On the first Friday night of every prep football season, fans peer down at the pure white yard lines, spaced evenly and, hopefully, painted as straight as possible. They stick out like sore thumbs on grass that’s just the right height and the perfect shade of green. No weeds are in sight, not even a dandelion.
Thoughts eventually drift to school pride, concession snacks and football in its purest form. But if spectators really stopped and slowed down to think for a second, they might just wonder: How did the field get to be in such pristine condition?
At least in Cullman County, look no further than the head coach, whose responsibilities extend far beyond X’s and O’s or Jimmys and Joes.
Wins? Those are certainly important. But so is field maintenance, which Holly Pond’s Mike Bates takes as seriously as anyone.
Bates is currently in the second year of his seventh stop on the head coaching circuit. When he jumpstarted his career at Marion County back in 1981, the green gridiron leader had no clue about all the additional duties involved with the position. These days, Bates has a much better grasp.
“They told me when I took the first job I’d have to drive a tractor and asked if I’d ever driven one. I said, ‘Oh yeah.’ To tell the truth, I never had,” he recalled with a laugh. “But I wanted that job. If that was going to keep me from it, I was going to learn real quick. I ran into a bunch of things to start with, but after awhile you learn how to do it.”
Fast forward 33 years, and Bates is a whiz in the upkeep department. He hasn’t had a choice everywhere he’s been except for St. Paul’s, which had a “field guy” to take the chore off his hands.
That’s left watering, fertilizing, poisoning, sodding and a host of other on-field tasks for Bates to tackle at Holly Pond. And then there’s the mowing itself, which, using a riding reel mower — the envy of at least one other county coach — takes about an hour and 45 minutes for the game field. Bates sets aside another hour and 20 minutes for the practice field and also tries to help out with the school’s baseball and softball fields whenever possible.
By mowing three times a week, Bates logs some serious hours on the Broncos’ grass-guzzling machine. So just how does he pass the time? Dreaming up unbeatable plays? Drawing up perfect personnel packages?
Mostly. But when he’s not thinking about how to steer Holly Pond football in the winning direction, Bates can’t help but nitpick at every little imperfection he comes across.
“A lot of times when you’re mowing, you’ll see weeds or something and say, “Gosh almighty, I’ve got to get that,’” he said. “But it is a good thinking time. If somebody doesn’t come by and bug you, it’s a good quiet time just to relax a little bit. I don’t mind it at all. I really don’t.”
Oftentimes, mowing is just the start for Bates. Fence lines have to be kept, the track has to be cleared of grass and goal posts might need painting. Then there’s the flip side of the football to-do list, which, on top of practices, games and scheming, involves opening the weight room early mornings and late nights, as well as washing and drying jerseys and practice clothes.
“It’s just a lot of stuff people don’t take into account,” Bates said. “I remember cleaning the toilet one time, and I handed the brush to a young coach I had just hired. I said, ‘You said you wanted to be a football coach. This is what we do.’”
Vinemont’s Alan Scott hasn’t been in the business nearly as long as Bates, but he’s already picked up a few tricks of the trade.
When Scott took over in 2011, he used a lot of fertilizer and, in turn, had to mow three times a week. A full three seasons later, he’s understandably tweaked his approach to strike a better balance.
“The longer I’ve coached, the more I’ve figured out if you don’t put out the fertilizer quite as early, maybe the month of June you won’t have to mow it maybe once or twice a week,” Scott said through laughter. “It’s something that I think about constantly.”
Scott preemerges (weed control) in the winter and part of the spring and has put the county coaches’ newly acquired verticutter to use this summer to open up soil in areas where grass has stopped growing. Next week, he plans to aerate the field and then eventually top dress it with sand.
“It’s enough to keep you busy,” Scott said. “Field maintenance is kind of the unsung hero. If you do a good job and stay on it, no one really pays attention because they expect the grass to be green. But if you slip up and don’t do something the right way, everybody’s going to know. You’ve got to stay on it.”
When Vinemont’s Bermuda grass is at its thickest, Scott is limited to slow speeds on his riding rotary mower. It generally takes him nearly an hour to finish the game field before moseying over to trim the practice field, too.
Like Bates, Scott thinks about football while riding around. Just as often, however, there’s another important sport at the school wrestling for the coach’s attention.
“Every time I mow my field, I can just imagine a track there,” Scott said. “You’ve got about an hour just to think about all the cool things you could do with a track here at Vinemont.”
