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Turf Management Takes Professor Around the World of Sports

January 21, 1998

Photo of John Stier The phone rang shortly after John Stier arrived at his campus office at 8 a.m. The Green Bay Packers were calling. They needed his help.

So Stier, an assistant professor of horticulture and an expert in turfgrass management, hopped into his car and made what for him has become a familiar pilgrimage to the tabernacle of Wisconsin – and perhaps American – football: Lambeau Field.

The Packers were preparing for their Dec. 20 game against the Buffalo Bills. A sod grower, hired by the team to replace the middle section of the field, wanted Stier’s advice on using a new form of turf. Called SportGrass, the turf consists of putting sand within artificial turf and seeding it with grass seed. The artificial turf protects the crown of the grass seed as the grass grows, anchoring the top layer of natural grass to the turf.

“It’s a new system, and nobody really knows too much about it, kind of like a new automobile,” Stier says in his office a few days after the visit to Lambeau. “I think, given time, it has a lot of potential.”

That’s a guarded, yet important, endorsement from one of only five professors in the world recognized as an expert in athletic field management by Turfgrass Producers International. While Stier’s research also focuses on the viability of several types of turfgrass and how it is affected by shade and cold, it’s his work with athletic fields that has him in high demand in the state, the country and around the globe.

Stier, who has a 30-percent teaching appointment and a 70-percent Extension appointment, has consulted with the manager of Lambeau Field several times since joining UW–Madison’s horticulture department last May. While working on his doctorate in crop and soil sciences at Michigan State University, he managed the world’s first portable indoor/outdoor athletic field, which was used in the Pontiac Silverdome outside Detroit during the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament. The method Stier helped develop to grow turfgrass indoors for the tournament was patented last spring and has been chronicled in a mathematics textbook published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

His turfgrass superstar status, which was cemented during the World Cup, has led to consultations for growing grass inside a covered soccer stadium in La Plata, Argentina, and supervising the renovation of the field for Real Madrid, Spain’s soccer equivalent of the Packers. He has met with golf course superintendents in England, researched cold weather grass in Germany and Austria, is discussing work in Tunisia and the Canary Islands, and hopes to take UW–Madison’s name to France for the 1998 World Cup.

“Turfgrass is not just a state or national market anymore,” Stier says. “Turfgrass science is booming all over the world.” Which leads to a question: Why study turfgrass in a state that is usually covered with snow four months or more out of every year?

“This is an ideal place to do research, because we don’t have ideal conditions,” he says.

Golf in Wisconsin is often played into December, and most soccer and football seasons start and finish when grass is growing slowly or not at all – conditions Stier calls a “challenge” for turfgrass management. Yet Wisconsin’s chilly temperatures are actually good for turfgrass, he adds, because they kill off certain diseases, leading to better texture and more uniformity. In Wisconsin alone, turfgrass is a $1 billion-a-year industry, similar in economic impact to the state’s staple agricultural crops of corn and soybeans.

After talking turfgrass in his office, Stier invites a visitor into the D.C. Smith Greenhouse, a 10,000-square-foot glass facility with 10 growing rooms and a 1,600-square-foot conservancy next to the horticulture building on campus.

“This is my corner of the universe,” Stier says while opening the door to his growing room. An orange glow emanates from high-pressure sodium lights attached to the ceiling. Thirty types of turfgrass, both cold season and warm season, sit like obedient pupils in small, black plastic pots on a U-shaped metal grated table. On another table, 30 types of weeds sit in larger pots.

Stier grabs several pots of turfgrass and suddenly becomes the questioner: “Picture yourself walking barefoot through grass. Which one would you want to walk through?” After seeing and touching the grasses, the answer is obvious: the soft, dense grass, which Stier explains is cold-weather turfgrass. “Here’s the secret turf,” he adds, picking up a 17-pound, square-foot section of SportGrass from Lambeau Field.

Fate or providence led Stier to turfgrass management. During his junior year at The Ohio State University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in plant pathology, Stier could not get into a course he needed. So he enrolled in a turfgrass disease class, got the best grade and landed a job in the professor’s lab. The foundational work from that class led to the World Cup job through Michigan State and to Stier’s doctoral focus on turfgrass management.

Stier says his own lawn is acceptable, but just “average.” The reason why reveals that Stier is also skilled at keeping life in perspective.

“My lawn has weeds and places where my son plays with his toy trucks and toy backhoe,” he says. “When I come home and he says, ‘Look at the hold I dug,’ that’s what is most important.”

Tags: research