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Roots strong for UT’s Campbell

March 12, 2010  - By

By: John Painter

KNOXVILLE — Bobby Campbell never believed his grass was always greener on the other side of the field.

For 20 years as UT’s sports turf manager, Campbell has grown, watered, nurtured, clipped, edged, weeded and doctored every blade of that green grass on every living Big Orange playing and practice surface the Knoxville campus had to offer.

But Campbell is calling it a career. The 64-year-old Director of Sports Surface Management says it’s time to step aside.

“It’s time to go do something else,” Campbell says. “It’s time to be a granddad for awhile because you don’t get many mulligans in life.”

Campbell long has been aware of the need for perfection on its first try.

Take Neyland Stadium, for example. Tennessee’s pride-and-joy facility shines center stage during autumn Saturdays, and that’s especially true of the green patch of earth measuring 120 yards long by 53 and 1-3 yards wide.

Fans always notice the checkerboard end zones and bright Power T in the center, but they also appreciate a beautifully manicured field when they see it. And UT fans don’t just value it, they demand it.

“That’s where the pressure is,” Campbell says. “Neyland Stadium doesn’t take more time than the other fields, but it’s where the pressure is. It’s the one you sweat and worry about; the one you can’t mess up.”

The 100,000-plus amateur observers in attendance and millions more watching on television haven’t witnessed one single “mess up” in 17 years since the Vols returned to grass for the 1994 season. That list of interested observers always includes Mike Hamilton, UT Director of Athletics.

“I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure to work with Bobby for 18 years,” Hamilton says of their relationship. “The thing that really sticks out in my mind is whenever a football game is over, he and his staff are right out there on the field manicuring it. Even though the game has just ended, they are preparing for the next one.

“It extends beyond the football field, obviously, to the practice fields, baseball – all our fields. But it starts with the unbelievable work that staff has done at Neyland Stadium through the years.”

The UT grounds team – Myron Roach, Lowell Richey, Jimmy Andes, Chris Easley, Darrell Denny, Mark Gossett, Jeff Wolfenbarger and Nick Farragut – maintains playing surfaces for baseball, softball, soccer, the football practice fields, track and the new golf facility on Alcoa Highway.

“These are the people who have made me look good for 20 years,” says Campbell, who has gained notice both far and near.

Campbell served from 2003-05 as president of the Sports Turf Management Association (STMA), a 2,500-member national body. When his term was complete, Campbell was called “the strongest president STMA ever had.” And then last year, STMA presented Campbell its highest honor, the Harry C. Gill Memorial Award, recognizing his work and dedication to the profession and to the national association.

Campbell also forged relationships with UT’s Agricultural Campus, specifically its Turfgrass Science program, which led to better research opportunities for professors and students. They were able to work in real-life environments right on the UT campus, and Tennessee’s student-athletes were the beneficiaries of world-class playing surfaces before the rest of the world learned the secrets.

“He’s been very supportive,” says John Sorochan, UT Associate Professor for Turfgrass Science. “I knew him from our national association when he was president. He hired undergraduate students to work on the fields, my graduate students have been hired, and the other ones volunteered.

“He let me do all sorts of research – mostly on the practice fields. He never let me do anything on the Power T in the middle of Neyland Stadium! But it’s been a great relationship. I’m sad to see him go.”

Campbell was born in Pulaski and grew up in Lawrenceburg, Middle Tennessee towns along the Alabama border. He graduated first from what was then Martin Junior College (1969) in Pulaski, and taught briefly at Knoxville’s Doyle High School before resuming his academic studies at UT. He earned his bachelor’s (1973) and master’s (1975) degrees while serving as student assistant baseball coach under Bill Wright.

“That was back when you didn’t have full-time assistant baseball coaches,” Campbell says. “It was just Coach Wright and a student or two. I was one of those two.”

Campbell returned to Doyle High in 1975 and resumed his teaching and coaching career. Ten years later, the Knoxville Blue Jays hired him to maintain the field at the old Bill Meyer Stadium off Magnolia Avenue. It was also around that time that Campbell came in contact with the UT turfgrass specialist who would take his level of understanding of all things green to another level.

“My mentor was Dr. Tom Samples, even before I came back to UT in 1990,” Campbell says of the University’s Extension Specialist for Turfgrass Science. “He taught me everything I know about turf management.”

Samples speaks just as fondly of Campbell, all but considering him an honorary UT Ag instructor.

“Bobby is not a graduate of a turfgrass science program, but he is a quick study and just has a green thumb,” Samples says. “For some reason, he’s always had a passion for turfgrass management.

“We struck up a friendship when he was with the Blue Jays. When the opportunity came for him to work at UT, I had the privilege of working with him in several instances.”

Samples mentions the 1994 Neyland Stadium transformation from synthetic to natural grass as one of those occasions, even recalling how UT students were involved in calculating the amount of sunlight that could penetrate the stadium’s steep upper decks.

“Bermuda grass is an excellent sports field grass, but it does not like shade,” he says. “Bobby and I were concerned with whether the stadium would even support Bermuda grass. So a five-student team put together a model of the stadium that could predict the potential for growing Bermuda grass.

“That’s the time I got to know Bobby really well. Now, I’m going to miss him personally and I’m going to miss him professionally.”

Campbell’s 20-year impact on the UT campus has been impressive in that athletics and academics have been co-beneficiaries. Hamilton knows he has large shoes to fill in the position, and already has named a search committee to scour the country for Campbell’s replacement.

“This is considered one of the plumb jobs in America, in the same sentence with places like Wrigley Field,” Hamilton says. “That’s a tribute to Bobby and what he has accomplished.

“It’s not unusual to go over to Neyland Stadium and see Bobby out there by himself, down on his hands and knees – appearing to look at each blade of grass individually! I think that’s a small indication of the passion he had for his craft and for making sure not only that our student-athletes played on the very best turfs, but also that our fans enjoyed the presentation our fields displayed.”

Campbell credits the support of his family for his enjoyment and success. His wife, the former Toni Norfleet of Nashville, is a UT mathematics instructor. They are the parents of a son, Peter, 33, and a daughter, Tracy, 29. Peter resides in Huntsville, Ala., with his wife, Laura, and 1-year-old son, Jack; while Tracy lives in Knoxville with her husband, Mark Pollock.

Looking back, Campbell says he simply took his turn in a very special role.

“You have to realize that Neyland Stadium is not just a place you work. It’s sacred ground. Since 1921, it has held special meaning to a lot of people.

“Tom Mattingly (former UT wordsmith and historian) put it better than anybody when he wrote that I had stewardship of that playing surface, Shields-Watkins Field, for just a short period of time. That’s always made it interesting. I think that’s the part I will miss.

“And I’ll miss the Saturdays a little bit too.”

John Painter is associate sports information director for the University of Tennessee Athletics Department.

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