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LSU's Special "Celebration"

Published: Sep. 13, 2011 at 2:41 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 19, 2011 at 2:19 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Turf could be a future possibility in Tiger Stadium, but for the moment Les loves grass.

Perhaps it's time for R&B and funk masters Kool and the Gang to make a comeback. As a matter of fact, they can jam their signature hit at halftime of an LSU football game this fall. All the while, the band would technically be singing about the plush grass beneath their feet.

"Celebration" is the name of the surface that rests inside massive Tiger Stadium, proudly laid by LSU Senior Associate Athletic Director and former LSU Tiger Ronnie Haliburton and his crew.

"We get calls all the time," Haliburton says proudly, "Telling us 'the yard looks good'. That makes me and our crew feel great. We take great pride and care into what we do."

The LSU facilities and grounds crew certainly deserves their share of credit. As will be the case every year the event is held, the turf was totally torn up after "The Bayou Country Superfest" held Memorial Day weekend. As part of the agreement, the concert pays for the new field, which costs $120,000-$180,000. Haliburton and company then basically have three months to have that new surface in place and in the proper shape for LSU's home opener.

"The last two years, and last game being very representative, is a the finest turf that we have had at Tiger Stadium in my time," says LSU head coach Les Miles, "It is a fast track. It handles the wear and tear very well. The amazing thing is that it was just put down after the Bayou Country Superfest. It adheres, is thick, is matted and has a great foundation. With only six home games, I expect the turf to not show a lot of wear and tear during the season."

"Celebration is a hearty grass," adds Haliburton, "It recovers fast and repairs itself quickly. It's still a Bermuda blend....with traits of many different grasses."

Haliburton has held his current position since 2003 (although he's worked at the university since 1996) and says LSU has "come light years" when it comes to maintaining the grass in Death Valley. Fans can certainly concur. It wasn't long ago the Tigers opened the season in an absolute quagmire (giggity) against Oregon State in 2004. The defending national champion Tigers slushed and slogged their way through the slop to escape the Beavers 22-21 in overtime. Perhaps LSU fans should actually be grateful for that nasty field, as Oregon State missed three extra points. There were certainly numerous other occasions of hydroplaning running backs across the Mississippi Mud and lineman crashing into epic puddles, that caused cannon-ball like splashes. Quite frankly, the turf in Tiger Stadium was an absolute eye sore at times.

"It was pretty bad then." Haliburton admits.

Well, those days appear to be over.

"Before I began, there was a ton of usage on Tiger Stadium and the field. The team practiced here, they ran here and they had their football camps here. There was far too much wear and tear on the field. Over time, we've eliminated events that were counterproductive to the main event....LSU football."

Haliburton says "The Bayou Country Superfest" is basically the only non-LSU football activity that takes place in Tiger Stadium. The Tigers play their 6-8 home games there, host their annual spring game, scrimmage a handful times....and that's it for the ole' lady on Nicholson Drive.

"It's like taking your girlfriend to the ball," Haliburton jokes, "You want her to look her best. You don't want to take her wearing no makeup, no nothing. Especially when you've got 92,000 people showing up."

And those fans may also be surprised, what role the field and its crew actually plays in helping the Tigers to win games. Haliburton says during LSU's national championship year in 2007, head coach Les Miles had specific instructions for two games in particular.

"For the Florida game, Coach said he wanted a lot of traction. He said they were going to grind it out with Jacob Hester.....really pound 'em. So we prepared the field accordingly and gave coach the field he wanted."

Haliburton won't go into the specifics of that field preparation, but LSU fans certainly remember Miles got the exact result he envisioned. Hester slugged out 23 big carries, for 106 yards and the game-winning 2-yard touchdown surge on a 3rd and goal with just over a minute remaining. He had already barreled ahead for two, pulsating fourth and short conversions on that same drive, as many called LSU's 28-24 triumph "the greatest game they had ever watched in Tiger Stadium."

"That same year against Auburn," Haliburton says, "Coach Miles wanted the field to play faster. He said he 'wanted to play his quicks'. So again, we prepared the field accordingly. This time, a faster track."

Again, the field functioned according to planned. Senior quarterback Matt Flynn passed the ball all over the yard for 319 yards to the Tigers' speedy wide receivers, including the epic 22-yard score to Demetrius Byrd with just a second left on the clock. Final score - LSU 30, Auburn 24. And some quick competition for the NEW greatest game ever in Death Valley.

As much as those games and players have been absolutely beloved by LSU fans, many of those same folks have equal disdain for the thought of artificial turf ever resting in Tiger Stadium. For many....it would simply be football blasphemy. An April Fool's joke by LSU a couple years back announcing a new  purple turf inside their massive arena caused a vehement and pretty humorous uproar. However, many other Tiger fans have pointed to LSU's recent, incredible record indoors and on turf. Not only has LSU won, they've destroyed opponents, with Oregon being the latest victim. Those people say LSU's incredible team speed should be utilized to its fullest and perhaps it's finally time to lay down some of the artificial stuff in Death Valley.

"It's been considered. It's still something that could be considered," shares Haliburton, "If Tiger Stadium is expanded again, say in South end zone, it may be a necessity."

That's because the new shadows that would be cast from that expansion could block the essential sunlight, necessary for the continued growth of natural grass. Haliburton says the cost of a good turf field ranges from 1.2 - 1.5 million bucks. And just because the grass isn't real, doesn't mean it doesn't require maintenance.

"You can't build a sand castle with dry sand. You need some water to make it clumpy. Likewise, a turf field needs to be watered to make it tighter and sticky. It's new sand and water...it needs to be stabilized. If not, you get what the Superdome had early when they got new turf...black pellets flying everywhere."

Another drawback of turf? It's hot as Haiti. Haliburton has seen "a ton of documentation" and says turf fields are typically "20 degrees hotter" than natural grass. That's because the heat deflects off turf and radiates straight up, unlike grass which absorbs the sun. And likewise, different from natural grass, the temperature is just as scorching on the sideline as it is on the field. That could certainly make a September, 2:30 pm kickoff in Tiger Stadium...a scary proposition.

However...turf has likewise come light years from its predecessors. Haliburton was an NFL linebacker with the Denver Broncos from 1990-94, when the fake stuff was absolutely destructive to the players' bodies.

"The Astrodome in Houston was basically a carpet on concrete," he recalls, "It was awful. These days, there are far less injuries on the new turf, as opposed to the old turf."

But for the moment, there are no plans to fool with the beautiful, rich, natural grass that rests inside Tiger Stadium.

"Fans love the tradition of natural grass," Haliburton says adamantly, "They love that tradition. They love the patterns cut into the field. We take so much pride in those traditions....and into game day. I've got a hell of a staff."

Turf just isn't something most fans LSU or Les Miles seem eager to chew on.