Mississippi Turfgrass – Julie Holt, Content Director, TheTurfZone.com
The Turf Zone: Welcome to The Turf Zone. In this episode of Mississippi Turfgrass, we’re talking Will Arnett, Director of Golf Operations and instructor at Lion Hills Club at East Mississippi Community College. Hi Will, how are you doing?
Will Arnett: Doing great, thanks.
TTZ: Thanks so much for joining us. We’re talking to you as a member spotlight about your background and what you do in the industry, so why don’t we start at the beginning and tell me a little bit about how you got into the turfgrass industry.
WA: I was a college student, ironically enough at East Mississippi Community College, playing baseball with no real plan of what to do with my life, other than I didn’t want to be inside the rest of my life. I happened to get a summer job after my first year of junior college, which would have been summer of ’89 at Mississippi State’s golf course for Mr. Tim Lacy. Tim kind of took me under his wing there. After that summer, he basically offered me an opportunity to come back the following summer. He talked to me about the turfgrass program at Mississippi State, which I had no idea about. I grew up in Starkville and had no idea about that program. So Tim presented that option to me. I went back and played baseball another year, came back and work for Tim again. At that point, I enrolled in the program there at Mississippi State. Like I said, Tim took me under his wing, gave me some direction on where to go. I started my internships and it just really took off from there.
TTZ: That’s a really interesting story – I feel like I hear that a lot from turfgrass managers. They really didn’t know that this was a career path and it was through sports or somebody that wasb working in that field that you learn – this is a job and you can be on a baseball field and actually working. Do you see a lot of that at the school, coming in, folks who have learned about this profession through sports?
WA: I think we see a lot of kids, predominantly kids that have been in athletics, for sure. I think that seems to be a path, somehow, someway – whether that’s they just wanted to be outside, or grew up outside, played golf, played baseball, whatever it may be. I think that is a direct path. I think you see a ton more, I know we do, and I think the industry does, a lot more students that are directed to the sports field industry. When I was in school, it really wasn’t a deal. Bart Prather that’s now the director of campus landscape at Mississippi State was really the first guy I knew that left college and went and did some stuff for the University of Arkansas sports fields. So it really wasn’t a thing when I was in school. It was really golf, golf, golf – only golf. But now you see a lot of kids that will come to do the landscape part and a whole lot that are really coming to do sports turf. Which I think is flooding the market. We have trouble fulfilling all the job requests we get and I think a lot of that over the last 5-6 years, with the craze of travel ball and municipalities building better baseball complexes and soccer complexes, you’ve got a lot of students going into that side of things. It’s definitely a path that you see kids that are athletic, that have been playing sports come to.
TTZ: Absolutely. Do you feel like the demand for golf and lawn and landscape sectors of the industry are getting what they need as far as labor and kids coming out of school?
WA: I think so, and I’ve seen an uptick in that. I think we went through, obviously as everybody did, some downfall from some recession type issues, that the golf industry was not as strong as it would have been back in the ‘90s and early 2000s. But I do see that ticking back up. You might see schools don’t have maybe quite the enrollment numbers that they used to. At least the larger school, but here at the community college, we keep 20-30 students. I’ve been here three-and-a-half years now. We’ve got students, we’ve always got more job opportunities than students can fulfill. Those I talk to around the industry seem to echo those thoughts. So I think the industry as a whole has gotten better and there are plenty of job opportunities and we see more and more students, it looks like more job opportunities than students right now, which I guess is a good problem if you were a kid wanting to get in this field.
TTZ: When we talk about the challenges in the industry right now, certainly labor shortages come up pretty often. Aside from that, what do you feel like are the biggest challenges for the industry as a whole or just specifically for individual turfgrass managers?
WA: You hit the obvious one, that’s going to be it no matter the profession, when that drives 50% or more of your labor, your budget, then obviously labor is a big deal. But in this industry, it’s every-changing with new technology, new equipment, there seems to be something nice and new every couple of years that everybody wants to have. Then I would say more that I see down here in the south, where weed control seems to be almost impossible, just the demand for properties that have no weeds and the pressure that we have with weed control. There’s a lot of attention on weed control products – what to and how to control weeds like poa annua that are difficult to control, so that’s a huge headache I seem to deal with and fight and try to figure out how to do it. So after I get past the labor, that’s probably where most of my attention is. I was always under the impression and kind of brought through school that grass will grow itself. You know, don’t do too much to grass and it’ll grow. But you’ve gotta manage people and I think that’s still holds true today. It may be tougher to manage people today, no doubt. I think as individuals, as a country, as the labor pool has changed, we’ve had to adapt and figure out a different way to motivate and encourage employees to respond to a common goal and get things done. But that’s the biggest challenge. Then after that I’d probably go straight to weed control. If I can keep it weed-free, then maybe I don’t need to have as many employees. I tackle those two first, but weed control is a hard subject to deal with right now, finding what will work and how long it’ll work.