Scott could go on and on about mowing and the like, but don’t even get him started on the Eagles’ sprinkler system.
“All the coaches that have to deal with that will tell you it’s not called irrigation — it’s called irritation,” the coach quipped.
There are times when Scott leans on his limited staff to share the workload, just as he had to endure as a longtime assistant before his promotion. When it comes down to it, though, Scott called field maintenance a “head coach’s baby” and compared it to his football team.
“When you step out there on that first Friday night in the fall, people expect it to look a certain way,” he said. “You just hope you do the right things during the summer to get it that way.”
West Point’s Don Farley has slowly but surely climbed the coaching ladder from the bottom to the top — “If there is a top,” he joked.
Farley was a do-it-all assistant at the middle school, junior varsity and varsity levels before serving six years as defensive line coach for Michael Simmons and four as defensive coordinator for A.J. Lamar. Each step up has come with increased responsibility, none more than his sudden rise to head coach last summer.
Farley felt ready for everything outside the X’s and O’s when he initially took over. Dealing with players and parents was a cinch. But the first time the sprinkler system went haywire? Now that’s a different story.
“I’m kind of learning as I go on that,” he said.
Farley and a group of kids and adults alike spent close to five hours one Saturday this summer replacing worn and torn sprinkler heads. Factor in the man hours, as well as the lime, fertilizer and hot ash Farley has laid down to ensure the field’s lushness, and the money spent on landscaping alone adds up pretty quickly.
“That’s one thing that people don’t really see is the time and effort that it does take,” he said. “It’s just part of it.”
Another part is pride.
West Point’s stadium is hard to miss from the main road, and many community members walk the track inside.
“I want them to see that there’s pride in the football field,” Farley said. “I want the kids to see it, and maybe it’ll carry over into everything they do.”
All the work he’s done over the years has turned Farley into a bit of a self-proclaimed “field nerd.” He stopped by the stadiums at Gulf Shores High and Robertsdale High during a trip to the beach in June and went out of his way to peek at Meek High when he went to the lake over the weekend.
“I just go check them out,” Farley said. “I don’t know, I just want to see how mine compares I guess.”
Perhaps the best local perspective on the fusion of coaching and landscaping comes from Mark Britton.
The only mowing Cullman High’s all-time winningest football coach does now is the practice field since artificial turf was installed as part of multi-million dollar upgrades were made to Oliver Woodard Stadium in 2010.
One of Britton’s favorite aspects of the relatively new digs is the permanent markings. At any time of year, he can use landmarks like hash marks or the top of the numbers to teach players where to line up or make cuts in the Bearcats’ spread attack. They’re a big help on defense, too.
“I enjoy the pleasure of having the turf field,” Britton said. “It’s been very advantageous for us as far as implementing things, especially with our young kids.”
Just because Britton has it made now doesn’t mean he can’t sympathize with his county counterparts. He cut his head coaching teeth at Fairview from 1998-2000 before accepting the same position at his alma mater.
And for the first nine years at Cullman, not to mention the many he’d previously served as an assistant, there was no artificial turf.
Just worms. Occasionally.
Around this time a couple years before the renovations, the team was sprawled out on the grass for stretches. As the players stood up, Britton couldn’t help but notice odd splotches on the back of several pairs of practice attire.
Upon further investigation, there was a growing population of armyworms. They were invading the football field. Liquid Sevin did the trick before it was too late.
“It was always something,” Britton said. “If you leave those things to go, they’ll eat your field up.”
There was many a Thursday night where Britton and crew were out till 10 or 11 at night painting the field. Even still, weather was always a factor. If it rained the day before or day of a game, there was a good chance Cullman and visitors wearing dark jerseys and pants would walk out of Oliver Woodard Stadium covered in paint.
The way Britton remembers it, his high school track coaches had it even worse. There weren’t permanent lines on the track at the time, so they had to chalk six or eight lanes around the quarter-mile oval.
“In baseball, you chalk the first- and third-base line,” Britton said. “My gosh, they’d have to walk a mile and a half, two miles to get everything chalked. It was unbelievable.”
It’s been 25 years since Britton broke in with Cullman head coach Dale Cook, who’d “let” his younger coaches take care of the mowing and other landscaping odd jobs. Britton fondly remembers the phrase Cook always offered to his assistants shortly after the Fourth of July, when football season was right around the corner.
“It’s time to quit worrying about the pasture and start worrying about the cows.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.