When it comes to the playing fields for the University of South Carolina, Clark Cox is the man.
Whether it's getting the baseball infield soft enough in front of the plate to satisfy former coach Ray Tanner's desire to keep ground balls in the infield or simply overseeing the healthy development of playing surfaces as diverse as a golf course, softball field, baseball diamond, soccer pitch, practice fields and, of course, Williams-Brice Stadium, Cox is the athletic department's official green thumb.
A native North Carolinian who went to the same high school (South Johnston H.S.) and college (N.C. State) as Tanner, Cox is a proud Gamecock who couldn't be happier where he is and doing what he's doing to help USC succeed. On Wednesday morning, Cox - whose official title is Assistant Athletics Director for Sports Turf and Landscaping - sat down with Gamecock Central in his office by Gate 16 at Williams-Brice Stadium to talk about what makes his job special and offer some insight and anecdotes about the special relationship that exists between groundskeepers and the coaches who want them to provide their teams with an edge. Enjoy!
GamecockCentral.com: First, let's get right to football. What are gamedays like for you?
Cox: A typical game is we bring our staff in a good four to five hours before the game. We have five full-time employees, and that's to cover everything, from our new golf facility, The Coop out in Lexington County, to everything here around campus, and then we have about five more temporary people, some are students, who'll work full-time hours for a while.
So we'll bring about eight guys for a game, and for a game like this week (Tennessee), an early game, we'll come in around six or seven o'clock, and really the only things we'll do are set up our sidelines and tarps in the bench area, pull out the pads and put them on the goalposts, pull out the pylons for the end zones, we're responsible for that, and pull out the chains for the chain crew.
After we do all that, we kind of get out of the way and watch everything happen. We are responsible for the end zone nets, so during the game we do do that as well. We kind of hang out and hope nothing goes wrong. People ask me, "What do you do during the game?", and I tell them, "Hopefully, nothing!"
We like to have our guys here just in case for whatever things could come up. We do more after the game than we do before or during the game.
GamecockCentral.com: What do those activities entail?
Cox: As soon as the game is over, we'll start cleaning the sidelines, picking trash up. We'll get the sideline tarps up, then we get the mowers out and mow the field. More than anything we mow to clean the field up. We have baskets on those mowers to catch any of the grass that got turned up, a lot of loose material on top, then we come back with a blower for what the mower didn't get. The rest of the guys will come through with sand and fill in any divots that were made. They'll walk the field, and sometimes we'll throw out fertilizer or seed after the game depending on the time of year.
We'll generally be there about two hours after the game. We could come in on Sundays and do it, but I'm a big believer in doing it post-game. I'd rather be here until to or three in the morning than come in on a Sunday. I like giving the field a day off after the game to rest."We'll put water on it but that's it. I think that's important.
GamecockCentral.com: You came to USC in April 2004, meaning this is your ninth football season. Previously you were at N.C. State, where you worked for six years after you graduated. How did you get into sports field management?
Cox: I got a four-year degree in agriculture education from State. After I graduated I started working with the grounds crew; I'd been a manager the four years prior to that as an undergraduate. I'd fallen in love with it, the timing was great - N.C. State has a two year program through the agriculture institute that offers associate's degrees in various fields, so I also got a two-year degree in turf management. So I was there about six years.
GamecockCentral.com: So you would have been at N.C. State when Ray Tanner was there?
Cox:I was a student when he was there still. I actually never worked for Coach Tanner at State. Our paths really never crossed. I'd met him a couple of times just being in athletics, but that was about it. Now, I worked for a lot of the same people who worked with coach, but never had the chance to work with him.
GamecockCentral.com: What led you to Columbia?
Cox: It was a career opportunity. There were some issues here with the football stadium in the 2003 season they needed addressed, they advertised the job and I applied.
GamecockCentral.com: What were the field issues in 2003?
Cox: It was just tearing up really bad. I think a lot of the fans will remember that. For the first year I was here I was trying to figure out exactly what went wrong. I think it was because they didn't transition the rye grass out. It weakens the Bermuda grass, and if you don't get a full good growing season on that Bermuda grass, it'll tear apart.
GamecockCentral.com: So what is the preferred grass for USC's playing surfaces?
Cox: The base grass for all of our fields that we use is Bermuda grass, which is a warm-season grass. It's season is basically April, depending on the weather, typically from April until November. First frost is when it shuts down. That grass, the majority of the year is what you find typically on most golf courses and athletic fields. It's what you see on most athletic fields because it's very aggressive, it creates a pretty tight-knit surface that's conducive to good play and also repairs itself pretty rapidly after it's damaged.
