Tennessee Turfgrass Association – Interview with Tom Samples Professional of the Year, Dr. Brandon Horvath
The Turf Zone: Welcome to the Turf Zone. In this issue of Tennessee Turfgrass, we’re talking to Brandon Horvath, recipient of the Tom Samples Professional of the Year Award, Associate Professor of Turfgrass Science at the University of Tennessee. Good morning Brandon.
Brandon Horvath: Good morning Julie, thanks for having me on.
TTZ: Thanks so much for taking the time. First of all congratulations for being honored by TTA for the Tom Samples award. I think our members would love to hear a little more about you and all the things that worked together to help you be honored in that way.
BH: Well, it’s interesting because one of the things that I really love about finding out that I had been given this award is that I didn’t know about it ahead of time. One of the things that happens too often in places like the university or organizations is that people will say that, “It’s about time that you win this award, so we’re going to nominate you. Would you mind filling this out or sending us this or whatever form it is to get you nominated for an award?” And one of the things that’s really cool about this award is you don’t know about it until it’s already been given, so it comes as a surprise, which I think is a really cool thing. It’s, in my opinion, the way all the awards should work, so that was really humbling to be told that I had been given this award, not just because of the award but because of the fact that it’s named after Dr. Tom Samples, who is a friend and a colleague, a mentor. He’s one of those guys, he’s one of the nicest human beings that I know, so to be mentioned in that same air is very humbling.
TTZ: Absolutely, I know that Dr. Samples has been a mentor for so many in the industry and I’ve never heard anybody talk about him who wasn’t just a big fan. I personally did receive a Tom Samples bobblehead. I think that award should come with the Tom Samples award. Did that happen, or no?
BH: I have a box full of them in my office that I’m allowed to give out, so I might give myself another one. The real keepsake is a bobblehead that you get that is signed by the man himself. That’s not as frequent, but it is cool and it should come with the award, you’re right.
TTZ: Let’s go back to the beginning and talk a little bit about how you got into the turfgrass industry and how you ended up where you are today at the University of Tennessee.
BH: My first exposure to turfgrass I would say was when I was a young man, probably 14, I think. I had been playing golf or exposed to golf since I was eight. I went and played with my dad and I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, a small town just about 25 miles north of downtown Cincinnati, a little town called Mason. They had a golf course that hosted the LPGA Championship for a number of years in the 70s and 80s, and I believe into the early 90s. We lived right adjacent with that golf course, we didn’t live in the community with the golf course, but just adjacent to it. I was around the golf course all the time, I would find golf balls and sell them back to the golfers to make some money in the summer. All those kinds of things that come with being around a golf course. So that was my first exposure and then I went to high school, graduated high school and I tried out for my golf team, but I wasn’t good enough and that was okay. But when I went to college I was going to be a pharmacy major and I was in pharmacy for two years at Butler University.
When I was in pharmacy my sophomore year, some of the guys in my fraternity house were on the golf team and we would go out and play golf and I would beat them. They asked me why I wasn’t on the golf team and I said because I’m not that good. They commented that, “Well, you’re beating us, so why wouldn’t you want to try out for the team?” So I decided that summer that I was going to try out for the team, so I had to get my game in shape. I tracked down the golf pro that, many years ago, had given me my first five lessons that my dad got me as a birthday or a Christmas gift. I think it was a Christmas gift. I tracked him down because I figured if somebody was going to teach me, I wanted the same person teaching me. And he happened to be, ironically, at Spring House Golf in Nashville where the Gaylord Springs Golf Course is today. I called him and told him I had however much money in my pocket, it was seven or eight hundred dollars, I think. I said I’ve budgeted out and I can come down for three days, and depending on what you charge, I’d like to get some lessons and try to get better, I want to make my college golf team.
He had me come down and I’m pretty sure, thinking back on it now, when he asked me where I stayed the first night, that I stayed in a not so good part of town in Nashville. Because that afternoon he told me that he had an extra room in his house, he had talked to his wife and I was just going to stay with them the next couple of days, and to check out of the hotel, so I did. At the time, he never said anything about it. Thinking back, kind of knowing where I stayed now, I realize that maybe that wasn’t the best part of town and maybe he was like, “Oh boy, I don’t want to be responsible for this.”