TTZ: Let’s go back a little bit. We talked about how you initially got into the industry. Once you finished your education, what was your career path like from there to where you are now?
WA: I had a ton of fun in school and saw a ton of places, just to start back there. Tim Lacy sent me to Chickasaw Country Club in Memphis, with Mr. Jim Harris, which was a cool experience. From there I worked with Tony Mancuso in Columbus, Ohio at New Albany Country Club, which was a new Niklaus project, which was neat. I ended up working for Robert Trent Jones in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That led to an internship at Augusta National. I finished school in ’94. The cool thing about those days, and I don’t think it’s required as much anymore, is we had to do a summer and fall and a spring internship, so you basically gave away at least a year of school, so it took a little longer to get through school, but we got to see a lot of stuff and see how a lot of different people do stuff, so that was a cool thing that I got to do back then that maybe people just don’t do as much today. So I left Mississippi State and went to Pleasant Valley Country Club in Little Rock, which was a 27-hole facility, private club. I went through a bentgrass greens renovations working for Greg Hanson, so I had a really cool experience up there for about four-and-a-half years. Then I got my first superintendent’s job at University Club in Baton Rouge, right around ’99 or so, right around the Y2K scare, so that was fun, starting a new job. That was a new project that had just opened, so I spent 4-5 seasons down there, then had an opportunity to come back to Starkville, which was home. I had a child that was born in Little Rock, a child that was born in Baton Rouge, and just growing up in Starkville and growing up around everything Mississippi State did, I always wanted the opportunity to be in Starkville. I had an opportunity to come back home to work the 9-hole course that was in some troubles, and had new ownership wanting to convert it to 18, so I came back home to Starkville in late ’02 to build another 9 holes and start a project up that was a facility that, ironically enough, is not open anymore, but that was a cool experience. I got to live on the golf course, had a house built on the golf course. Probably the most fun I had doing this type work. My kids grew up on the course, I could walk to work or take the cart to work. A really fun experience. My wife and I adopted a kid from Guatemala while we were there, so we brought a third kid into the family, which was super cool. So a real fun experience. That facility started to have some troubles as well, I had an opportunity to take a job at Columbus Country Club, so I did that for a few years. Then I had an opportunity to go back to Starkville Country Club, went from Starkville Country Club (4 or 5 years there), great experience, a lot of friends, a lot of people I really like and enjoyed working there. But then East Mississippi reached out, they had bought the old Columbus Country Club, ironically enough, so here I am again back at what was once Columbus Country Club, working for the community college. But my passion is really in students, from having internships with I was an assistant in Little Rock to having interns when I was a superintendent in Baton Rouge, to having Mississippi State kids by the dozen when I went back to Starkville. I’ve always enjoyed working with students, so this East Mississippi path gave me a direct relationship to doing that, so that’s probably a greater passion at this point in life than growing grass.
TTZ: I love that you had a really nice tour of the south before you landed back home. Have you been part of MTA for pretty much the duration of time you’ve been back in Mississippi?
WA: I stayed a member even when, at times, I was having to pay it out of my own pocket and probably had no money or at least felt like I did. I was a member of MTA through my times in Arkansas and Baton Rouge. It’s just a group of people that I wanted to stay around and be around. Some great guys at Mississippi State back in those days that have moved on or retired. From Dr. Krans to Dr. Goatley to Dr. Coats to Lester Estes. Some really cool guys, Jack Varco, just a lot of professors and teachers, and people that I got to be around – a group that I believed in and trusted. So I kept coming. I played in Dr. Coats’s golf tournament every year, regardless of where I was. I’ve always been involved in MTA, I would say since I was in college. I don’t know if they keep up with that membership line, but I’m sure it shows I’ve been involved since the early ‘90s, I would guess.
TTZ: That partnership, as an individual with the association, but then for you as an instructor – do you get a lot of good support from the guys at the university there?
