Utah's home opener isn't until Saturday night when Pac-10 champ Oregon comes to town. But for many folks, the football opener of sorts was Wednesday.
That was the day the Utah football team held its first full-fledged practice on Rice Stadium's new SportGrass surface. While the Ute players ran all over the new surface for three hours, several folks watched nervously from the sidelines.Among them was Rick Bouillon, who left his job as an assistant to athletic director Chris Hill to become a sales representative for SportGrass. "I feel like I'm about to have a baby," he said at one point.
Two other interested spectators were Jay Warnick, the university's manager of athletic fields, and Eric Chapman, who has overseen the project as a representative of SportGrass. Warnick and Chapman could be seen crouching, noses on the ground, inspecting the turf after players had torn up bits of grass with their cleats.
"Everything is as good as expected, actually better than we thought," said Chapman. "You have to remember, it's only three months old."
The SportGrass field is like nothing else in the world, since Utah's is the first major field of its kind. It looks beautiful from the stands, like "the kind of grass you'd like to have in your front yard," according to one spectator.
Underneath the grass is a woven synthetic backing in sand with some artificial grass blades. The bottom layer is a sand base that is well-drained, which means there won't be any puddles or mud on the SportGrass surface. Chapman said the care for the new surface is identical to regular grass, with watering every day and cutting three times a week.
University officials pulled up the old astroturf, which had been used for 22 years, and installed the Sportgrass at a cost of approximately $900,000 last May.
"It's a great surface," said Ute coach Ron McBride. "It's a fast track and the players really like it. It's awesome."
Actually, not all the players liked it Wednesday. The opening-day reviews were mixed, with some players raving about it and others giving it the thumbs down.
The skill-position players like it better than the non-skill position players, while the offensive players generally like it better than the defense. And the players with "molded" spikes liked it better than the ones who used "screw-in" spikes.
"It's better than grass," said Ute placekicker Daniel Pulsipher. "On grass you have to compensate for sliding a little bit. But this is like Astroturf. It's definitely good for kicking.
On the other hand, there was defensive back Calbert Beck, who wasn't shy about letting his feeling be known. "I hate this field," he exclaimed. "You can't get any traction on it."
Beck was one of the players wearing the screw-in type spikes, however, and he was willing to give the field another chance.
"Maybe tomorrow I'll find some shoes that work and I'll like it," he said.
Defensive captain Henry Kaufusi wasn't thilled with the field, either.
"Personally I don't like it," he said. "It's made for the skill people. I can't get traction, but maybe it's the shoes."
But on the offensive side, the players were more favorable.
"I like it for my purposes," said Ute wide receiver Kevin Dyson. "It's very fast."
Freshman running back Omar Bacon agreed. "It feels a lot different from regular grass. It feels real quick. I think the field turned out real well."
"It was a little slippery on the sides, but the middle of the field was better" said offensive center Chad Folk. "It's a lot faster than normal turf and has more cushioning."
Warnick, who was hired as the manager of the Ute athletic fields last spring, has been watching the grass grow along with Chapman, since May.
"The big question mark is the after-game appearance," said Warnick. "We don't know the turnaround rate we'll be seeing throughout the season."
Of all years, the Utes have crammed more home games into a smaller time frame than anytime in history with seven games in nine weeks. Before this year, they've never had as many as seven games in a single season.
"With seven home games, we'll certainly test it this year," said Hill, who hopes his former assistant is right.
Said Bouillon; "We think this product is the future of sports surfaces."