I got lessons, his name was Robb Lent. He passed away all too early from colon cancer. I got these lessons and he encouraged me and he said, “What you need to do is you need to go back and work on your game every day, all summer, until you’re ready to try out.” So I figured the best way to do that was to get a job at a driving range or a golf course, so I got a job at this local driving range down the road from my house and it was there that I met a golf course superintendent. He was an assistant superintendent at Kenwood Country Club in Cincinnati, and he would come in in the evenings and hit golf balls and we got to chatting. At the same time what had transpired was my parents had told me that I needed to consider transferring to Ohio State University because they weren’t sure that they could continue providing for my education at a private school like Butler. So I had two choices – I could either go back to Butler and they would pay what they could afford to pay that was in line with what the tuition was at Ohio State or I could go to Ohio State and they would continue providing for my education. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but I figured out that no debt was better than some debt, so I transferred to Ohio State and in the process of doing that, there was a question about whether there would be seats open for me to be in the pharmacy class. It’s kind of like a medical school situation – if there’s no seats available in your class, you have to wait until there’s an open seat if you’re trying to transfer in.
I was trying to think about what else I might want to do with my life and magically I met Marcus Lucinak, and Marcus was this assistant superintendent that, he just casually said, when we were talking about all this, that “Well, if you like science and math and chemistry and stuff, and you like golf, you’d love what I do.” He invited me to come to work with him one day and so I did. Of course, I chuckle now because we got the crew set up in the morning and they were off doing their jobs and we were riding around, kind of checking on them and then went to the clubhouse and had breakfast. I had never been at a private club before in my life and it was so nice, the golf course was incredibly nice. We had this nice breakfast on fine china, then we go back out and check on the crew and ride around some more and we’re talking about things on the golf course and he’s explaining certain things about it. We go back in and have lunch the clubhouse, and I was like, Man, if this is what this guy does, I’m in – this is great, right? There was no going in the stream banks to weed eat anything or any of that kind of stuff, it was just all kind of a tour, really, and I was hooked.
So I went home and proudly told my dad that I was going to change my major to agronomy, which I did. But when I told my dad, it was a scene like straight out of Caddy Shack. He’s like, “You’re gonna do WHAT? I’m gonna pay for school to do what? What is that, anyway?” I said, “Well, in its pure form, it’s farming.” He said, “So I’m gonna pay for you to go learn how to farm?” And it was just this disdain and it took about a week or two weeks and he ended up having an appointment with his physician for something with his health and they were talking, and the doctor, who was also my doctor, he asked about me and my dad told him that “He’s going to go to Ohio State and he’s thinking about doing this thing called agronomy and doing something with golf and golf courses, something about a golf course superintendent.” The physician said, “Well, we pay our golf course superintendent almost $100,000.” And immediately it was, “Great choice, son, way to go, this is great, chase down your dreams.” He’s gonna be 84 this year in November and he tells the story now, of course, as “I told my son to find something he enjoys doing and to live out his dream and he’s doing it.”
TTZ: That’s good revisionist history right there!
BH: Yes, it’s always that. See, I have this theory that whatever age you leave home, is the age you remain in your parents’ eyes. My dad will still call me, I’m 47 years old, he’s gonna be 84 and he will still call me and tell me about the weather on the trip up. I’m like yeah, okay, I’ve been driving for a while now Dad, I’ve driven all over the place and I get that you’ve traveled a lot too, but I think I’ve got this. Or if it snows – “You know the roads are going to get slippery, I don’t know that you have a lot of experience.” I’m like Dad, I spent 10 years in Michigan. I’m okay, I think I’ll be okay. It’s funny how that revisionist history works with parents. But that’s how I got into turf.
After doing the agronomy thing at Ohio State, I knew that I wanted to be… I was interested in being a golf course superintendent, but I got into the science side of things and was really intrigued by the research. I was intrigued with that when I was in pharmacy too. I had already started talking to some of my professors at Butler about what grad school was about and if I could get a Ph.D. in pharmacology or medicinal chemistry or stuff like that, and so I was interested in a lot of those kinds of things already, so when I started talking to Karl Dannaberger about going to graduate school, he mentioned a couple of places, so I interviewed at Illinois, then I interviewed at Michigan State. At Michigan State, I interviewed with Dr. Joe Vargas. Joe, at the time and even today, is one of the preeminent turfgrass pathologists around the country, around the world. So the opportunity to go work for somebody of that stature was a pretty heady thing for this young undergraduate that was just finishing their degree. I jumped at the chance and took advantage of it, then I went and got my Master’s and Ph.D.