That's our base grass. What we'll do in the fall, depending on how our schedule breaks out, we'll put out perennial rye grass. Perennial rye grass is a cool-season grass that we seed into - overseed - the Bermuda grass base. You're still playing on Bermuda grass, because with grass, you're not playing on the surface, the grass itself, you're playing on the soil where the cleats dig. All the rye grass does is add some color. As that Bermuda grass starts slowing down, it loses some of its color and has a harder time repairing itself. The heat is not there, the day length is not there - Bermuda grass loves sunshine and heat. The rye grass is like a nurse grass, is gives some stability for those areas that can't recover and gives you visual appeal. We overseed all our fields and usually start in September.
GamecockCentral.com: How have the facilities changed from when you arrived?
Cox: It's amazing. When I got here in '04, just from my end of things, the green side of things, as far as what we had for equipment versus what we have now, what we have for a shop, an operating space, is huge. We had one small room at Sarge Frye Field that was our only real spot. Now we have a shop over at the new baseball facility that Coach Tanner, I'll really give him the credit along with Eric Hyman. I'll say this about Eric, he was a facilities guy, everybody knows that. But for a facilities person being on the grounds end, we've always had the resources to do what we need to do, and that shows not only on a day-to-day deal but on the capital improvements we've made.
We have a nice facility in baseball, we have a nice facility at the parking garage by the Dodie and the Rice Athletics Center that our guys operate, and from an equipment standpoint, we have so much more than we did eight years ago that it's crazy when you stop and think about it. Just all types of equipment. When I got here we had two good mowers and one tractor. That was about it. We've really built up our resources over the years, and not only that, the improvements to the actual fields.
GamecockCentral.com: Can you go through some of those specifically?
Cox: In the time I've been here we've rebuilt the baseball stadium, which is state-of-the-art in terms of irrigation and drainage. We rebuilt the soccer field at Stone Stadium. We put in drainage and irrigation there and flattened the field, and have done the same thing for softball. It won't be long before we've redone every field. The practice fields that are coming down the pipe, those will be really nice state-of-the-art fields, and eventually we'll re-do the (Williams-Brice) Stadium field, the drainage and some of the things that aren't obvious but are important to me, some of the way the ground level layout is - less asphalt, for instance, and maybe a little flatter field. We want to soften the look of the field inside and dress it up a little bit, too, maybe with some brick.
GamecockCentral.com: With the baseball stadium, you were there during the design phase and able to offer your input. What was that like and how did that help?
Cox: It was really nice to be able to get in on the ground floor with that. That worked really well for us with baseball. We were involved from beginning to end, and the administration and Coach Tanner were very concerned with it. He always made an effort to make sure we had what we needed at that stadium. Coach had a hand in every part of that stadium design and he looked after us, and nowhere is that more evident than on the field.
We went in with a wish-list for what we wanted on the field, and we didn't really cut any corners anywhere. You always ask for the Cadillac and hope you get a Chevrolet, and we pretty got everything we needed and wanted. Coach Tanner gets that. You see it a lot in athletics, particularly in high schools, where a lot of emphasis is placed on the facilities, the bleachers, the dugouts, the press box, and the field is an afterthought - there's not a lot of money spent or a lot of thought and design into the playing surface.
At the end of the day, what matters most? The playing surface, that's where the game is, that's where the athletes are, and first and foremost you want it to be safe. Unfortunately, you see a lot of fields, whether it be baseball or football, where they're not really safe, it's just a field. Especially with baseball, for instance, those kids are out there every day practicing where the stands are only full one or two days a week. In football, it's once a week, eight times a year.
GamecockCentral.com: From a competitive standpoint, have you been asked by any coaches in your career to adjust things a certain way to provide an advantage?
Cox: You know, I've always been one who believes those things are all between the ears. We've never done anything here; I've never had a coach ask me to do things one way or another in terms of grass length or whatever. Years ago when I was at N.C. State, we had some coaches who did. You'll remember when Florida State came into the ACC, they were so much faster than everyone else, and our coaches would say, "Why don't you let the grass grow up a little higher?" So a lot of times we'd say, "Yeah coach, we didn't mow it this week," and they'd believe you.
We had a soccer coach one time who wanted the field tight and fast. He'd say, "You need to lower the grass, you need to lower the grass. We want it really fast." So we mowed it twice at the same height we'd been mowing it at all year. And he said, "Oh, this is perfect!" It was just cleaned up a little nicer.
If I felt like there was a way to maintain a field to our advantage, I'd try to do it, probably. But I just don't think there is. If you're faster than me on a track surface, chances are if we're running in a cornfield you're still going to be faster than me.
GamecockCentral.com: People often talk about baseball being a sport where a little creative landscaping can go a long way.
Cox: I'd say if there was one sport where you could fiddle with the way you prepare a field, it'd be baseball and softball, and that all goes into the skin (dirt) of the field, not the grass. Our skin is the most maintenance-intensive area of everything we manage. That's because one, so much of the game is played on that skin. It's the most important part of a baseball field when you consider the plate and mound. They have to be prepared every game, every practice, and the infield area has to be cleaned to get good bounces, good hops.
