TAMPA — To understand the behind-the-scenes work that goes into Alabama and Clemson chasing each other around Raymond James Stadium for a college football national championship Monday night, you need only appreciate the grass they're trampling.
Carefully chosen, grown specifically for this game over the past 18 months and transported west 60 miles from Fort Meade by police escort on 18 flatbed semis this week is 65,000 square feet of Tifway 419 Bermuda grass, installed by a crew of about 100 immediately after the Outback Bowl ended Monday afternoon.
"I have worked on 14 Super Bowl grounds crews, and I see the same dedication and commitment to quality for this College Football Playoff national championship," said Wayne Ward, the turf manager for the Tampa Sports Authority and a busy man this week.
The total cost of harvesting and installing the field for Monday's game? $235,000.
The playing surface at Raymond James has undergone two massive makeovers in the past week — minutes after the Bucs finished their final home game Sunday, beating the Carolina Panthers, a crew went to work replacing both end zones and the logo at midfield for the Outback Bowl, played less than a day later.
And when that game ended with Florida beating Iowa on Monday afternoon, the real work began. Within minutes of the game's end, crews began stripping the existing grass and regrading the field, which took until about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Starting at 5:30 that morning, another crew spent 12 hours installing the new turf, which comes in on about 400 rolls, each 4 feet wide and 40 feet long, weighing about 1,500 pounds, all seamlessly put together for college football's biggest game.
"We're looking forward to it," said Donald Thomas, president and co-owner of Quality Turf, which has its home base in Lithia and provides fields for Raymond James, as well as USF and the University of Florida and Disney's Wide World of Sports in Orlando. "We've been planning for this for six months. It's a big process, a lot of planning and work, and everything has to go just right to get it out and get it back in within the time frame."
Tifway 419 is legendary in the turf world, a hybrid bermuda created in 1960, perfected from African cynodon transvaalensis and cynodon dactylon by agronomist Glenn Burton, who pioneered plant breeding to help global food production, and gave the world better football fields.
"Combining toughness with beauty … its dense, rapidly spreading growth habit means quick recovery from injury," reads the scouting report from a site called sodfather.com. "The best recuperative rates of all warm season turf grasses. A vigorous regenerator."
Quality Turf had already changed out part of the Raymond James field 13 times this year, usually replacing the end zones and center logo between USF and Bucs home games. This year's original sod was planted in March — after a Monster Jam truck event — and the "gut" of the field, the most high-traffic middle strip between the hashmarks, has been replaced twice.
The preparation was adjusted for rain overnight Friday and into Saturday, with good weather expected for kickoff Monday night.
"That won't be any problem," said Thomas, noting that the rain doesn't impact the grass itself, rather when the paint is applied in the end zones and logos.
A crazy week could have been even more complicated — two weeks ago, it was still possible that the Bucs might have hosted a playoff game this weekend, just a day or two before the championship game.
"We would have gotten it done," said Thomas, originally from Plant City. "It would have been the same crew, definitely round the clock. We would have been on the field as soon as the Bucs were off. I love the work, but I was not looking forward to that if the Bucs had made the playoffs. I was hoping they'd make the playoffs, but maybe get an away game."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.