Notre Dame Stadium's Natural Grass Playing Surface: The Debate Ends Here

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Notre Dame Stadium's Natural Grass Playing Surface: The Debate Ends Here

I was grazing through some of the Irish blogs when I came across a couple posts from Subway Domer and one his readers comments on the situation of Notre Dame’s natural grass playing surface.

The reader’s post brings up a great point about tradition and that winning, above all else, is Notre Dame football’s greatest tradition.

Likewise, Notre Dame has an abundance of traditions that are some of the best in college football: The fight song, the band, the helmets and the rivalries are all some magnificent examples.

But let’s get one thing straight, a natural grass playing surface is not one of these traditions and is not even in the same ballpark as some of the things Notre Dame and its students, faculty, alumni and fans hold dear.

At least, it shouldn’t be.

Still, a strong majority of Notre Dame fans continue to support the use of a natural grass field and it flat out perplexes me. Irish fans don’t seem to be as passionate about it as some other school traditions, but most polls still demonstrate that roughly two out of three do not want to change the playing surface.

Well I am here to stop this nonsense and persuade all of those Fighting Irish fans out there who currently support the natural grass that it is time for a change.

I will break this down into a handful of issues, so here we go.

What is the Problem with the Natural Grass?

Obviously, the biggest problem is the amount of slipping and sliding that pervades every Notre Dame home game, and in many cases, every single play.

This includes quarterbacks slipping when they plant their throwing foot, receivers stumbling in and out of routes, corners falling down when stopping and attempting to make a play on the ball, linemen engaging and sliding backward or forward, and much more.

Just think back to that fateful game-ending play against USC last season. Kamara wasn’t running anything more than a simple comeback route, yet when he stopped and planted to come back to the ball, his foot slipped and his fraction of a second stumble caused the heart-breaking incompletion.

I know some people will use the old adage that “both teams are playing on the same field” therefore the grass and playing surface shouldn’t matter. Well it does matter because these are the conditions in which Notre Dame has to play seven times a season.

It’s like having a baseball team full of power hitters and playing in a pitchers park.

Notre Dame finally has an abundance of speed at many positions, except they play on a sloppy field that is not conducive to utilizing such athletic quickness.

This should not be okay with Notre Dame fans who want to win, which should be everyone.

I don’t know what Notre Dame does to maintain its current natural grass surface, but clearly something is not working.

Do they spend enough money on maintenance?

Have there been poor foundations and sod laid down in the past?

A new draining system was put in during the 1996 stadium renovations, but has anything new been put in since then? Has 70 years of playing on the same ground permanently damaged Notre Dame’s ability to grow and maintain a natural grass field?

All I know is that Notre Dame is situated in a cold northern climate and grows Kentucky Blue grass because that breed can survive the Indiana conditions more so than the Bermuda grass used by just about every school without artificial turf.

Moreover, the Irish grounds crew has been known to grow the grass out to outrageous lengths in the past and clearly this is a major cause of the amount of slipping and falling by players.

  Just take a look at the picture for this story from USC’s 2009 walk-through and you can see how long the grass is. If you have a hard time seeing the bottom of a player’s cleats and his toes are disappearing, then you’re probably looking at a picture of Notre Dame Stadium’s grass.

As Charlie Weis mentioned last year, the Notre Dame staff needs to keep the grass long to battle the cold temperatures and little amount of sunlight available in the Midwest, but this has created a nasty dilemma.

If the grass is not long enough, you risk losing the turf and turning the field into a mud bowl, while growing the grass too long slows the players down and creates more slipping and sliding.

Is natural grass still worth it then?

Aesthetic Value

There’s probably no better look than a well manicured natural grass field, this I cannot dispute. Golf courses all over the world are magnificent examples of the beauty and splendor of grass.

However, it has become unmanageable to maintain a natural surface inside Notre Dame Stadium that is both durable and pleasing to the eye.

Sure the field looks beautiful in August and into September, but you can’t convince me that the natural grass looks anything close to beautiful after a few games have been played on it.

In fact, it looks downright embarrassing.

Sections of the field turn into dirt where grass can’t be re-grown during the fall months, and worst of all, the field becomes home to some of the largest divots, holes, and cleat marks known to man.

Go back and watch a Notre Dame game from the past few years and count how many slips there are, how many massive divots come ripping out of the ground, and generally how much grass goes all over the place.

Or better yet, if you’re lucky enough to watch a game in person keep an eye on the referees and see how many times they replace divots the size of beaver pelts before the next play begins.

Imagine the strain this will put on the divot replacers with Kelly’s no-huddle offense!

Look, everyone loves the smell of real grass and the way grass stains leave marks of honor upon some of the toughest players in football, but these things pale in comparison to the wretchedness of the current Notre Dame field and the use the Irish get out of it.

In contrast, the field turf of this new century is every bit as aesthetically pleasing as natural grass but without all the pitfalls.

You can’t sit there with a straight face and tell me that Ohio Stadium or Michigan Stadium don’t have beautiful playing surfaces or that you can tell the difference between those field turf surfaces and Notre Dame’s before it turns to bloody hell.

In fact, if you could put Notre Dame in blue uniforms inside the Big House and paint the field like Notre Dame Stadium’s simple design, I guarantee that no one would notice it and exclaim, “Wait a minute, Notre Dame isn’t playing on natural grass!”

So my point here is, natural grass looks great when it’s maintained, but Notre Dame is having problems doing so, and field turf would look just as good.

The Perception of Field Turf

I believe there is a negative perception about artificial turf that still exists today for two reasons.

First, as I’ve already mentioned, many people think that artificial surfaces are an eye-sore and much uglier than a natural surface.

I would challenge this assertion and simply point out that numerous successful teams in both the NCAA and NFL have wonderful looking fields with artificial grass.

Or put it this way, I challenge anyone to find five natural grass fields in cold weather areas that look better than five artificial turf surfaces in the same climate.

Secondly, the more damaging perception is that artificial turf is still far too dangerous of a surface to play on and contributes to numerous serious injuries.

This was certainly true in the past when teams basically laid down a thin layer of carpet over a cement foundation, but it is not 1978 anymore.

I’m sure many will point to Crist’s knee injury last season on the turf in the Alamo Dome as an example, but that had little to do with the surface and was a result of Crist’s knee buckling awkward on its own.

The new artificial playing surfaces of today are miles ahead of their predecessors and many studies are beginning to find that they are in fact safer and better for players than natural grass.

That is not to say that artificial surfaces don’t have their down sides, but clearly technology has improved to the point where field turf has become far safer than in the past. And the technology continues to get better and more refined as the years pass.

Further, I think so many of us have come to accept the amount of slipping that occurs on Notre Dame’s field and other natural surfaces. We see a player like Armando Allen burst through the hole, make a move, only to lose his footing and fall down to a soft tackle or without being touched.

It is usually glossed it over like it was merely bad luck, but it looks like Notre Dame suffering at the hands of one of their “traditions” more than anything.

After Kamara fell down last year on what could have been one of the biggest comebacks in school history and should be referred to simply as “The Slip”, you would think Irish fans would be in revolt against the natural grass, right?

I don’t want to come right out and say that field turf will make Notre Dame flat out better, but I believe players like Allen, Floyd, Wood and Riddick will run faster and attack defenses with more speed and control with better footing on field turf.

And let’s add Manti Te’o to that list of guys who could utilize their speed better on field turf.

Ask yourself if that will lead to more wins.

Who Still Plays on Natural Grass?

Surprisingly, there are not many teams still left playing on natural grass, especially in the colder regions of the United States.

Out of last year’s final AP Top 25, a respectable 13 programs played on new artificial surfaces. Those teams include Texas, Boise State, Ohio State, Iowa, Cincinnati, Oregon, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Utah, Ole Miss, Texas Tech, Central Michigan and West Virginia.

In the NFL, 13 organizations use field turf at home and 2006 was the first year in which the Super Bowl was played on the new surface.

Also, even more teams in both the college and professional ranks are using a natural-artificial hybrid combining the positive characteristics from each to create the best possible playing surface.

I’ve heard it before that if the Packers can maintain a beautiful natural playing surface in Green Bay, then Notre Dame should have no problem doing the same.

However, Green Bay is one of four NFL teams who use the Desso GrassMaster system which weaves artificial fibers into the natural grass for a more stable and productive playing field.

The other teams are Denver, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, all cold weather football clubs.

What this all means is that very few teams are playing on 100 percent natural grass surfaces anymore and the list of teams doing so in the colder northern areas of the country is extremely small and shrinking.

Combining the NFL and the top 40 teams in college football, only five cold weather teams are still playing on natural grass: Cleveland, Chicago, Kansas City in the NFL, and Penn State and UConn in the NCAA.

My research did not indicate this, but even those five teams could have some sort of artificial blend with their grass. Nevertheless, have any of those teams experienced a ton of success (excluding PSU) over the past fifteen years and do they make you think of team’s with an abundance of speed?

