Turf: Rebels Return to Their Roots
Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss.
In 2003, the University of Mississippi installed synthetic turf at Vaught Hemingway Stadium. By 2015 the stadium's second synthetic field was nearing the end of its lifespan, and Head Coach Hugh Freeze said during a press conference, "I think here in Mississippi, we ought to be able to play on grass."
Ross Bjork, athletic director, seconded the call saying, "We think it's the right thing to do for our program on many, many levels. Natural grass is the preferred playing surface of our players and our coaches. In the SEC West, us and Arkansas are the only two programs that have artificial turf. The rest have natural grass, so we think it's the right move."
The decision was made via unanimous vote to pull up the carpet after the 2015 season and replace it with natural grass.
The university then had some big decisions to make. While natural grass was the preferred playing surface, a short pile synthetic surface was chosen for high-traffic areas around the perimeter of the field, creating the ideal balance between synthetic where it was needed and natural grass where it counts most—where the game is played.
A competitive bid process emphasized qualified sports field contractors with proven experience in projects of the size and scope of Vaught Hemmingway's Stadium. Sports Turf Company Inc., with four certified field builders on staff and an extensive background in natural and synthetic field construction, was selected.
"Very few sports field contractors could have performed the scope of work, which included field demolition and construction, stormwater, concrete and coach's towers," said Aaron McWhorter, founder and president of Sports Turf Company. "It was realistically a seven-month scope of work, during the winter rainy season, with a five-month timeline for completion."
"It took a lot of time and a lot of planning on all ends before renovation and construction could even begin," added Bob Calta, Certified Project Manager, Sports Turf Company. "There were a lot of considerations: disposal of the synthetic turf; deep excavation and extraction of 14 inches of sand, clay, stone and synthetic field drainage components; 20 or more owner-requested change orders with no change in deadline."
Ed Norton, landscape architect and partner at Holcombe Norton Partners Inc. was the lead designer and coordinated all parts of the project with the university. He pointed out the importance of collaboration, saying, "It couldn't have worked without it. Design review meetings included traffic, electrical, soil and civil engineers, coaches, subcontractors and communications department. Bringing everyone together ensured everyone's needs were met.
With a big project comes big challenges."
The schedule did not leave much room for problems or weather delays. If a day was missed, other efficiencies had to be recognized elsewhere in the schedule to make up for it. By July the field had to be completely reclamated to allow the new sod time to become established before the first game.
The coordination of vertical stadium construction along with field renovation meant working closely with numerous other contractors, and scheduling had to take all activities into account. Silt washing down onto the field construction site from other work on site further complicated construction activities.
Sports Turf Company self-performed 80 percent of the work with its own personnel, making it possible to overcome challenges and deliver the field on time.
A complete natural grass field underdrain system was installed, including a 10-inch sand root zone layer, 4 inches of gravel and the drainage pipe itself. The irrigation system for the stadium consists of a new booster pump and Hunter STK-6V's with eight retractable heads spread around the perimeter of the field. The sprinklers make maintenance simple while keeping the surface intact, playable and safe.
Certified Tifway 419 Bermuda was installed inside the stadium and on practice field number two to form a dense and durable surface. Tifway 419 Bermuda's ability to recover from damage rapidly and withstand the rough and tumble nature of football makes it one of the most durable hybrid Bermudas. It is also drought-tolerant and thrives in hot weather conditions, making it the best choice for the University of Mississippi.
The success of this stadium can be attributed to the intelligent design and coordination of the many departments of the university. Short pile, high-wear synthetic surface along the perimeter of the field will handle a lot of traffic from boom cameras, football players, referees and personnel. Overall this combination means the field will improve competition for players competing on a high-performing grass field while the perimeter of the field continues to look great.
Manning Center football practice fields were enlarged to add length to a field that had been shortened by the construction of a parking garage. The addition of 40 yards to the west end of the north field will give the practice facility two full fields for practice. Field one of the practice facility is synthetic turf and field two is a natural field with an underdrain system and has been established with certified Tifway 419 Bermuda grass.
For the University of Mississippi, the conversion back to natural grass was a no-brainer. It was the best decision for their athletes and their program. Grass provides a much cooler field temperature, often 35 to 40 degrees cooler than synthetic turf. The grass fields are safer, with significantly more force reduction, or lower G-max rating, than the previous synthetic field. The field plays fast and firm while easily releasing cleats to reduce injuries. By blending both natural grass for the playing surface and synthetic turf for the highest traffic team areas, Ole Miss has the best of both worlds.
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