Saturday, June 22, 2024

Hidden heroes: Meet the crew behind MSU's athletic fields

April 12, 2023
<p>Groundskeepers at the end of their shift, in their locker room under Spartan Stadium on March 31, 2023.</p>

Groundskeepers at the end of their shift, in their locker room under Spartan Stadium on March 31, 2023.

Tucked under the confines of the western bleachers of Spartan Stadium hides a room the size of a master bedroom. A bank of green lockers with name plates line the left hand wall. A large square table centers the room and is surrounded by green roller chairs. 

Head athletic turf manager at Michigan State University Andy Flynn describes the room as “chaotic” on game days as other event staff rendezvous at the grounds crew office. Flynn doesn’t have his own private office with a fancy desk and a giant window. Instead, he’s tucked up against the wall adjacent to the doorway. 

But on a day like today, it’s extremely quiet. East Lansing had just been dumped with rain overnight into the morning. Without any MSU teams hosting a home game for the weekend, Flynn and his staff of four full-time employees get to leave early for the weekend. The team oversees all the turfgrass surfaces on campus, but Spartan Stadium’s central location puts their office in the underbelly of the stadium.

The last month, though, has been busy, with numerous teams transitioning to the outdoors. The same goes for sharpening up the field at Spartan Stadium ahead of the Spartan Football Kickoff on April 15. Flynn said it’s all about prepping and waiting for Mother Nature to run her course. 

“Mother Nature is the ultimate variable,” Flynn said.

Flynn is originally from Buchanan, a town of just under 5,000 people in the southwest corner of Michigan. He attended Central Michigan University, but wasn’t sure what he wanted to study at first. Flynn eventually found a book that highlighted different careers that exist in sports and realized turfgrass management was a possibility. 

Then he remembered his childhood. Flynn’s parents didn’t even have to ask him to mow the lawn. He loved doing it so much, he would go out on his own and tend to the lawn. 

“I'd go buy some fertilizer with my parents' money and fertilize the lawn and try to make it look nicer than the neighbors,” Flynn said. "I always kind of enjoyed mowing patterns in the lawn or whatnot.”

To pursue his newfound goal, he transferred to MSU and worked at the Forest Akers Golf Course before being hired at the university full-time upon graduating. 

He made the switch over to MSU Athletics’ turf management operation in 2006 — first as an assistant athletic turf manager before becoming the head athletic turf manager in 2020. 

From a broad scope, Flynn’s tasks depend on the season and the day-to-day schedule. He oversees all of the turfgrass at the varsity athletic fields, with he and his coworkers bouncing around campus from field to field. 

“That's one of the parts I love about my job, is that I have flexibility to be able to just jump in and do things if we need help,” Flynn said. “If we need someone to sit on a mower, if we need someone to dig a hole or whatever, I can jump in and do it. That's the part that I love about it. I'm not just tied to the desk.”

March 1 is a day that’s circled on Flynn’s calendar. Less work is done in the winter months, but the focus shifts to the outdoor fields sometime around MSU’s spring break.

And it’s not just the care done on Spartan Stadium. The baseball and softball teams start playing home games in March, plus the men’s and women’s soccer teams like to practice outside when the weather allows. Perhaps the football team wants to hold an outdoor spring practice on occasion.

That means all of the outdoor facilities need to be in tip-top shape for the smoothest and, most importantly, safest game or practice possible. 

“It’s kind of like every field too, all at the same time, because everyone’s always going,” Flynn said.

On a yearly basis, there’s no telling how much work will be able to be done on Spartan Stadium before MSU’s spring game. Flynn said it depends on when the growing season begins, which can be either before or after the spring game. 

There’s a chance the field is yellow, or some sort of yellow-green shade when MSU takes the field. What is certain, Flynn said, is that the field will have a fresh coat of paint, just like what is seen on a typical fall Saturday. 

“Ideally, that grass is green for the spring game, but we might not get there,” Flynn said.

Moisture is one of the biggest factors that’s monitored by the groundskeepers. Spartan Stadium is equipped with eight sensors buried in the field that allows Flynn to measure the exact amount of water in the soil, which is composed of 90% sand and a 10% mixture of silt and clay. 

From there, they can mathematically determine how much the field needs to be watered, if it all. 

“That field plays its best if we can control the moisture,” Flynn said.

After the spring game, though, Flynn and his crew will go in with the bulk of their proceedings toward getting the field ready for the fall. It starts with repairing any damages from the game, then moves to a laundry list of tasks that are completed throughout the summer — fertilization, aeration, irrigation, seeding, are all just some parts of growing a healthy field. 

During the June recruiting period, the field is painted every single weekend to mimic as much as possible what Spartan Stadium looks like on game day. 

Of course, last year that also meant Michigan State head football coach Mel Tucker and the football team bringing luxury vehicles onto the field for photoshoots with recruits. Flynn said these shoots weren’t the best for the grass, but strong communication and  little rain meant there wasn’t any notable damage. 

“I'm a team player and I want to make sure that they can do their jobs and whatever that may be,” Flynn said. “I want to make sure recruits are coming in and we need to park some cars down here, then let's do it.”

Nuances like that all tie back to the necessity of planning. Veterans like Flynn and fellow groundskeeper Jared Knoodle have seen just about it all, but having answers to problems is, at times, the root of the job.

“We prep for the game and then after you come in on the game day and it could rain three inches,” Knoodle said. “And the week after that it's completely different.”

“A lot of times we say, 'Have a plan for a plan,' which seems ridiculous, but that's one of the approaches that we have to have,” Flynn said.

Groundskeeping is one of those professions that tends to only get highlighted when things go wrong; rarely does a T.V. broadcast tout about superb field conditions. However, the Michigan State grounds crew takes pride in what they do and wins for the Spartans on the field are also wins for them too. 

“My motto is, I don't want anybody to know that I'm there,” Knoodle said. “Because if nobody knows that I'm there or doing anything, then everything's going right.”


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