to stand up to the beating it takes in a game, but the rest of the route to a playable surface begins in those first hours after a game.
In that time, they mow the grass, collect the debris caused by digging cleats and clear it of clippings. From there, a quick fertilizing and a watering — the latter being the most important in the recovery process, Hardin said — sets the table for the week to come.
The crew spends Monday and Tuesday maintaining the grass with mowing, edging and water. On Wednesday — working around if and when the kickers visit to practice — the crew fertilizes and lays a base layer of paint on the border of the field, among other things.
The real cosmetic work begins 6 a.m. Thursday mornings: after blowing the dew off the field, the entire crew is present to paint the numbers and the hashmarks. The numbers are a labor intensive process with the stencils moving around the entire field, which is why it takes the entire crew to handle; that is to say nothing of the border around the field, which Hardin guesses takes as many as 60 gallons of paint for just one layer. Hardin planned to have three layers for the Florida game. Through Friday, they paint the SEC logos, the 2,400-square-foot midfield logo — which Hardin paints himself over two days — and every other touch you see on the field.
They make the job harder on themselves in one aspect: the end zone. Hardin said many schools have a large stencil that expands over the entire end zone, making changes for any special event impossible. Hardin and MSU use the help of Buddy Gentry of Starkville’s Gentry Signs and his plywood stencils, which he helps place each week for the turf crew.
“In the event that somebody says, ‘Hey, let’s go put Bulldogs in the end zone,’ we can do it,” Hardin said.
That neat template the crew followed for its first two home games was not an option through Florida week. Consistent rain through the week put them as much as a day behind their usual plan at times. Yet, come game day, no touch was missing.
“That’s all my crew. That’s a testament to the crew I have,” Hardin said. “I had my entire crew here and we made up in four hours what should have been done in eight, that’s how good my guys are.”
Hardin has William Head, Terrell Brantley, Feliciano Grimaldo and Benjamin Baker on his full-time staff with student help: Caleb Paulus, Todd Hughes, Ralan Manuel, Jackson Crump, Payton Smith and Blake Miller. Their combined work through a window of opportunity Thursday and early Friday morning had the crew nearly back on schedule by the middle of Friday morning, when enough of the midfield logo had to be in place for employees and athletic department guests to take part in helping paint the midfield logo.
That last part is a new development, but Hardin is perfectly comfortable tinkering with things. It was his idea to transition from the bulldog midfield logo to the current M banner logo a few years ago; it was also his idea to outline the logo with white instead of gray when the gray didn’t pop off the grass the way he wanted it to.
There is also one small spot around a hashmark where the crew has five cultivars of bermuda grass planted in the playing surface, small cups they planted for testing purposes. No novice eye would ever spot the testing ground, but it’s important work to ensure MSU continues to have one of the finest playing surfaces available.
In this profession, ingenuity is part of the job, and weeks like the one before the Florida game proved it.
“You can fight Mother Nature but you’re never going to win,” Hardin said. “I learned that a long time ago.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson