After Morgan Wallen concert, what did Ole Miss do to get the football field ready for the 2023 season?

Published 3:53 pm Friday, December 15, 2023

By Ceclia Brown

In a turn of events sparked by a Morgan Wallen concert, the playing surface at the University of Mississippi’s football stadium transformed in May 2023 from its longstanding 419 Bermudagrass to NorthBridge® Bermudagrass. Assistant Director of Sports Turf Brian McNeil explained the revenue from the concert made it possible to resod Vaught-Hemingway Stadium for the first time in years.

The decision to make the switch wasn’t impulsive. McNeil had heard about this new variety called NorthBridge for a few years. “After talking with a few guys around the SEC who said NorthBridge performed above all other varieties, it was a good opportunity for me to try it out after the concert.”

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Despite not having a full year with NorthBridge, McNeil expressed optimism that it will green up faster than other bermudagrass varieties. “It grows a little bit better in cooler temperatures than 419 did. It’s still growing as we speak,” he added.

Cultural Practices

Over the summer, McNeil worked hard to develop cultural practices on the field to make it perfect in time for the 2023 football season. At first, he didn’t realize how aggressive he would have to get with the grass. “You have to verticut every 10–14 days. It is aggressive, and it recovers very well, and that’s probably the thing I like the most,” he said. “It’s a much tighter grass, stands straight up and doesn’t tend to lay over as much as 419.”

He’s observed great fall color retention but won’t see how it greens up in the spring as they plan on ripping the field out again when Morgan Wallen returns for a concert in the stadium in 2024. McNeil shared that Precision Turf has a field of NorthBridge on reserve for Ole Miss.

“We have been so impressed with it on the game field that we resodded the middle of the practice football field. We have to do it every fall because we only have one grass football field and they wear it out.”

Expanding Success

The University of Mississippi is in the process of rebuilding its softball stadium. Although the team will play in an unfinished stadium for the 2024 season, they are getting a new playing surface in time for play in February. “We will be laying sod on the first of January. So, I’m going NorthBridge with it as well. I’m getting that from Precision Turf also,” McNeil shared.

Looking ahead, McNeil envisions a campus where all fields boast this variety. “In the next two years, we will renovate our baseball field. I hope within the next three or four years that every one of our fields will be NorthBridge.”

Earlier this fall, McNeil said their fields saw temperatures in the 20s, but it warmed up to the 80s shortly after, so the NorthBridge responded to fertilizer and kept growing. They overseeded with ryegrass earlier this fall in late September, due to their schedule break, so the seed had enough time to germinate between home games. “I’m a little different here than other schools because I don’t use grow tarps. I know probably 75 percent of SEC has grow tarps; I just have never gotten into that part of it,” he said.

Turf Management

McNeil graduated from Mississippi State University in 2007 and worked there for almost one year as the assistant sports turf manager. After nine months as an assistant, McNeil went to work at the University of Southern Mississippi for six years before taking his current position at the University of Mississippi.

McNeil has been at Ole Miss for nine years. His first fall there was when they converted from artificial turf to a natural playing surface. “Being a turfgrass guy, obviously, I wanted it, but let’s be honest. In the big scheme of things and business we’re in these days, the head coach is deciding what he wants. Thankfully, Coach (Hugh) Freeze was here at that time, and because he wanted grass, we went to grass, and it’s worked out well ever since.”

McNeil also shed light on the camaraderie among SEC athletic field managers, emphasizing their collective understanding of the challenges and efforts invested in maintaining top-quality fields. He emphasized the unseen variables affecting field appearances during televised events, fostering a greater appreciation for the intricacies of turf management. “A lot of people don’t know what goes into it, but all of us do. We’re all about helping each other out.”

McNeil said the coaches are happy with the NorthBridge and are interested in converting their outdoor artificial fields to grass. “It’s been great so far, and we’ve seen a difference in playability for sure.”