TTZ: You did both of those at Michigan?
BH: At Michigan State – you’ve got to be very careful, Julie.
TTZ: Michigan STATE. But Ohio State to Michigan State — that’s not as big of a conflict as Ohio State to Michigan… am I getting that right?
BH: Oh yes, it’s nowhere close to as bad.
TTZ: Ok, I’ve got that right at least.
BH: That’s right. The way I always describe it is that I got my Bachelor’s at the Ohio State University and my Master’s and Ph.D. at Michigan State University, which makes me the archenemy of the Wolverine. Michigan State is the in-state rival, of course, and Ohio State and Michigan is a storied rivalry, though I do tend to agree with Mike Greenberg that last year after Ohio State beat Michigan, he had a post that he said, “A hammer and nail have a relationship, but not a rivalry,” and I tend to agree with that.
TTZ: That’s fair enough. That is absolutely fair. So the path from Michigan State to the University of Tennessee, what did that look like?
BH: I finished my Ph.D. and at the time, we were kind of just post 9/11, the economy was okay, but not great, and there were only a handful of positions in academia for turfgrass. I came in second twice in two interviews over a year and a half. During that time, my now wife, who she and I both had been previously married and divorced, early on into our relationship, she was a breast cancer survivor already, still relatively young. They detected some cancer cells in her blood, so they wanted to do another round of chemotherapy. So in the process of doing that, I decided to stay at Michigan State while she completed her treatment because we weren’t going to go somewhere for me at a small salary and get away from her oncologist and the job she had at the university, which was a residence hall director, so we actually lived in the residence hall for about three years.
So we stayed at Michigan State and I worked part time in Dr. Vargas’s lab, continuing the research that I had been doing and looking at some different, new things. I also worked part time at the university golf course, so I would go over in the morning, 5:30 or 6, whatever the start time was, I’d mow greens or drag fairways or whatever the job was that I was assigned, then I’d do two or three other things, then I’d get done around 11:00 and go grab some lunch and go over to the lab and work in the afternoon. Joe was always gracious to keep me on the payroll during that time, which I very much appreciate.
Then in 2005, we had an international meeting in Wales. The International Turfgrass Society had their quadrennial meeting and I knew that if I wanted to remain current, I needed to really stay visible and keep at the craft of doing science. So I put together a paper and submitted the paper and got it accepted, so then in 05, with the help of my parents – my dad had some frequent flier miles saved up from many years ago, so he used a bunch of those to help me get my ticket to Wales. Then I had another job on the side that I earned money basically to pay for the trip, so then I went over to Wales and presented my paper and it was at that meeting that I was at a social event with Mike Goatley and Erik Ervin and they told me about this opportunity that was coming open at Virginia Tech. They really wanted me to apply for it, that I would be perfect for it. So if I hadn’t gone to that meeting, I might have still found out about the job, but having had that personal connection with Mike and Erik, I think helped my chances. I still had to obviously give a good interview and be the right person for the job, but it really helped my chances that I knew that this job was coming open and I’d already started preparing for it.
I applied for that job, got that job and started in 2006. From there, I was there for three and a half years. While I was there I was at a research station in Virginia Beach, and one of the things that I realized very quickly upon arriving was that I was kind of by myself, I wasn’t around colleagues that had similar – I shouldn’t say similar interests, because there were other pathologists and stuff that worked on ornamentals—but there weren’t any turf people there. So I didn’t really have anybody to interact with directly on my research in my plant system. So it was an academically lonely environment. The work environment at the research station was very different than the tempo that you experience when you’re on campus and I really missed that. Like I said, I lived in a residence hall with my wife for three years, so you get used to kind of a tempo of doing your work and living your life and it all kind of blending together and you just go back and forth from work to life to work to life wherever it’s convenient. We talk so much about work/life balance these days and to me that’s the best part of this job is that you have work/life balance in whatever form you want to have it because you can just meld everything together into one.
