Tennessee Turfgrass – Julie Holt, Content Director, TheTurfZone.com
Tennessee Turfgrass Magazine: How did you get into turfgrass management?
Ryan Storey: I loved baseball my whole life and played as long as I could until I figured out it wasn’t going to pay bills. I had a mentor back home in Bill Marbet, who got me into turfgrass. Once I found out I wasn’t going to play ball, he was like, “Well, you like working on ball fields, let’s see what we can do.” He had a contact down at Mississippi State and had a job lined up for me on the grounds crew. So I went to Mississippi for a four-year education in turfgrass management.
TTM: What was the career path, once you got out of school, all of those different jobs and moves, did you go in as a sports turf manager? How did you progress to get to where you are today?
RS: When I graduated from Mississippi State, I wanted to stay close to Starkville. I wanted to stay close to my wife (we weren’t married at the time), so I took a job at Ole Miss as the Assistant Sports Turf Manager doing all of their athletic fields and facilities. Once my wife graduated, we got married and she moved in and we hung around for a little while. She’d never lived further than an hour and a half away from home, so she wanted to get out and see the area and I told her to pick a spot and I’d see if I could find a job. She picked New Orleans and we moved to a nice little town just north of New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain called Mandeville. I was at a 36-hole country club with hydraulic irrigation in the deep south. It’s not fun, I don’t recommend it to anybody.
So we stayed there for two years and had a kid on the way. I grew up with grandparents and I wanted my kids to have grandparents. So we made the decision to either move back to Mississippi or back to Tennessee, and she said that Tennessee would work, so we moved back home and here we are.
TTM: So you had a period of time there that you were on a golf course instead of in sports turf. How was that different and what was your overall feeling about being in golf?
RS: It’s a lot of grass. 36 holes, like I said, with hydraulic irrigation. If you’ve never experienced working on a golf course, you need to just for your career’s sake, because you appreciate those guys a lot more. When you’re there when the sun comes up and you’re leaving when the sun goes down, you’re out and about with the members. It was a lot of grass, a lot of heights of grass. I’d never really worked on greens that much, I was always a sports turf guy, so getting that aspect of it can make anybody a better turf manager. Just having to fine-tune everything, trying to bring some of the golf agronomics over into the sports turf agronomics, it was an eye-opener for sure.
TTM: So let’s talk about your current job at Vanderbilt. How many fields and how many people are on your team? What does your standard work day look like now?
RS: Vanderbilt is unique in the fact that we don’t just do the grass things, we do the paved surfaces, parking garages, residential halls, a couple of off-campus properties. I have a crew of two guys who come in at night, they do our parking garages, help out where needed if we can get some stuff done at night.
Our main focus is our sports turf crew and we have four guys, plus myself. We have a synthetic football field, a synthetic baseball field, synthetic football practice field, a synthetic indoor facility, and one synthetic intramural field. Then our natural surfaces are a soccer/lacrosse stadium, which is a shared facility between the soccer team and the lacrosse team so that one never gets a break. Football has a natural grass practice field, we have our track infield, which doubles as a practice facility for soccer or lacrosse. Whichever sport is not in season, they go up there and practice. Then we have three natural grass intramural fields that we mow, line, paint and all that good stuff.
TTM: That’s a lot of shifting gears between artificial and paved surfaces and natural grass. Did you ever expect to have to wear all those hats?
RS: Not really. When we went out this morning, we had to paint a giant crosswalk in front of a main drive on campus while the kids are gone for spring break. Stuff like that pops up every now and then and we need help painting crosswalks or restriping a parking lot or we clean elevator lobbies in parking garages. It’s something different, something new, something I’m not really used to doing with a turf degree, but you know it’s part of the job and we’ll get it done one way or another.
TTM: How has this rainy spring shaping up for you on your natural grass fields? Has that been a challenge already this year?
RS: Yeah, the weather did have an impact already, with as wet as it’s been and as warm as it’s been, just trying to get out and make different applications, whether it’s pre-emerge or a fertilizer or herbicide, just to try to stay on top of things. Weeds have popped a little bit earlier than normal around here. We had to get rain suits on and line fields in the rain because there was a practice scheduled. It’s been a challenge, but I live in Nashville, Tennessee where there’s a lot of sports turf managers around and we all have to fight the same battles, so I’m not the only one.
TTM: How did you get involved in serving on the TTA board?
RS: Probably three years ago, Theo was the president and he came up to me and said, “We need some more sports turf involvement on the TTA board, would you be interested?” I said, “Sure, anything to keep turf relevant in middle Tennessee or the whole state for that matter.” I started out serving as a member on the board for two years and then this year, with the executive board having to switch around and move up, changing of presidents and vice presidents, I was nominated for secretary/treasurer. I don’t mind the position at all. Like I said, anything to keep sports turf and turf in general relevant and going in the state of Tennessee, I’m all about.
