John Wagnon, CSFM
Athletic Field and Turf Supervisor
City of Franklin – Parks and Athletics
How long have you been with the City of Franklin?
Six years in September.
What was your career path before that?
I went to school at Tennessee Tech, where I graduated with a Turfgrass Management and Ag Business degree. While I was at college, their athletic fields were just being mowed with zero turns, so I began working with the Athletic Dept and started changing the practices while I was there. At first maintaining, and then at a higher level with the fertility, agromonics, and purchasing of reel mowers. While in school, I did an internship for the Titans for a year. Then when I graduated, I had the opportunity to work for the University of Florida. I got to learn under a great supervisor there. He was new there, revamping that turf program, so I got to learn a lot being hands-on with that. Then I was able to move back closer to home, where I worked for the Tennessee Smokies, which is the AA team for the Chicago Cubs, in Kodak, TN.
I also worked for the Univerity of Tennessee Athletic Department. Then I had another chance to come back even closer to home, and that was this job with the City of Franklin. I’ve also done some game day work helping out a good buddy, Thomas Trotter with the Nashville Sounds.
Did you always know this was what you wanted to do?
I started out in accounting. In high school I was always good with numbers and math. When I realized I’d be inside all the time in accounting, that is when I decided to swap. Since I was about halfway done with school, I was able to get a full Ag Business degree because I had all the business classes I needed, so those classes overlapped.
What is the scope of your work?
I’m pretty unique with City of Franklin. I’m just in charge of the athletic facilities – so inside the fences. I have a crew of six full time staff, but by the end of year another two will join. We have about 50 acres we maintain; 19 clay surfaces, 15 are baseball fields; four adult softball; six football fields, two get turned into lacrosse. Last year we had six clubs, including Franklin High School boys and girls lacrosse, use our fields as game fields.
I’m also unique in that we have an equestrian outdoor arena. Not only do I maintain your typical baseball/softball/football/lacrosse fields, we also maintain a 150×300 equestrian arena that’s got about five acres of paddocks around it that we maintain as well. We’re over all the daily tasks – fields mowed, edged, weed-eated, lines down on appropriate playing surface for that time of year. Also I make all the agronomic calls from writing fertility plans, scouting for pests, looking at short and long term projects, reviewing plans of future facilities that we’re building.
In addition to fields, we have basketball and tennis courts that we’re in charge of. We have a cricket facility coming and a brand new park that’s over 300 acres. In the next 4 years we will double our acreage. That’s exciting to watch. This project is currently wrapping up design and is about to go to bid. It will include two separate parks – a lake, multipurpose fields, walking trails, a dock, a pavilion, all-inclusive playground, tennis, pickleball, basketball, 10 rectangle fields for football, lacrosse, a new shop, naturalized areas. This is a massive undertaking and we hope to have it open in two to three years.
We also just joined a partnership with Franklin Special School District building a new baseball and softball field with cages, restroom, and concession and common areas that we will also be in charge of maintaining, which will be another 5 acres or so.
What is your day-to-day balance of office time versus field time?
When I first started, about 70% field, but now that we’ve got a really good crew that understands what’s expected from citizens and users, I’m probably 50/50, if not 60/40 field to office. It really depends on the time of year. I’m out as much as I can be spring through fall, but in winter, there’s a lot more office and maintenance work. I try to be out and involved as much as I can with the guys
What differences have you seen going from college and pro sports to a municipal and rec sports setting?
It’s a different mentality in professional or D1 college. Four fields was probably the least in that scenario, now were at 19 clay fields plus another six rectangle fields, so it’s a larger scale. We still try to keep those same qualities and looks as a college or professional field, but we also have to realize that instead of maintaining one field, we’re maintaining much more, so you’ve got to pick and choose without running guys in the ground.
There’s a lot more thinking ahead, looking at weather. A lot of times the weather is our best friend because that’s how we get breaks on the field. We can’t go put 19 covers out on the clays before rain. After a rain, you’ve got to let Mother Nature work to dry the fields out. That’s been a good learning curve, relying a lot more on Mother Nature to help you out instead of just killing yourself trying to get as much done. We’re being smarter with how we’re doing this because we don’t have the man power to do all that.
What is the best part of your job?
What I like the most is we still keep high quality fields, we’re still maintaining fields to the best of our abilities, but our weekend demand is not there. There’s only a select few weekends a year that were required to be here—major tournaments and anytime we have an equestrian event.
I like my guys to come to work, put in their 40 hours and then go home and be away from work. I’d say the best part is that work/life balance, where we don’t go from just one sport to the next like you do in college, and we don’t have the longevity of a professional season. We get a lot more down time, personal time that I think is good mentally for the guys and myself as well.
What roles have you served in industry leadership and why is that important to you?
I was TVSTMA president for two years, now my current role is past president, and this is my second year on the TTA board.
The biggest thing was when I moved back to Nashville and took the Franklin job, I was just trying to reconnect and meet fellow turfgrass guys in the area and build those relationships. Obviously that’s our professional group where we learn, educate, hang out. It started with that, and being able to help others in small roles – serving on the board, getting voted up to president, getting voted onto the TTA board.
What do you hope to see as a member of the TTA board right now, what are some of your goals in the coming years?
I like the way that with technology and all the upcoming changes, TTA is changing with that format. It’s going to be more networking, obviously we like to see the membership and conferences grow, but I think we’re doing a great job in growing it in the right direction. TTA does a really good job at educating its members building that brotherhood/friendship between its members. Since joining TTA and meeting a lot of guys on the golf side, I’m able to call them for help, and they’re just as willing to talk to a sports turf guy as another golf course guy. It’s great seeing that camaraderie between all the different groups (sports, landscape, sod production, golf). When you’re there at a conference or need education or help, there’s multiple people you can call, not just somebody in your own little turf division.
Do you have a mentor in the industry?
Bill Marbet. When I met him at Tech working the state tournaments, he was one of the big reasons I got the job at Florida, because my boss Jason Smith knew and had worked for Bill. We can call him for any advice, obviously he’s very local to us. He’s willing to help anybody and everybody. He’s probably the biggest one for me. He runs the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama every year. I got to go down there four years and work the SEC tournament. He’s been able to show me a lot of cool places in the turf world.
What do you do in your free time.
In the summer when I’m not at work, my wife Allison and I are at the lake—wake surfing, hanging out with friends and family. We just celebrated our seven year anniversary in July. We have four labs, the oldest is 13, and the others are 7, 4, and 3. In winter I’m duck hunting, early spring and late fall it’s fishing. We like to travel, typically one or two big trips a year, early spring and late fall just to get away once the season starts dying down.
What would be your advice for new turfgrass managers?
A lot of people are expecting when they come out of school, since they have that degree, they’re ready. A lot of what you learn in the classroom sets you up for success, but really and truly this is a world of hard knocks, getting out there learning it in the field. Some of my best employees that have come to me with little to no experience other than mowing with a zero turn, but they were willing to learn and listen.
I think one of the biggest things that they don’t tell you in school— we’re turfgrass managers, so we’re managing what’s given to us. Working outside, were not guaranteed a consistent work environment. A lot of times the stuff you read in books is in perfect world scenarios, but we don’t ever get that perfect world. Being able to manage the weather, looking ahead, timing and resources, it’s stuff that you’ve just got to learn in the field.
Not every field that we have here drains or grows the same, so you’ve got to be able to read and decipher what the field is telling you it needs/doesn’t need versus just looking at a textbook and thinking, I have to do this because that’s what the book says. I’d say the biggest things are: be able to listen, learn on the job, hands-on; be able to read what the grass/field is telling you.READ THE ISSUE