Is it conceivable that those teams would have been just a little better on field turf? Maybe not, but it is interesting to think about.

Cost

It is supposedly common knowledge that field turf costs less than a natural grass playing surface. The finances of both systems can be a bit tricky, but I believe that ultimately field turf is more expensive.

On average it costs about $100,000 to put in a new field of natural grass and anywhere from $30,000 to $250,000 to maintain it on a yearly basis.

Field turf has a much cheaper maintenance price tag at about $50,000 per year, but also can cost up to $1 million to install.

Field turf ends up costing more simply because it needs to be replaced every six to ten years, adding anywhere as little as $300,000 to a university’s bill. Schools such as Nebraska, who pioneered the first field turf surface in 1999, has already replaced their original field in 2005.

Is Notre Dame reluctant to switch to field turf because of the cost?

  I highly doubt that is the reason, but it could play some sort of factor in the decision to stay with the natural surface.

WWRD?

If we’re going to treat the natural grass inside Notre Dame Stadium as a time-honored tradition then I’m going to devise a way to test the importance of this and other traditions.

What Would Rock Do?

That’s right, Knute Rockne is going to have a say in this straight from the grave.

I have no doubt that Rockne would passionately support most of the traditions of today’s Notre Dame football including the focus on student-athletics, the gold helmets, the fight song, singing the Alma Mater after games and many more. The list could go on forever.

But I’m not sold that Rockne would find “playing on natural grass” much of a tradition.

We’re talking about a guy who probably grew up and played on nothing but mostly dirt fields as a player and would care less what his team played on as long as the field wasn’t a detriment to his team’s ability to win football games.

It comes back to Notre Dame’s greatest tradition, and it bears repeating: winning.

If Rockne was still making decisions today I would tell him, “Rock, the field turf looks great, it’s probably safer and our teams will play faster and not fall down as much. The natural grass looks great for a while, but it falls apart. We already practice on field turf and we are used to it therefore it is time to make the change in the stadium.”

Field turf may not be some wonderful cure-all to Notre Dame’s problems the last fifteen years, but it could be one small edge we could gain on teams with our speed and playmaking ability. And if you want to talk about gaining edges on teams, Rockne was one of the best at it.

That’s because Rockne and the early Notre Dame program was all about not upholding tradition and blazing their own path of progress.

Notre Dame is a beacon of tradition today because of that, but we shouldn’t be so opposed to progress, especially when that progress is so self-evident as I believe adding field turf is.

After all, that progress is part of our tradition too.

Football teams weren’t supposed to throw the ball when Rockne competed, but he played an instrumental role in bringing a successful passing attack to Notre Dame as a player and coach.

Small private Catholic universities weren’t supposed to travel all over the country and play to packed stadiums from New York to California and again Notre Dame trumped tradition and became the most famous college team in the country.

The beloved Rockne used the green jerseys as a psychological advantage and switched his players’ numbers to confuse opposing defenses in an attempt to gain an edge on teams. He pioneered the game day speech as a way to pump his team up and gain an edge against powerhouse Army teams and other squads.

Also, I don’t think this is a case of Notre Dame “trying to be like everyone else” either.

It’s bad enough having to deal with defending our other traditions from our rivals and college football fans who make us the most hated team in the land. As much as we cherish not being like everyone else, sometimes following in the footsteps of others can be a good idea and field turf is one of those instances.

Notre Dame is so clearly not like any other school that I sometimes find it odd that Irish fan’s overreact to even the smallest changes to the program. You can count the charge that the players shouldn’t be hanging out in the Gug so much but should mingle more with the student body as another good example.

Sometimes, change is needed and change can be good and lead to greater things.

  Just because we could play on the same surface as Michigan and lose a tiny and rather insignificant tradition, doesn’t mean we’re going to have wings on our helmets.

It just shouldn’t be this big of a deal to make the switch.

Next season, the Irish will play on field turf at Michigan State, Boston College, at the new Medowlands against Navy and in a possible bowl game while the amount will only increase in the future.

If you’re still skeptical and want Notre Dame to keep the natural grass, just think about the new fast paced offense next year and how the players will feel late in a game.

  Do we want them slipping and sliding trying to hustle to get back into formation during a possible game-winning drive?

Shouldn’t we want our players to be able to cut on a dime and drive players into the ground without worrying if they’ll lose their footing?

Don’t we want to see Armando Allen make a hard cut at the line of scrimmage and finally break that elusive long touchdown run instead of slamming onto his hip because the ground betrayed him?

The choice is easy for me and I think it should be for every Notre Dame fan.

Field turf in 2010.

And stay independent.

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