I talked to the AD of the D-III school that just installed a black turf field
Why do it? And won't this be too hot for the athletes?
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When SUNY Morrisville AD Matt Grawrock showed the world the school’s new black turf field last week, he wasn’t expecting this kind of response.
“I thought we might get some regional media attention, maybe something in D3.ticker,” he told me. “Never in my wildest dreams did I expect ESPN, Sports Illustrated…all of this national attention.”
The new field blew up on social media, partly because it looks so dang different from other football fields with unique colors.
Division III's SUNY Morrisville just finished installing black turf in its football stadium.
The field includes different colored markings for each sport that uses it.
— Front Office Sports (@FOS)
Jul 18, 2023
And also because…wouldn’t black be a bad color for a football field? You probably saw a lot of tweets to this effect:
A D3 School in New York just installed Black Turf.
Cleats are going to melt during Training Camp.
— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey)
Jul 18, 2023
Grawrock gets that. He saw the tweets too, and he once had similar concerns. So did his athletes.
“The first thing everybody says is…isn’t that going to be hot? It looks hot.”
But no, Grawrock doesn’t believe the field is going to melt cleats or be unsafe. And here’s why:
SUNY Morrisville, Grawrock believes, will be the first college program with a black-colored field. But that doesn’t mean they’ll have the first black field, period. Grawrock told me that several high schools, in places like Washington, and Illinois, also had black fields. West Salem High, in Oregon, transitioned away from an all-black field in 2020 but had one for several years.
Knowing that other schools had managed to successfully pull off the design helped, but Grawrock emphasized that the school only wanted to pursue black turf if they believed it would be safe on their campus. The school consulted research from Penn State and BYU that suggested, according to Grawrock, that “black turf is only about two to three degrees warmer than green turf.” After all, he told me, both a green turf and a black turf field are typically going to use black crumb rubber. That temperature difference tracks with what the SUNY Morrisville athletic department has measured between the black field and other green turf fields on campus.
Next, Grawrock said, it was important to consider local conditions. “We’re in upstate New York. Our average September temperature here is 65 degrees. We might actually want that extra temperature in November. We might want it for when our lacrosse team is out on that field in March.”
“It’s not going to be this burning inferno.”
The school knew that it was going to continue using a turf field, and “whenever you’re using a synthetic field, there’s going to be temperature increase compared to a grass field.” But after consulting the team’s trainers and doing research, Grawrock said he felt comfortable that using a black field would be safe and sustainable for their campus, and the temperature swing wouldn’t be massive.
“If I was in Louisiana, Florida, or South Carolina, I don’t think we’d do this.” But SUNY Morrisville isn’t in those places, and as a D-III school, doesn’t even have athletes on campus using the field now anyway. “Nobody is here right now. Practices don’t start until August 9.” Grawrock told me.
Even then, the school has built-in contingency plans. Because of class obligation, Grawrock told me the football team typically practices in the early morning, and that the field wouldn’t be used by anybody during the hottest times of the day. The department also actually has an indoor practice facility (a product of being in upstate New York) that can be utilized if the weather gets too tough.
Okay, but even if a black turf isn’t substantially warmer than a green one…why do it?
In the press release, Grawrock is quoted as saying “Why not?”. But in our conversation, he fleshed out his thinking in more detail.
SUNY Morrisville’s location has a major reason to do with it.
“There are 60 SUNY (State University of New York) schools, from D-I down to JUCO. There are at least 20, four-year schools in the SUNY system that use green as a primary color." Grawrock told me, adding that the department is in the middle of an athletic re-brand, one that will shift the department to a more black-and-white-centered color scheme. Like smaller enrollment schools all over the country, SUNY Morrisville is in tight competition for students and marketing oxygen. They wanted to stand out.
“At our level, because you’re small, your fate isn’t always necessarily in your control…with this kind of project, we get to control things. This is our field; this is our story. And I think our student-athletes really, really gravitated towards that and having a unique identity.”
A D-III school with a D-III budget is never going to have the resources to build some unique colossus like The Big House or the Horseshoe. It probably won’t even have the resources to construct something like the Long Beach State Pyramid or the Kibbie Dome.
SUNY Morrisville already had a turf field, and because turf fields don’t often require quite as much maintenance as grass fields, and so many different teams need to use the field, remaining with turf was going to be the economical option anyway. Since the central SUNY budget was already going to pay for new turf, the renovation became a rare opportunity to build something truly unique.
“Do I think we’re going to get a student or a recruit just because we have a black field? No. But I do think it can get us in some conversations that maybe we weren’t in before…and then, once we get them on campus, get them interacting with our staff…”
“We need that oxygen, we need that enrollment, we need the opportunities to be able to give people a unique experience.”
When talking to his athletes, once he reassured them about the temperature, he says the group really understood what the school is trying to do. “They really started to gravitate to this idea that this is going to be distinct. They think it’s cool, and they’re excited to play on it.”
This may be a unique solution, but it’s hardly a unique problem
There are a handful of other colleges out there with non-green fields. Boise State, of course, is the most famous, but you have the red at Eastern Washington, Blue at New Haven and Luther College, Grey at Eastern Michigan and Marietta, Purple at Central Arkansas, Teal at Coastal Carolina, and more.
Is this something that would make sense at Notre Dame, USC, or Alabama? Probably not. But sometimes, you need to do things a little bit differently to stand out and create your own unique identity.
That’s especially important for a smaller D-III school, one surrounded by similar institutions, and in an area that is likely to produce fewer and fewer high school graduates over the coming years. The goal here isn’t so much to sell tickets, beat rivals or hang banners, although I’m sure the SUNY Morrisville athletic department wants to do all of those things. The goal is to recruit and retain students.
If that means an athletic department has to occasionally channel its inner PT Barnum, so be it.
And if the temperature projections hold and the department can safely operate a less-than-traditional field?
The final result could be something pretty cool for everybody involved.
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