The Turf Zone: Welcome to The Turf Zone. In this episode of Tennessee Turfgrass, we’re interviewing Frank Turner, General Manager of Tennessee Green Lawn and Landscape and recipient of the Tom Samples Turfgrass Professional of the Year. Frank, thanks so much for talking to me.
Frank Turner: Thanks for having me, I appreciate the opportunity.
TTZ: Well, I’m going to just start at the beginning. Let’s go way back, and tell me a little bit about how you got into the turfgrass industry.
FT: Sure. I started when I was probably in high school, maybe after my senior year, I took a job at a golf course in Middle Tennessee, in Hendersonville. It was Bluegrass Country Club, and I’d played golf before, I enjoyed the game of golf, and it was just an opportunity for a summer job, so I took that after graduating high school. My freshman year in college I was planning to major in forestry, and noticed quite a few students in that program, this was the early 70s and I think everybody wanted to be in forestry, so it looked like the job market might not be that favorable after four years, so I decided to change my major and went and talked to the department head at UT and found out that they offered a program in turfgrass management and so I changed my major going into my sophomore year.
TTZ: And you had the privilege of having as your advisor Dr. Callahan, is that right?
FT: Yes, Dr. Lloyd Callahan was my advisor and I still remember speaking to him the very first time, asking him about job possibilities and what the program was like and he was my advisor throughout my four years at UT.
TTZ: So what happened after your studies at UT? How did you start actually working in the business?
FT: Again, Dr. Callahan was instrumental in pretty much all of the golf course jobs that I got after I graduated from UT, indirectly or directly. He had encouraged me to apply for a scholarship from the Georgia Golf Course Superintendents Association, which was the Charlie Danner Scholarship, and I was fortunate enough to receive that award. Charlie Danner was a golf course superintendent that was noted in the southeast. He was the superintendent at Richland Country Club in Nashville at one time. He was also superintendent at Capitol City Country Club in Atlanta, and he was noted at the time for converting bermudagrass greens to bentgrass greens, which is somewhat ironic in that now we’re converting bentgrass back to bermudagrass. I received that scholarship award and was asked to apply for the position of assistant superintendent at Capitol City Country Club in Atlanta and I took that job, was there for about two-and-a-half years before moving back to Tennessee and a superintendent’s position at Graymere Country Club in Columbia, Tennessee.
TTZ: And have you stayed in Tennessee since then?
FT: Yes, I was in Columbia for about six years. In October of 1986, I took the superintendent’s job at Cherokee Country Club in Knoxville and was there from 1986 to 1998. I’m thankful that I was given an opportunity with the Litton Cochran family here in Knoxville to form a landscape department and build that department, supervise that department and we maintained their properties. They were owner-operators of 31 McDonald’s restaurants in and around Knoxville, and we worked exclusively for them and within their company just maintaining their properties. And then in October of 2018, Mr. Cochran decided to retire, and he sold a number of his stores, but still kept nine of them. And so I had to make a decision what I was going to do next. Because nine stores was not going to keep myself, and four men that work with me, busy 40 hours a week. So Mr. Cochran and I talked it over and with his financial backing and his business and professional experience, we decided to form our own lawn and landscape company and we did that and we continued to maintain the nine stores that he currently still owns, and we have picked up additional commercial and residential accounts to build our business.
TTZ: So we’ve gotten to current day with your work in turfgrass, but I’ve got to rewind a little because something that I think you and Dr. Callahan had in common was a commitment to the TTA, to Tennessee Turfgrass Association. You’ve shared with me some information about the history of it, and I’d love to hear your impression of how TTA has grown and changed over the years.
FT: I have some great, great memories of TTA conferences and the association going back all the way to January 1981, which was my first TTA conference as a superintendent. In those days, Dr. Callahan was primarily responsible for the program, and we always had a great program, but one thing that was different from today is that we would have a banquet on either Monday or Tuesday night of the conference. Everybody would come, you’d wear a coat and tie, they would have a social hour, an open bar that everybody enjoyed for the hour before the banquet. We got to spend time with each other, and then we’d have the banquet. There’d be a few awards, not as many as there are now. Usually it was just a scholarship to a student, and I think they would announce the new board of directors, the new officers at the time. And then we also had entertainment after the banquet. There was all sorts of entertainment. There was an entertainment committee. There was one year there was a magician, one year there was a comedian. We had some country music and bluegrass performers come and entertain us. So it was always interesting and exciting to see who was going to be the entertainment for the night. Another thing that was interesting or different was that the major companies, like the Jacobsen distributor, the Toro distributor, some of the other bigger companies would have a hospitality suite somewhere in the hotel. In those days we were in the Roadway Inn, down on Briley Parkway. On one of the upper floors, some of these companies would have hospitality suites and instead of going out to eat dinner, which we do now a lot of times, everybody would just jump on the elevator and go up to the sixth floor or wherever the suite was, and they would have plenty of stuff to eat and drink and there would be people standing out in the halls, the doors would be wide open and we’d just have a great time at those hospitality suites. There might even be a card game going on in one of the other rooms. Everybody stayed right there and it was just a great time.
