When one thinks about a college football game, the mind typically goes to the players, coaches and die-hard fans who fill their home stadiums every Saturday. But we tend to overlook the people that make the atmosphere what it is.
For LSU, that person is Hunter Sexton. Sexton recently received a promotion to Head Sports Turf Manager for the Tigers, giving him the sole responsibility of upkeeping the field.
He got his start in the business early, contributing to his school’s program as a student.
“I started in middle school and high school. I grew up on baseball, I guess that’s how a lot of guys get into it. In middle school I did the baseball field, and then in high school I did ours too. When I got to LSU, I found out there was a major in it. So then I got started there.”
Sexton is also a member of the Sports Turf Management Association, where he meets with other members of the SEC and beyond.
“I’m a part of their membership, and go to their conferences every January. I network a lot with other guys - specifically guys in our own conference - in addition to a lot of other turf managers from all over the country.”
He says the organization is a great one to be a part of, whether you’re just getting started in the business or if you’re an experienced professional looking for further advancement.
“It’s really useful for networking if you’re just getting into it, like marketing yourself. There’s a lot of job opportunities. It’s a really good organization, it helps a lot of people out.”
Turf management isn’t exactly your everyday profession, and one might wonder how you could become attracted to such a niche. For Sexton, the answer is simple.
“I think it’s just like any other turf manager. We like being outside, we like to work, we like getting dirty. I enjoy sports - I enjoy watching the sports that we maintain the field for.”
What’s even more unique is working at Tiger Stadium, known to be one of the most lively gameday scenes in the nation. A huge part of that is the field, brimming over with purple and gold for every home game.
“It is a very unique place. Like some other schools, we do have a lot of rich traditions - especially football traditions. It goes way back,” Sexton said. “We have a couple of specific items at Tiger Stadium that are very different. We paint our numbers every five yards, it’s always been done that way. I couldn’t tell you why, but that’s what we do. Another thing we have is the goal post, it’s an H-style goal post. It’s kind of an older model. I think only one or two other schools have goal posts like that.”
Sexton takes pride in the field he puts so much work into maintaining every day, and believes it may be one of the most elaborate in the nation.
“On my end, I think we probably paint more than any other school in the country - college or NFL. When you see our games on TV, there’s so much purple and gold marking our field.”
There’s a lot of detail that goes into making the surface so vibrant, and keeping it playable for the athletes that use it all season.
“For the past 17 or so years, we’ve painted our end zone background, our white borders, our colored borders. It takes a lot of time and effort. As far as myself and my crew, it takes us three days to have everything ready for a football game and that’s just the painting aspect. It has nothing to do the actual playing surface preparation and keeping that both safe and aesthetically pleasing.”
“Like I said, the first part is, is it safe and playable, and then second, does it look good. And, of course, trying to get it to where the football team’s preference is.”
And giving Death Valley its charm is no easy undertaking. It’s a job not for the faint of heart - weeks in the field are filled with early mornings, long days and just plain hard work.
“It starts off early for us. On a game week, we start mowing at 6 am, then we start painting around 8 am and that takes us through the day to anywhere from three to five o’clock depending on weather. In that entire work day, I’ve got between four and eight people out there getting all the different tasks done throughout the day. That’s getting everything set up and painted and picking everything up at the end of the day.”
The fact LSU’s field isn’t an artificial one comes with its own set of obstacles. Aside from all the painting and frills, you can’t forget there’s a real, living plant to maintain - grass.
“I think the biggest obstacle is going to be weather. And it’s not just about rain, it’s what your day time lows and nighttime lows are, and finding the happy medium where you’re growing a nice, healthy, sustainable grass.”
In other seasons, the hardest thing to deal with is keeping up with all the back-to-back football action.
“I think some years it’s the football schedule. There’s been some years where we have four home games in a row,” he said.” That’s a lot of traffic on the football field. And I think another more minor one is just the logistics of getting everyone where they need to be and getting everything done in the time frame that we have. You have to be good at planning ahead.
But the Tigers are light on home games this season, making things a bit easier on Sexton and his crew. The schedule also limits the wear and tear on the turf.
“We only have six home games this year, so we get a little break. I think that puts us in a really nice situation as far as playability and looks. The football field should look pretty good towards the end of the season.”
We’ll see Sexton’s work put on display once more this Saturday, when the Auburn Tigers travel to Baton Rouge. Kickoff is currently set for 2:30 p.m. CT. Other key home games this season against conference rivals include Arkansas (Nov 11) and Texas A&M (Nov 25).