Parker: Truths about Shields-Watkins Field

Tennessee's football field has taken on some heat lately. Get knowledge of the situation and facts about Shields-Watkins Field.

The lights at Neyland Stadium emit a glow that can be seen from miles away.

After the last whistle blows on Nov. 28 around 7:13 p.m. EST, the lights won’t be shut off for the remainder of the fall or the onset of winter. The 102,455-seat stadium is a showpiece and it must be tip-top.

It’s part of a best-foot-forward presentation by the university in the never-ending arms race also known as recruiting in the Southeastern Conference.

When third-year coach Butch Jones and his staff open up the gates to show off their home venue to official visitors (most of whom arrive in December and January), Shields-Watkins Field must look game-ready — checkerboard end zones and all.

It continues on from there for junior days in the latter stages of winter to scrimmages in March and April to the Orange & White game to roughly two weeks of camps in June and July to the Orange Carpet Day recruiting events and then on into August and another season.

It hasn’t always been that way. The field had more of an offseason when Phillip Fulmer, Johnny Majors and their predecessors were running the show.

That’s part of the reason why assistant athletics director for athletic facilities and grounds Kevin Zurcher, director of sports surface management Darren Seybold and their staff overseed with rye grass in October.

The beautiful green that crawls across Shields-Watkins during the warmer months is Bermuda Tifway 419. When the cold weather sets in, that Bermuda goes dormant and rye takes its place.

Aesthetically, Tennessee’s field looks gorgeous year-round. However, the occasional slip that’s been far more prevalent in home games versus North Texas and South Carolina come primarily from the rye. It’s cut down to 7/8 inches but it’s so slick that most high school coaches won’t go to it, even those that make consistent postseason runs deep into November.

The rye also isn’t near as resistant to the cutting and sprinting of the quick-twitch athletes like Tennessee possesses. It’s going to rip up and look nothing like what it did before 70 minutes of pregame action and over 3 hours of gametime. 

Mix in that Vols football players prefer the molded 3/8-inch cleats from NIKE instead of the 1/2-inch studded alternatives and it’s going to be a slick go of it.

Dredged from the Tennessee river, screened, dyed green, spread over game fields and brushed to create seed to soil contact to allow for rye seed germination is something called topdressing. Having been on Shields-Watkins Field for every home game the last 5 years, it’s evident Shields-Watkins Field was not fully top dressed for the last two games. Yet, the Haslam Field practice surfaces were. Some suggest that some powers that be didn’t like the sandy look that the topdressing can sometimes present.

Combine the need to use rye, the choice of cleats, the lack of topdressing and some with a voice having an ax to grind and Tennessee gets the type of negative attention it’s gotten lately.

Can’t say that I knew them but guessing W.S. Shields and his wife Alice Watkins-Shields would scoff at the witch hunt taking place presently.

Few athletes in orange must cut and burst on Saturday’s than junior cornerback and punt returner Cameron Sutton. The overblown issues with the field have been so bad that Sutton told Knoxville media on Monday…drum roll….“I don’t think it’s a problem.”

Rumors circulated during last weekend’s North Texas game that the turf squad on Rocky Top painted the field green so as to hide divots and dead grass.

Not true.

Just like every naturally surfaced college or pro football field in the nation, Tennessee uses the aforementioned dyed sand for “scuff marks.” It comes from Short Mountain Silica in Mooresburg and is the same substance used by several groundskeepers to fill in divots on tee boxes and to make logos on baseball diamonds.

More meetings took place on Rocky Top this week. Zurcher and his staff have worked alongside University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture’s Dr. John C. Sorochan since June and much of Seybold’s staff got its Turfgrass Science and Management education from Tennessee.

The issues with the field won’t be completely corrected in time for Senior Day versus Vanderbilt but more topdressing has taken place and brushed into the rye. Depending on the moisture on the field, sand may kick up as players sprint around but there should be less slipping.

For those hoping Tennessee says to heck with it and goes to the fake stuff, be careful what you wish for. Statistics show that of your 22 starters, four are going to go down with a severe injury over the course of the year and two more will miss significant time. 

Who wants to see a half dozen 19- to 23-year-olds doing three months worth of leg extensions with the pin out of the weight stack?

Of all the times the Volunteers have played, practiced and scrimmaged on Shields-Watkins Field in 2015, care to guess how many players have gone down with a torn ACL? Answer: zero.

Artificial turf was used for a Tennessee game for the first time on Sept. 14, 1968 all the way until Nov. 27, 1993. It was hideous and a Bermuda hybrid made its way back in time for Peyton Manning’s freshman season.

Ole Miss has fake turf and plans to rip it up at season’s end. The Denver Broncos tried a hybrid grass recently and spent roughly seven figures transitioning back to a natural surface. Talk out of Lexington is that Commonwealth Stadium’s move to field turf may not last long, and Kentucky just installed it prior to this season.

As long as Dave Hart is the director of athletics, it’s not happening at Tennessee.

If they’re keeping it real, what’s the solution? A Bermuda hybrid created in a lab that’s already being used by the Louisville Bats could be what Tennessee goes to when it eventually resods its surface in May or June. It’s called Northbridge Bermuda and it’s claim to fame is that it is more cold tolerant than the Tifway 419 that ceases recovering and goes dormant after frost hits in October or November. (Trust me, I sodded my yard with five pallets of it.)

A company called Carolina Green out of Indian Trail, North Carolina, cannot keep the newest hybrid on its property as many are wanting to roll it on their fields. If the Northbridge Bermuda can get through the three or so games in November and stay reasonably green for recruiting purposes then there won’t be a need to overseed with the slick rye.

Continuing to use the blankets (commonly confused with a tarp) should help during that October-November period. Don’t think it would be worth the expense to go with an underground heating system like Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Here’s to hoping the “first world problems” taper down and the talk circulates back to the product on the field instead of the field itself. It’s football season and your Volunteers have it in them to win more regular season games than any team since 2007, which was three coaches ago.

Lost in all the talk of nitrogen to phosphorous to potassium ratios was one of the most beautiful quotes that came from Tennessee fifth-year senior Brian Randolph at the conclusion of Monday’s press conference after InsideTennessee asked the safety how do people of various races get along on campus on Rocky Top?

“Oh, we’re all good here,” Randolph told IT. “It’s a big family. We’re all orange, that’s the only color we see around here for the most part. I can’t speak for everybody but I didn’t have no problem with race around here.”

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