If there is such a thing as a groundskeeper being romanticized, it's in baseball. You go back and look at some of the names through history, some of the names which most people have never heard of, such as the Bossard family with the Chicago White Sox. That family has been maintaining that field since the 1930s.
So some of the things you can do is if you're playing a team that's fast, that likes to steal bases, you keep the infield a little softer around first base so they can't get as good a jump. You can use moisture, dig it up a little bit.
In front of home plate, Coach Tanner was always real big on the fact that he didn't want any high choppers. If there's a ball that hits in front of home plate, it needs to die. So that was the one area with Coach Tanner we made sure to take care of, and I'm sure coach (Chad) Holbrook will be the same way. Their thinking is, if you get a ground ball, the pitcher has done his job. You don't need it to hit and bounce out of the infield.
We made sure we kept that pretty soft for him. When one did get out, we'd definitely get the look from Coach Tanner from that top step. There have definitely been a couple of occasions, especially when we were back at Sarge Frye Field. We had a little area where the grounds crew sat behind first base on the right field line, and I remember specifically it was a Tennessee game, one of the last years at the Sarge, and they had a couple of speedy guys, slappers, and they hit a couple. There was one that hit in front of the box and went right over the third-baseman's head, and Coach Tanner came out to the top step, looked at us and raised his arms with the "What was that?" look, and we kind of hung our heads and wanted to hide.
That's baseball, it happens in the big leagues on down. When you get a bad hop, people blame the grounds crew, for instance. I was watching a Major League game the other night and there was a bad hop. I saw the shortstop looking off to the side of the field, and I knew there had to be a grounds crew member over there somewhere getting the evil eye. Because you know, shortstops never make a bad play.
The other thing in baseball is if you're a good bunting team, you might slope the baselines down toward the infield - or at least have it flat - so bunts stay fair. Sometimes you'll see bunts starting to go foul, then get to the baseline and kind of curve back fair, and everybody is laughing about it because it's so obvious. You can really change the slope of baselines, though most will slope slightly away for drainage purposes.
GamecockCentral.com: Do you feel like you've ever had an impact on the outcome of a game?
Cox: In nearly 15 years of being involved in athletics in field management, I can say I've never been involved in the outcome of a game, and that's a good thing. Our goal is to be unseen and to not have an impact either way. I think about it all the time, "Let's not be the reason something bad happens." We're like the offensive line; you only get publicity when something goes wrong. First of all, safety is the biggest thing, then secondly, we want it to play well. Thirdly, we want the field to look nice.
GamecockCentral.com: The closest most of us get to what you do is that brief feeling of satisfaction when you finish cutting the grass on a weekend and the lawn looks perfect - at least for a couple of days, anyway. You must get that feeling all the time, right?
Cox: That's one thing that drew me to this industry. I'm not as hands-on as I was 10 years ago, but there are still some things I do that I don't let anyone else do. I think at the end of the day, it's really neat. There's nothing better to me - I'm a football guy, that's my sport, and I love making a football field look nice - than that Saturday, when you're done mowing and painting, before the carnage, to sit back and look at it and it looks really good. It's cool to know we did that. We made that happen.
That's what drew me in when I started, and it's still that way for me to see people come through the portal and see the field and admire it. I know that once the game starts, nobody cares - I don't, even! But before that, it's nice. You want that presentation to be the best it possibly can. It speaks to how you approach everything else related to it.
GamecockCentral.com: Besides both going to N.C. State, both you and Ray Tanner also grew up in the same area in North Carolina and actually went to the same high school, correct?
Cox: Yep, the South Johnston Trojans! I grew up near Benson, in the Smithfield, Four Oaks area. Coach Tanner grew up in Benson, and I grew up about 20 miles from there. Every once in a while I'll see people who went to high school with Coach Tanner and I'll pass it along to him. It's been a lot longer he's been away from the Trojans than me!
A lot of people assume because of that connection and the N.C. State connection that we've known each other for a long time, but really I didn't know him until I got here.
GamecockCentral.com: What's your relationship like with Steve Spurrier? Does he have any input for you or advice?
Cox: He's like he is with his assistant coaches; he lets you do your job. My approach is "No news is good news." If he's happy with what we do, I'm happy. If there's a problem, he will let me know about it and we'll address it, but he's been great. People always ask me, "How's Spurrier to work for?" I say, "He's awesome. He lets you do your job." And I'm lucky, he's that way and all of our coaches are that way, from soccer, softball, everybody. They appreciate what we do, that we're all trying to accomplish the same goal: to be the most successful we can be at the University of South Carolina.