How did a farm kid from a tiny town in Missouri end up in charge of the field at one of the most famous stadiums in the world in an area known for its glitz and glamour?
Hard work and a willingness to learn will get you everywhere, says Will Schnell, the turf superintendent for Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California, located about 10 miles from Los Angeles.
“It’s a wonderful facility with a lot of history. It’s a wonderful place to work,” says the 50-year-old Schnell, who’s in his 13th year at the Rose Bowl.
Schnell doesn’t know many golf course superintendents, but he says managing the Rose Bowl turfgrass is probably comparable to being the superintendent at Augusta National Golf Club or Pebble Beach Golf Links. There’s pressure and long hours with the job – and plenty of limelight.
Working on his family’s 1,200-acre row crop farm in central Missouri prepared Schnell for a career in athletic field maintenance. He was operating farm equipment at a young age, and he learned about responsibility and ownership much earlier than most kids.
“I basically did what I do now, but it just wasn’t on TV,” says Schnell, who earned a bachelor’s degree in turfgrass management from Central Missouri State University. “Now I get to maintain 2.5 acres of some of the most prestigious grass in the world.”
A day in the life
Schnell was driving to Palm Desert, California, recently to check out the sod at West Coast Turf. Schnell and his crew will resod the Rose Bowl field three times in the next six months. Seven concerts, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) football season and a College Football Playoff (CFP) game will cause much wear and tear to the field.
The Rose Bowl functions as an athletic venue for six months of the year, primarily hosting UCLA home football games. The other six months feature an array of events, including concerts, soccer games, corporate parties, circuses and even motocross races.
“We’re loaded,” states Schnell.
Hollywood directors sometimes film TV commercials and movie scenes on the Rose Bowl field.
“The lights are always on at the Rose Bowl,” Schnell says.
For this reason, he wants the field to always look its best.
When Will Schnell came to the Rose Bowl as head groundskeeper more than 12 years ago, one of the first equipment purchases he made was a Verti-Drain to help soften a rock-hard Rose Bowl field. Schnell has had the machine for more than 12 years. “It has been an unbelievable machine,” Schnell says, noting the Verti-Drain’s durability. “The only thing I’ve had to replace on it is a set of tines,” he says. Schnell also likes the versatility of the machine, noting he uses it as an aerifier and a roller.
– Lawrence Aylward
After Stanford and Michigan State squared off for the 100th-annual Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day, Schnell and his crew installed a new field on top of the one in place to ready it for the Bowl Championship Series title game five days later. There wasn’t time to remove the old sod.
Schnell, his two full-time assistants and several volunteers, worked long hours to get the field installed. The existing field wasn’t exactly torn up from the Stanford-Michigan State game, but that didn’t matter. The biggest college football game of the year deserved a new field, Schnell says.
“We worked around the clock to get that done … right up until game day,” Schnell notes.
With Jay-Z, Beyoncé and thousands of their fans taking to the Rose Bowl turf for two nights in early August, followed four days later by Eminem, Rihanna and their fans, Schnell planned to resod the field after the shows. Nothing beats up a field like a concert … or several.
It will be resodded in September once more before the UCLA football season gets into high gear. A new field will also be put in place for the CFP game in January.
“The job never gets boring,” Schnell says.
The Rose Bowl’s bermudagrass field looks so good at times that some people don’t believe the turf is real. Schnell takes it as a compliment.
While he wants the best-looking field possible, Schnell realizes playability and safety are major factors as well. He has plenty of tools to achieve those goals, including 36 soil sensors located throughout the field to help determine proper moisture levels, which impacts all maintenance practices.
Schnell worked under Eric Hansen, the assistant director of turf and grounds at Dodger Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Schnell calls Hansen “as good of a groundskeeper that God ever made.”
“I got to learn from one of the best,” Schnell adds. “I sucked up everything he taught me.”
Hansen says Schnell had success written all over him; Schnell wasn’t just willing to learn, he was open to trying new things.
“There are some guys who will be successful no matter where they are and who they work for. Will is one of those guys,” observes Hansen.
Schnell also lists George Toma, regarded as one of the greatest sports field managers of all time, as a mentor. He says Toma calls him almost every year after the Rose Bowl game to tell him how good the field looked on TV.
Sunny climate challenges
Schnell has his agronomic challenges, but he admits they’re nothing compared to what turf managers in the Northeast and Midwest must deal with, i.e., snow, rain and cold. Schnell has worked in the East and Midwest, including as the practice field manager for the Cleveland Browns. He says the experience made him a better turf manager.
While the sun often shines in Southern California, it’s not easy to grow bermudagrass in Pasadena. It may be sunny, but it’s not always hot. July and August are the turf’s premium growing months in an otherwise temperate climate.
“It’s so important to go into the football season with a good bermudagrass base,” Schnell states.
Bermudagrass growth stalls with the cooler temperatures in late summer and fall. In late October, Schnell begins overseeding with cool-season ryegrass. However, it’s a tough transition – the ryegrass never gets going because of the harsh foot traffic from football games.
UCLA football is the Rose Bowl’s primary tenant. Schnell will ask UCLA Head Football Coach Jim Mora his opinion of the field and how it plays.
“I tell him that it’s his field, not my field, and that I’m here to give him what he wants,” Schnell says.
During football season there are fewer additional events because the turf wouldn’t be able to handle them.
“It’s not the growing season, and there’s little turf recovery,” Schnell notes.
Football games, soccer games, concerts, commercials, movies – Schnell doesn’t complain about the number of events held on the field. He knows what pays the bills.
“My boss says the most important thing at the Rose Bowl is the field,” Schnell says. “He says the second most important thing at the Rose Bowl is the field, and the third most important thing is the field.”
Schnell reports to Darryl Dunn, the CEO/general manager of Rose Bowl Stadium. Schnell says Dunn is understanding of his challenges.
“Before we do any projects, Darryl comes to me and asks, ‘Can we do this, and what’s it going to cost?’ ” Schnell says.
Dunn trusts Schnell to make the right calls.
“When we book events, we have to ask ourselves: Can we do this event and still have a great playing surface for UCLA? If the answer is no, we don’t book the event,” Schnell states.
Schnell credits his crew, which includes assistants Miguel Yepez and Martin Rodriguez, his only full-time staff, for taking ownership of the field.
“Sometimes we’ll work 36 hours straight,” Schnell notes.
He has had many highlights in his job, including hosting four college football national championships. However, one of Schnell’s biggest thrills is getting friends and family members involved in a project as volunteers.
“I’ve had guys I’ve known since first grade come out and help me resod the field for a January 1 game,” Schnell says.
Schnell is a student of the profession. Hansen says he was always impressed with Schnell’s desire to learn.
“Whether it’s trying a different type of bermudagrass or different cultural techniques, or modifying and adjusting his fertility program, he’s open to new ideas,” Hansen says.
In his 18 years with the Dodgers, Hansen would tell his assistants, crew members and interns what he did wrong in hopes that they wouldn’t make similar mistakes. Schnell has adopted that learn-from-your-mistakes philosophy.
“I’ve probably made more mistakes than anyone,” he says, “but I want to be as good of a groundskeeper as I can possibly be.”
Schnell, who isn’t married and has no children, admits he’s married to his job.
“This profession has provided me with a wonderful life,” he adds.
However, Schnell started to find a balance between his career and personal life the last few years. He enjoys working out and spending time with his girlfriend.
“That balance has made me a better groundskeeper,” he says. “It keeps me fresh.”
That’s the kind of person the Rose Bowl needs tending its turf.