TTZ: Definitely those conferences have changed through the years, and certainly doing it virtually is a – we’ll call it new, necessary way of conducting the conference, but even if there are no hospitality suites and card games, we’ve definitely got some incredible researchers and educators coming into the conference. Is that something that you’ve been a part of helping develop for the association?
FT: You know, that’s probably been the biggest change in the turfgrass industry in Tennessee is how the University has built the turf program. When I was in school there, Dr. Callahan was the only professor and I think he taught maybe two undergrad classes in turfgrass management and there was one upper-level graduate course that was maybe a design course and that was the extent of it. Any other information we received was from the plant and soil science side, and we got good information, good knowledge, but it was never really directed at turfgrass management, it was more a crop science, you know weed science in soybeans, something like that. So when Dr. Callahan retired and Dr. Sorochan came on board, well actually even before that, when Dr. Samples came on board as an extension specialist. Again, Dr. Callahan was doing all things – in the university there’s research, there’s extension, and there’s teaching – those three branches, and Dr. Callahan was doing all three. He was teaching classes, he was conducting research, and then he was on call for extension. When people would call and ask turf questions, he would be the one that would field that. We got Dr. Samples in there to sort of take over the extension wing. And then when Dr. Callahan retired, UT hired Dr. Sorochan and he has just continued to build the program where now we have Dr. Brosnan with weed science, Dr. Horvath with pathology and diseases, and it’s just continued to grow and I’ve been amazed at how big. If you look at the field days, how many more people are attending field days and the number of sponsors, it’s just grown and grown, and I’m not that familiar with all the other universities in the country right now, but I would guess that Tennessee is probably one of the premiere universities in turfgrass management because of all the work that Dr. Sorochan, Dr. Brosnan and Dr. Horvath have done.
TTZ: In thinking about the changes you’ve seen in not only education, but in the industry in general, what would you say is the biggest change at large in the industry from the time you started managing turfgrass until now?
FT: Certainly one of the things is what I mentioned earlier, that when I was first getting into the industry, courses in the south were, I don’t want to say struggling, but most of the courses in the south at that time probably had bermudagrass greens and they were slowly converting to bentgrass greens, because at the time bentgrass was a superior putting surface. Now we’ve gone almost a full 360 and we’re seeing more courses go back to bermudagrass greens because they’ve improved the varieties. There’s ultradwarf varieties that have great putting qualities and so we’re seeing a change because of the—again even this transition zone where it’s difficult to grow cool season grasses in the summertime, it’s difficult sometimes to maintain warm season grasses in the wintertime, so it’s certainly a difficult place to grow grass. I guess you’d say that how the grasses have evolved, how the industry has found new products to help manage these different grasses, that’s the changes that I notice the most. Certainly another thing has been, when I think about disease management and diseases in particular. Again when I was first working on a golf course, bentgrass greens, you were concerned with brown patch and Pythium, that was the only two diseases you were concerned with. Well now there’s a whole host of diseases you have to be concerned with. I don’t know it they just evolved over time or what, but the superintendents today have to really be on the ball to manage these grasses both bentgrass and bermudagrass because things have changed. I don’t ever remember seeing spring dead spot in bermudagrass fairways, or large brown patch in bermudagrass fairways, that’s all new. So superintendents today have to figure out how to maintain those grasses and deal with those diseases. So that’s been the biggest change that I’ve seen.
TTZ: Absolutely, a lot of advances, but a lot of new challenges to overcome too. What would you say is the biggest challenge facing the industry right now?
FT: From what I’ve read, it appears to be that perhaps both universities as well as golf course and other people within the industry may be having difficulty with labor and manpower or getting students interested in that. Again, the whole industry is a very labor-demanding job, and I guess a lot of young people are not willing to put in that type of hard manual labor to do the work, so I would say that’s probably one of the biggest challenges facing the entire industry is labor in general.
TTZ: Let’s shift gears again – tell me, when you are not working, and participating in education and TTA events, what do you do outside of work?