So I was at that research station and I really wanted to be back on campus. The opportunity here at the University of Tennessee opened and I applied for it, interviewed and got the offer and was able to say yes pretty quickly and come over here and be on campus with colleagues that were of similar mind and similar interest and that’s been an incredible thing for me as a person and as an academic.
TTZ: Well I can personally vouch for campus life at UT, I’m a Vol for Life. So I love that happy ending, that was really lovely.
BH: Oh, for sure. This was one of those things where having the opportunity – when I finished my interview, John Sorochan and I went to grad school together at Michigan State—when he dropped me off at the airport, I remembered reading books about job interviewing back in the day and then talking about how you have to ask for the job. And I remember him dropping me off at the airport and him saying, “Well B, I’ll see you later,” and I said, “Look, you and I are friends and you’re going to have to do what’s best for the program and I get that, but I want this job.” I would like to think that that helped push me over the finish line.
TTZ: So you’ve been involved with a lot of education and industry growth opportunities with TTA and with the UT group in leading educational conferences and seminars and field days. Tell me how that complements the work you’re doing at the university within the industry.
BH: One of the things that’s really important in doing what we do as a faculty member, as an academic, is that we’re expected, our primary expectation at the University is to conduct research and publish that research. Then of course being at the University of Tennessee, which is one of the great land grant institutions in the country, the third prong of that is to conduct outreach and extend that learning to the community surrounding the university. So we spend a lot of time focusing our efforts on doing research that’s going to ultimately be important for the people here in the state of Tennessee. And for us in turfgrass, that’s working with TTA and the various chapters of the GCSA here in the state along with the other groups that are associated with lawn care and things like that, Parks and Rec. We host things like Field Day, which is always a popular event. Dr. Brosnan is the organizer and puts it on. I speak every year about my research trials that I’m doing and it’s really to extend that knowledge that we’re learning in that specific year, even, to help the folks that are growing turfgrass around the state of Tennessee.
So we spend a considerable amount of time and effort making sure that the work we do is going to be applicable to the problems. The thing that often gets missed in that equation is the other side and that is that it’s really a two-way street because it’s not just us sending knowledge out to the people in the community and in our industry, it’s also the questions that get raised by those people in our industry about why is this happening or why do we see this or that disease seems to be harder to control these days or gosh that weed is more difficult to control when I spray it. Those are the kinds of questions that come back to us and generate research ideas for us. So it’s as important for us to extend our knowledge to the industry, but it’s equally important for us to have a dialog with our friends in the industry to understand what their problems are and what things they’re wondering about, then come back and do the scientific research that’s needed to show why disease X is occurring more readily or whatever the case may be. It really helps inform our research agenda to be able to have that dialog with the industry so it’s a critical part of the industry. In fact, at the University, my appointment is teaching and research. So I’m expected to teach and I’m expected to conduct research. The extension piece is kind of unspoken for, but because of the way our industry interacts and because of how important it is, it’s something that I give equal importance to, even though I’m technically not expected to do that. I look at it as that I couldn’t do the research that I do without doing the extension that I do.
TTZ: Keeping that two-way communication open, what do you feel like is the biggest challenge for turfgrass professionals in Tennessee right now?
BH: I think in the broader scope, the biggest challenge is certainly labor and labor availability. I don’t know how much a turfgrass pathologist at University of Tennessee can solve that aside from coming up with ways to more efficiently make applications, or things like that. That’s a challenge that I think has to be addressed more broadly, but I will say that one of the things that we’ve done to try to improve the labor situation is that we’ve focused a lot of our efforts on recruiting and retaining quality students in our program. We’re one of the few programs in the country that has actually in this last 7-10 year period where most programs have dramatically declined. We saw that decline coming and really got proactive and developed a recruiting strategy to make our degree program more obvious, or expose students to the fact that, kind of like I was saying in my story of how I got into the industry. That’s a very traditional story, if you talk to people around the industry, how they got into this industry, it revolves around that type of story – I met somebody, found out I could do this and I love it. Well, the thing is, when I was a kid, you were working in high school, and you might work on a golf course and find out this is a deal. But now with year-round sports and some of the other things, we don’t see our young people working in businesses like golf courses and things like that as often, so they don’t find out about it. There’s still a handful of them that do. But in order to maintain a robust program, we found that what we need to do is go where the kids are and that means that we try to expose them to what the opportunities are in this industry by showing up to sporting events and giving them presentations at high school career days or having them come here for a field day in their science class and talk to them about the career opportunities that are available.