TTM: You mentioned Bill Marbet as someone who helped you get into the industry, but since then as you’ve grown and had different jobs in the industry, has there been anybody else that has been a big influence on your career path?
RS: I got my start with Bill, we went down to the SEC baseball tournament for 12 years in a row, starting in 2001. I got to meet a lot of guys that were in the industry, some guys weren’t in turfgrass, but going through that process helped me get one of my first internships that I did with the Birmingham Barons. At the time, Darren Seybold was the sports turf manager there, so I got to work under Darren for eight months. I learned a lot from Darren, with him being with the Houston Astros and the Dodgers, and he was at a golf course. Darren taught me a lot of things, he’s where he is because he was a great sports turf manager and a great boss. He’s very knowledgeable, he’s helped me along the way in my career path.
Bart Prather was the sports turf manager at Mississippi State when I was in college and I worked under him on the grounds crew. He kind of pioneered the way for me as far as, that’s the first football field I’d ever painted. I was always a dirt guy, coming from Bill, but when I got down to Mississippi State, he kind of brought the grass into it for me. A lot of hands-on, painting logos, painting football fields, mowing patterns, just an endless amount of knowledge when you work with somebody every day that has the knowledge and they’re willing to share.
TTM: What is your proudest accomplishment as a sports turf manager?
RS: I don’t know if I can say I accomplished it or not, but building a good enough relationship with Coach Corbin and our baseball team. They invited me out to Omaha, so I got to spend almost two weeks in Omaha watching College World Series baseball. We brought home the National Championship and that was good enough, but then to get presented a National Championship ring was even better. I know it’s not a whole lot of turf management, but my turf management accomplishments are not so much about fields and quality of grass, those are all important, but my biggest accomplishments, I think are building the relationships that I’ve built. Good ones, bad ones, they all come around and you make yourself a better person and other people better, just building better relationships.
TTM: What would your advice be for someone coming into the industry right now?
RS: When I was coming out of college and working my first job, you’re young, you think you know a lot or if not, you know everything. Just take a back seat sometimes. You can learn stuff from guys that don’t have an education, you can learn stuff from guys that have Ph.D.’s. Somebody is there, somebody will teach you something. It’s whether you have the ability and the knowledge to know when to be quiet and when to listen and learn things. Kids coming out think, “we’re going to come out making $60,000 out of college.” That’s not the case. We all had to start somewhere and most of us started at the bottom coming out of college and we worked our way up to assistants and superintendents and head sports turf directors, so just stick in there, it’s gonna be a grind. A lot of us made it through the recession when there wasn’t a whole lot of money moving around, so keep your head down and keep working and good things will happen.
TTM: As a part of the board, can you tell us about any goals or plans for the TTA in the coming year?
RS: Just trying to make the conference and trade show better every year. We’ve already had one meeting with the board of directors and everybody is excited and we’ve gotten good feedback from our last trade show. We’re trying to get some very knowledgeable and reputable speakers to come in and educate people. We want to increase the trade show with the newest technology that coming out, whether it be chemicals, equipment, fertilizers, just trying to keep up with the times because times in turf are moving fast. It seems like something new is coming out every day almost with technology, so if we can keep on top of that and continue the relationship building part like the Top Golf event we had last year, which seemed to be a hit. Maybe adding some more social events in there for guys to get together, maybe make some connections that they might have missed, just create some networking where people can talk about things.
TTM: I have to ask – with your busy work schedule and being on the board, I think a lot of turf managers, especially during this upcoming busy season struggle with that work/life balance, and I know you have a life and kids, how do you strike that balance and what do you do in your free time?
RS: My daughter does if you want to call it dance, it’s a little organized chaos, so I try to make all those that I can. I also coach my son’s Little League team, as well as soccer. I spend as much time with them as I can. I’m lucky enough, both my parents are still alive, so me and my dad, we’re actually heading down this Saturday to Birmingham to the BassMaster Classic. We both like to fish. He’s got the boat, so we’ll head down and visit an Expo down there and hang out.
We take the to my parents’ house every Sunday after church and they get to spend time with the grandkids. When I come home, I try to be home. I don’t try to be at work. Sometimes it’s inevitable, we’ve had some bad weather, a significant tornado came through town, so the phone blows up from time to time and you really can’t help that. But like I said, when you’re home, be home and enjoy it. Life’s too short to work every day.READ THE ISSUE