WA: Yes, I would say absolutely so. And those people at Mississippi State have been great for this community college. I have a great relationship with and have had a great relationship with any of them that have come through there. There’s been some transition over the years, but right now my relationship with Dr. McCurdy is super. I trust him, we try to share ideas, share thoughts, we share some students here and there. We try to let those guys do some research over here at the golf course when they need another location and maybe something outside of where they do all their stuff every day. We partner with them to do that, so I would absolutely say that relationship with them, with MTA, with Mississippi State, with those in the state has always been super strong. Priorities change as you raise kids, you may not so as many events, and I think I probably went through that stage in life. I’ve got great friends that I went to school with, that I worked with, that I had as interns all throughout this state and really all throughout the southeast that it’s still cool to touch base with and reach out to guys that you’ve known for the past 30 years.
TTZ: That’s awesome. One thing I’m always surprised by is the emphasis on continuing education and certifications for maybe those guys who are not in school or fresh out of school it seems like there’s a lot of good educational opportunities for even folks who have been in the industry for 20 years or so, like you mentioned changes in technology and changing chemistry. Do you get to be involved in a lot of continuing education as well?
WA: I would say so. I think you’re exactly right. I hate to say I’m old, but I guess at this point I am. If you’ve been in it for 20, 30 years, that industry is changing so rapidly these days with technology that if you’re not plugged in and attending stuff, networking with people, I would think that you’d get lost pretty quick. I try to get out, we take our students to the Deep South Turf show in the Mississippi coast, which is a pretty cool experience for them, try to get them out networking and involved. It’s extremely important, I think really the value you get for what the industry does, especially locally, is really good. I try to support those guys as much as I can. Again, probably went through a life stage where I didn’t get out as much, running around chasing kids playing sports or whatever, but I would say that over the last 5, 6 years I’ve been plugged in to pretty much all that’s going. I think those guys at Mississippi State, from an extension standpoint, do a really good job. I think MTA does a fantastic job, then the Deep South Turf show and getting that partnership together has been really really good for the industry, I believe.
TTZ: You’ve mentioned a few times, you managed to raise kids being in the industry and I know that the balance of actually living your life and being dedicated to work can be kind of tricky with the demands, especially for golf and sports. Do you have any advice for the younger folks who are still trying to strike that balance and how to have a life and also have a career?
WA: Yeah, that’s a good one, that’s the biggest question. I am by no means great at it, and have by no means done a great job, but I do think I’ve always tried to keep a good balance. Anybody that thinks they’re going to clock in at 7:00 in the morning and clock out at 3:00 in the afternoon, it’s never going to be like that, so you have to have a great deal of passion for the business. If you’re married, you need a spouse that supports that, I’d say that’s really critical. But it is a demanding business, but it can be a ton of fun. My kids can reflect on growing up on the course and playing in the sand bunkers and riding on the golf cart. They all knew how to drive a golf cart by age 10. I probably shouldn’t say that, because I’ll probably get in trouble if people knew they were driving equipment. There’s some really fun, unique experiences that you get to have. At the end of the day, over some other jobs – I mean, I was at home every night. It may have been a late night, it may have been daylight to dark, but I was at home everyt night, I was with the family every night. I was fortunate enough that I never missed any events they attended. I could run and watch and go back to work. So while it is an industry that requires a lot of hours, I do think it can be a flexible industry that allows you to sneak away. Again, you’ve gotta – it’s all about people, and if you manage people and can get people motivated to do a job, I think you can get away and do some stuff, so that would be it. In this business, motivate your people to be really good when you’re away. Motivate your people to want to perform when you’re away and take time to be with family. I wouldn’t want to do anything that didn’t allow me to be around family. So again, I think it’s long hours, but I’m home every night, so that’s a tradeoff that people probably don’t look at. I’m not traveling all over the country each week, so I would do it all over again. If I had to do it, I’d do every bit of it all over again. I may would go do the sports field stuff just because I look at those things that the Brandon Hardins of the world do at Mississippi State and think that would be really cool, but nobody wants an old guy doing that, so if I did it all over again, I may be more sports field, but I love the industry and would absolutely do every bit of it all over again.
TTZ: Will, thank you so much for taking the time. It sounds like you’ve got a lot to offer and share with the young folks coming into the turfgrass industry and for keeping people coming in and addressing that labor issue. Thank for being part of the MTA and for taking time to talk to me today.
WA: Absolutely, thank you for your time and the opportunity, and yes, bring all the kids you can. That is a passion. I’m going to teach from real life experiences and I probably do that better than teaching from a book, but it’s all fun.READ THE ISSUE