Just as an example, this past year – I’ve done it for two years now – I speak to the 8th grade science classes at Gibbs Middle School and last year, I had a young lady, I was talking about invasive species, not even on turfgrass, but I was giving a presentation about invasive species for their unit on ecosystems and plants that are invasive. I had explained what I did for a job and what it was like, because it’s a great opportunity to expose people to this industry and I had this young lady come up to me and ask me if I worked on D1 softball fields and I was like “Division 1?” and she said yeah, and I said, “Yeah we’re division 1 and we have people that work on the softball fields that are in turfgrass.” She was like “That’s awesome, I love to play softball and I love working on my field. I’m going to do that, that’s what I want to do. I know it now.” I was like “Okay, I’ll see you in four years.” So just those opportunities to recruit students so that they know one of the biggest problems that we found with our industry is that most people don’t know the level of science and technology that goes into producing high-performance surfaces, whether you’re talking about a sports surface for an athletic field or whether you’re talking about a golf course surface like a putting green. They just don’t understand or know how much science and technology is involved with doing that.
You hear all the time, and we kind of have a joke amongst ourselves here, that we title “It’s kind of like that” because you’ll hear people say “Well I have a really nice lawn, I could take care of Neyland Stadium.” And it’s like well, it’s kind of like your lawn, but it’s different, and no, you couldn’t, right? But people just don’t have an appreciation so much for the level of professionalism that’s present in our industry and the education that’s needed to really produce these high-quality surfaces that so many of the folks in our industry produce. So that’s an area that we’ve addressed, this labor issue, with trying to recruit students into our program so that we have people to place into these opportunities.
That’s a big challenge for the industry overall and then as far as in my area of disease management, I think the biggest issues are effectively using the products that are on the market to control disease and understanding how to use them appropriately so that we don’t end up with fungicide resistance issues. Then understanding the biology of the organisms that cause damage on the grasses that we grow. Here in Tennessee we can grow, to quote AJ Powell and Dr. Sorochan, who took it off of Dr. Powell, “We grow all the grasses equally poorly,” so we’re really at the edge of the adaptation envelope for any of the grasses. If you’re using a warm season grass, it’s at the northern end of its adaptation and if you’re using a cool season grass, it’s at the southern end of its adaptation. Anytime you push a species into that kind of edge condition where it’s struggling to survive, that’s where all the pathogens and all the other things cause problems, so it’s a really great place to study those diseases and understand what’s going on and how we can go about fixing it. I did my Ph.D. work on dollar spot, which is a big disease on golf courses particularly, but on many grasses. I’ve had students work on it over the last 10 or 15 years off and on. It’s kind of one of those pet projects that I’ll keep for my career, but the most recent work that we’re doing is we’re actually looking at wavelengths of light to control the disease rather than a chemical. That’s really interesting, the idea that you could go out and “spray” your putting green with light, rather than with chemical would be pretty landmark stuff. So it’s those kinds of things that keep the academic juices flowing, is coming up with ways to solve problems in unique and innovative ways that address real problems and challenges that the industry faces.
TTZ: I’m going to just shift right out of professional mode, no great transition, but I’ve gotta ask you, how’s that golf game look now after all these years?
