"The surface is a much safer surface for the athletes," said Director of Football Operations Mike Kerin, who, among his many duties, is responsible for researching and selecting new playing fields. "It's easier on their joints and their legs, and there's not as much foot fixation. That other rug was so ‘grippy', I can't believe we played on those things, and that was so much better than what we played back on in the seventies."
As a player, a coach and now in his current capacity, Kerin has seen artificial surfaces evolve almost since their inception. In Kerin, West Virginia is lucky to have someone with a great deal of experience in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each type of field. However, that has been counterbalanced a bit by some bad luck in the history of artificial surfaces at West Virginia.
In 1988, WVU installed a new OmniTurf surface that featured a sand filler, much as today's surfaces use bits of ground up rubber. What wasn't known about those surfaces, however, was that after a few years' use, the sand compacted so much that it formed a hard, almost concrete-like sub-strata, which made the field about as soft as an asphalt playground.
WVU also ran into problems when it selected AstroPlay as its most recent replacement surface. Defects in the manufacturing process caused the yard lines and hashmarks to begin detaching from the surface, but in the meantime the company which made the surface went bankrupt.
"We had a couple warranty issues that we had to deal with the AstroPlay surface in the stadium, and it was tough to deal with when they went out of business," Kerin said. "That was one of the reasons we picked them, because they were the one company that had been in business since day one. They went all the way back to 1966 when they put AstroTurf into the AstroDome. That stability was an important feature for us, and wouldn't you know it that they would go out of business. They had some management problems that caused it."
Kerin ended up solving the problem by replacing the problem areas, thus bringing the stadium field back into good shape. But when he got the go ahead to replace the field in the Caperton Indoor Facility, there was really only one choice. With AstroTurf out of business, FieldTurf, which now dominates the industry, was the obvious selection.
While some might think that the installation of the field is the end of the process, that's not the case with today's modern surfaces. The use and weathering of a field also contributes to the "maturation" of the field, and helps it take its final shape.
"When the turf is made, the blades are all the same width, but when you work it over time – what they call "fibrillating the fiber" -- they break apart," Kerin explained. "The blades may seem longer at the beginning, but over time the blades curl down over the filler. That's a natural process, and it will happen [in the Indoor Facility] just like it happened in the stadium over time. It won't happen as quickly or as much, because it's indoors, and because you don't get the weather like you do on the outdoor fields. In fact, it should last pretty much forever, because the one main factor in the deterioration of artificial surface fields is UV rays from the sun. I'm sure it will be long there after I retire."
With the indoor facility now done, the cycle will shift back to Milan Puskar Stadium, where the current turf is approximately halfway through its expected lifecycle.
"The turf in the stadium is four years old now, and will probably start have to looking at replacements in a couple more years," Kerin said. "About seven or eight years is the expected life cycle for today's turf."
If advancements in technology continue at their current pace, however, Kerin might again be starting at ground zero when it comes to evaluating the surfaces on the market in 2009 and 2010. Of course, any improvements that enhance player safety or increase the durability of the surface will be welcome, but they also mean that Kerin has to continually research and keep up with new developments in the industry to ensure that West Virginia gets the most for its money when replacement time rolls around. And while turf replacement will always be one of the high dollar items on WVU's capital improvement list, it certainly isn't the only one.
"Coach Rod always has a list of things he wants to get done, but I can't get into specifics of some of those," Kerin said with his best poker face. "But with the way recruiting and facilities are today, if you don't keep up and continue making changes and improvements, you can fall behind very quickly."