NORMAN — Oklahoma’s 2014 football season officially kicks off against Louisiana Tech on Saturday, a hugely important day for the likes of Bob Stoops, Trevor Knight and the rest of a Sooners team that appears to be a legitimate national championship contender.
But Saturday is also a big day for Jeff Salmond and his groundkeeping crew, who have spent this week — and, really, the past several months — getting Owen Field’s grass ready both practically and aesthetically for the season.
“You're on display for national audiences,” said Salmond, OU’s director of athletic fields. “You're on display for recruits. You're on display for fans that come and walk through the stadium. The joy is at the end of the game, seeing how the field has performed.”
Salmond and his eight-man staff manage all of the University of Oklahoma’s athletic fields and much of the grounds surrounding them, but nothing they do is more visible and important than their work inside Gaylord Family — Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, which houses one of the Big 12 Conference’s three remaining natural grass football fields.
Oklahoma switched back from artificial turf in 1994, and while many high school and college football stadiums are going the other direction, OU seems committed to sticking with natural grass.
Salmond, who studied agriculture at Missouri for his undergraduate degree and then Iowa State for his master’s, said natural grass fields can handle lots more action than people think — as long as they are properly maintained.
“I think grass is always the safest,” Stoops said. “We've got a great field. It ranks there with any field in the country.”
Among the most important things Salmond’s crew monitors is the field’s hardness, which is measured in a numerical value called “Gmax.”
A field’s Gmax is determined by dropping a weight onto the field and measuring how fast it stops after hitting the surface. A higher Gmax means the weight stopped quickly.
The National Football League requires all fields be below 100 Gmax, and although the NCAA doesn’t have similar requirements, Salmond said his staff holds itself to that standard.
Salmond, from Kansas City, Mo., grew up a big-time sports fan — his favorite football player was OU legend Brian Bosworth — and also farmed. He has worked on field-management teams with the Baltimore Ravens, the University of New Mexico and Northwestern University.
This will be his eighth year in Norman.
Because the football stadium is probably the biggest visitor attraction on the OU campus, the groundskeeping crew focuses year-round on maintaining the field, but really amps up its efforts after the annual spring game in April.
“We know that we're on display 365 days a year, really,” Salmond said. “It's not like we can go, ‘It's just football season.’
“We take pride in all of our fields that we manage for the University of Oklahoma and the athletic department.”
In a typical game week, Salmond said his staff uses roughly 300 gallons of paint on Owen Field over three days.
They paint the endzones and logos on Wednesday; paint the yard lines, numbers and hash marks on Thursdays; and finally add a second coat over the end zones and logos Friday.
“They go above and beyond, and hours really don't matter to them,” Stoops said. “I appreciate Jeff Salmond, that whole crew. They do an incredible job and take a lot of pride in it.”