COLUMBUS - On the first afternoon in September, an eclectic mixture of engineers, accountants, and clerical workers will huddle around televisions in the Canadian province of Quebec, in Montreal, the largest French-speaking city in the western hemisphere.
They will engage in an energized and lengthy sports discourse, but not about the Alouettes game the previous night against the Roughriders, or the likelihood that their revered Canadiens will sign that next rising hockey star from Scandinavia. They will be watching Youngstown State play Ohio State in American college football, with a passion and an attention to detail unmatched by most.
These individuals have a deeply vested interest in that game, on that day, because the only thing Canadian associated with the Buckeyes' 2007 season-opener will not be the Labatt Blue sloshing around in coolers at the sprawling tailgate encampments on both sides of the Olentangy River, or the shiny new Chevy pickups parked outside the stadium that were built at the Oshawa, Ont., assembly plant.
The interest of the Montreal contingent is the deck, the field, the pitch - the very battleground where the Buckeyes will engage the Huskies. For the first time, Ohio Stadium's playing surface will be FieldTurf, a high-tech melding of the wonders of modern science and the charm of good, old grass, made by a company based there in Montreal.
"That will be a landmark day for us, a seminal event," said John Gilman, FieldTurf Tarkett's CEO. "Our playing surface is in use all over the world, but seeing it there, in a place with the kind of history and tradition that Ohio State has, it is just phenomenal to be involved in that. The people here are excited. We're over the moon about it."
The Buckeyes have played on grass since 1990, when they ended a 20-year period of Ohio Stadium's floor being covered in earlier generations of artificial turf. Gilman said FieldTurf, which had its first high-profile college football installation at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium in 1999, is far removed from the hard and harsh Astroturf that ignited the trend toward manufactured sports surfaces.
"It is like comparing a Yugo to a Cadillac," Gilman said.
The FieldTurf product has long, synthetic fibers that are anchored and supported by a layer of sand and fine, ground rubber bits, providing a cushion and feel that more closely mirrors grass.
"Rather than playing on an abrasive green nylon carpet glued to asphalt, they are playing on artificial grass, not artificial turf," said Gilman, a former player and coach in the Canadian Football League. "It is like a grass field, not a turf field.
Cleats go right through it, giving you the same kind of feeling you get under foot from a good sod field."
Gilman said Ohio State had the experience of playing on FieldTurf when it visited Big Ten opponents Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota and on the Buckeyes' practice field. He said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and coach Jim Tressel went through lengthy deliberations before deciding to tear out the grass after last month's spring game and go with FieldTurf.
Tressel, who saw the sod in Ohio Stadium replaced twice last season as the grounds crew grappled with uncooperative weather and near impossible growing conditions, likes the fact that the state-of-the-art artificial surface will allow Ohio State to use the facility for events like next month's graduation ceremony and possibly high school playoff games.
"I am excited about the amount of use the greatest stadium in America will now be able to have," Tressel said. "We will now have the luxury of having consistent playability."
Don Patko, Ohio State's director of athletic facilities, said the stadium grounds crew took heroic measures to maintain a quality field throughout the 2006 season, when the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 from preseason until a loss to Florida in the national championship game. Their nationally televised Nov. 18 win over Michigan in Ohio Stadium prompted some to criticize the condition of the field, but Patko was very aware of the challenges that cool, wet weather presented.
"I remind everybody that we were undefeated on our field last year, and the field for that Michigan game was the best you can have in Ohio, in November," Patko said. "That was tough on our turf managers, because they did everything you could do. Installing FieldTurf is going to be a change, but it's a forward-thinking move. It will allow us to utilize this wonderful facility more, and that has to be a plus."
Ohio State donated the old sod from its stadium to the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, and it was used to cover three youth baseball fields. Bowling Green State University, which is also installing FieldTurf for the coming season, made small, precut pieces of the sod removed from Perry Stadium available free to the public and also plans to utilize the grass at sites around campus.
Bowling Green athletic director Greg Christopher said the move to synthetic grass after 41 years of playing on a natural surface at Perry Stadium makes sense. He said college football players and coaches have become sold on the newer turfs, which many claim provide improved traction and minimal impact injuries. He also said the wearability of such a surface is a major plus.
"FieldTurf is a product that our players and coaches have a great deal of confidence in," Christopher said. "The new surface also benefits BGSU on two fronts. It allows us greater flexibility with the stadium, meaning many of our teams can practice on the surface, and Perry Stadium can host more events, which helps the department generate new revenues. Secondly, we expect to see cost savings over time related to maintenance of the old surface."
Ken Schoeni, the longtime facilities boss at BG who nurtured that Perry Stadium playing surface for decades before his retirement, said FieldTurf's ability to stand up in inclement weather makes it a more than viable option.
"I've seen it rain hard on this stuff, and it didn't affect it one iota," Schoeni said. "Weather will still impact the game, but not the playing surface, and that is a big advance. FieldTurf seems to be out front on this kind of technology."
Former Michigan quarterback Tom Brady, now a standout with the New England Patriots, was an instant fan of the surface after it was installed at Gillette Stadium late last November.
"I think there are throws we made that we probably couldn't complete on grass, just because the footing is so good and you can really push off and drive the ball, and the receivers can cut really well," Brady said. "I think everybody really likes the surface."
When it is completed, the Ohio Stadium field will have bright scarlet end zones and the trademark block "O" at midfield. It will be one of the more than 2,000 installations of the product that FieldTurf has done in 40 countries for baseball, soccer, lacrosse, and football. Super Bowl XL at Detroit's Ford Field was played on the same surface, but the biggest market today is high schools, where one field can now accommodate games involving junior high, freshman, junior varsity, and varsity football, boys and girls soccer, boys and girls lacrosse, and marching band competitions.
"That is the heart of the business right now, but we still get very excited when we have an elite program like Ohio State decide to play on FieldTurf," Gilman said. "Working with a guy like coach Tressel is about the most fun thing for an old geezer like me. You don't want to have a great football program without a great playing surface, and quite frankly, I think the consistency of this field is going to make them even better."
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