FT: Now that I’m getting older, I like to just relax. I like to do nothing at all! When I want to really, I enjoy playing golf, I’m not a great golfer, I’m probably bogey golf, occasionally will have a good round or two. I’m fortunate, again, to work with Mr. Tom Cochran, who is an avid golfer and we’ve been on some great golf trips together, so that’s probably my biggest thing that I enjoy is playing golf when I get a chance to. I enjoy relaxing at home, my wife and I spending time together to go and visit – our sons are all three grown and out of the house – so we like to get an opportunity to go see them. Two of them live out of state and one of them lives in Nashville, so we like to go and visit them and spend time with family.
TTZ: I think that’s a great way to spend your free time, even if you’re not our golfing all the time. Receiving the Tom Samples Turfgrass Professional of the Year is a great honor and you’re certainly in good company among previous winners, can you tell me what that means to you?
FT: It really means a great deal for me. Just the fact that it’s coming from the Tennessee Turfgrass Association. I told you I’ve been involved in it for such a long period of time, and I’ve got so many great memories and I love attending the conference because I can get the opportunity to see friends that I haven’t seen in a long time. I definitely think that it was appropriate that it was renamed from the TTA Professional of the Year to the Tom Samples Professional of the Year. He’s done so much for this industry and I even look back of my notes, and I remember this as well. We, as a Board of Directors, decided somewhere around 1990 or 1991 to begin offering this award and I think Dr. Callahan was the first recipient and I’m not sure of the second, but I’m pretty sure Dr. Samples was the third recipient, and I know for a fact that I presented him with this award at the conference. He and I have been great friends ever since he was hired, he’s always been there to help you or assist you or answer a question. Just the fact that you try to call him right now, and he’s somewhere else. He’s always on the road, he’s always out helping somebody and he has been probably the greatest ambassador for the turfgrass industry in Tennessee that we’ve had.
TTZ: I love how that has come full circle from you presenting him that award on behalf of TTA years ago to you receiving the award now. Let’s close with – what advice would you give young people just entering the turfgrass industry now?
FT: Obviously, it’s not an easy job. I’m not sure it’s an old man’s job, it’s a young man’s job. But there are still people in our industry that are my age and older that continue to do the work. My advice to somebody coming in is to try to be sure that you make time to balance your life. It’s not all work. It can easily be 24/7 job if you let it. But I don’t think it has to be that way. I think you can balance your life where you’ve got time to spend with family as well as time to be at work. And you’ve got to be able to let that job go when you get home. You can’t carry it with you and I’ve always tried to do that. Some people might not agree with that philosophy. But I just think that you’ve got to work when you’re there, and when you’re finished, just let it go. There’s only so many hours a day, you can only do so much work and then you’ve just got to let it go. But that’s the advice I would give someone.
TTZ: So tell me what has been your favorite or most surprising thing about being in the turfgrass industry?
FT: The thing I value the most is the way members share ideas. If someone needs some help, at least from my end, I’ve always experienced this, I could call up another superintendent or another person in the industry and say, “Have you experienced this, have you dealt with it,” and everybody’s always willing to share information to help someone else. I remember when I first became a superintendent in Columbia, it might have been a year or two in, but the Jacobsen distributor in Nashville was having a customer appreciation day or something so I went up there from Columbia and I met a couple of superintendents from Clarksville, some people may recognize the names, others may not. One of them was Harold Franklin, he was the superintendent in Clarksville, I think he may still be a superintendent at a course, I believe he’s in Georgia, but I’m not 100% certain. The other individual that was a superintendent was Nick Nicholson, and most people will know Nick from his years that he spent as a representative at Smith Turf & Irrigation. When I met the two of them, I described the golf course at Graymere, which at that time, I think we had irrigation on maybe four fairways, it was a single-line, center-line irrigation with quick couplers and there just wasn’t a whole lot there and I was trying to grow bermudagrass, trying to get more bermudagrass establish the fairways and the two of them had similar situations at their courses in Clarksville, and they shared with me what they did in terms of aerification of fairways, how much bermudagrass seed they were putting down, when they put it down, what fertilizer they added, all this stuff and they told me all this and I was able to incorporate a lot of their ideas into programs I was doing at Graymere. That’s just one example of how people share ideas and are willing to help someone else down the road. So that’s the thing I value most in this industry.
TTZ: There are some fine folks in the turfgrass industry and in Tennessee for sure. Mr. Turner, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us and congratulations on being recognized.
FT: Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.READ THE ISSUE