BH: Well, I’m struggling with a back issue right now, which is frustrating because it’s not going away and when I went in to see the doctor, he agreed that—it’s a condition called spondylolisthesis and for not boring our listeners, it’s basically where the bottom vertebra of my lumbar, lowest section of vertebra, the vertebra has slid forward off the tailbone about 45%. As you get a little bit older it starts to pinch nerves. It happened, according to the doctor, a long time ago, but it’s stable and all that kind of thing, but it involves doing PT to strengthen everything and I’ve been doing that and that’s been helping quite a bit and I asked him if it was surgical, and he said oh, it’s 100% surgical, it’s just going to involve a spinal fusion. It happened that I was in the doctor’s office the day after Tiger had won the Masters and of course Tiger had several back surgeries and a spinal fusion. I said, “Well, Tiger had a spinal fusion and he just won the Masters.” And the doctor looked at me down to the toes and all the way back up to my head and said, “Well, you’re not Tiger Woods.” So as far as my golf game goes, it’s a work in progress, but I’m carrying between a five and a six handicap pretty steadily so I’m doing okay and I enjoy playing and really enjoy seeing courses all over the state and all over the country and all over the world really. I’ve had an opportunity to go the last two years, and I’m talking to some folks about possibly going again this summer, to South Africa. I’ve been able to play some golf when I’ve been down there and see different ways of maintaining turf so that’s very exciting. I try to keep the game in shape, it just is a bit more of a struggle most recently than it’s been in the past. But hopefully those things are getting set to change and we’ll be back soon.
TTZ: That’s awesome. It’s good to hear that you still have time to get out and enjoy that. Last question: What would be your advice for people entering the turfgrass industry right now?
BH: Come to the University of Tennessee. We’d love to have you. I would say that the biggest thing in this industry that we tell our students all the time, you have to get experience and there’s so many great opportunities right now because of this labor crunch. We have students that we have maintained for the last 10 years, nearly a 100% placement rate of all of our students. The only students that struggle to find a job opportunity are those that are not willing to spread their net widely and go to different places in the country and the world. They decide that they have to be in this one little place where there’s only three golf courses or five turfgrass jobs and they’re all filled by folks that are 35 and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. That’s the only time that we have students that are challenged to find a job opportunity. Otherwise, if you’re willing to move and cast your net a little more broadly, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a job and the biggest thing then is for them to get experience.
So we push our students to get experience locally for sure, when they’re at home to always have a job over the summer on a golf course, on an athletic field, doing turf-based work. Then in their junior year, we have a thing called the spring block, which is a short semester and they get done in eight weeks with a full semester’s worth of work and then they go on a five-month long internship and it’s on that internship that we really push our students to spread their wings and get out of and away from home, which is a tough thing these days with our students. They’re much more likely to want to stay around home or close to home, but we really push them to go farther afield.
One of the examples I always use is, “So you say you want to be in the southeast for the rest of your life. Do you think water management is important in the southeast?” And the student will always reply, “Oh yeah, water management is really important. You know if you get things too wet, you get diseases and all that kind of stuff.” And I say, “Well if you go out to Montana, where it’s arid and dry and the only thing they worry about is moisture management and proper moisture management to grow high quality turf, what do you think you could learn from that experience that you could bring back here?” And they start to realize that it’s not about going to another area just to see a different area, or to see if they want to work in that area, but it’s that they can learn a skill and really hone a particular skill that’s going to end up paying off for them in the long run. We push them very hard to spread their wings and go farther afield, so for a young person coming into this industry, I think those are the key pieces – you have to get experience and you definitely need some form of education, we’d love to have you here. But you definitely need to get some form of education in order to advance in this industry.
And then finally I’d just say that the other thing that we don’t do a very good job of in our industry and we’ve started to do better, I think, is we’re very quick to pooh-pooh the jobs and the career that we have to offer, and say “Oh, well you don’t want to do this job. It’s long hours and you just don’t want to do this job.” And that discourages young people from wanting to get into our industry, so it’s really important that even if you’re having a day where it’s long hours and you feel discouraged, don’t discourage a young person from considering this job as a career because those kinds of conversations end up pushing people away and then we find ourselves in the labor crunch that we find ourselves in right now where we’ve pushed enough people away that it’s hard to fill all the jobs that are available out there.
TTZ: That’s great advice, Brandon. Thank you so much again for joining me and congratulations again on being recognized for the Tom Samples Professional of the Year Award.
BH: Thanks very much, I appreciate it. It’s great to have a conversation with you and chat about turf. Like I said earlier, I’m very humbled to have been selected as the Professional of the Year, especially in association with Dr. Tom Samples. Thank you again and I look forward to seeing you down the road somewhere.READ THE ISSUE