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Star-Bulletin Sports

Thursday, May 25, 2000

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
George Toma had a hard time convincing people that
practice fields are more important than the game field.

Green Giant

University of Hawaii administrators
and coaches are thrilled with
Toma's work on practice fields

Toma has done groundskeeping all over
Can you picture green grass at Aloha Stadium?

By Paul Arnett


So, you were one of those football fans who kept wondering through the years just what was up with the grass practice fields at the University of Hawaii.

You had heard all the complaints from different head coaches and their staffs who knew the approach being taken at UH was not only wrong, but unsafe.

The players said the fields were like practicing on a baked banana peel. When the sun was out, it dried lava-hard. When it rained, the field was slicker than a crafty car salesman.

Nearly 10 years ago, former defensive coordinator Rich Ellerson spent one hard summer shoveling a layer of dirt over it, primarily by himself. But it was like putting perfume on a pig.

Former Hawaii head coach Bob Wagner added a new practice field to a long list of things he suddenly needed after winning the 1992 Holiday Bowl.

"The problem around here is, if you win with what you have, they don't think you need to do anything else," Wagner once noted. "That's not how you build a winning program."

His field of dreams

Photos courtesy of George Toma


Mid-December: You can see why they call it a rock
quarry. It took several days to get these bad boys
out of the mix.


Early January: Long trenches were dug across the
field to not only help in drainage, but to keep the
spring water from seeping in from below.


Late January: After eight-inch pipes for additional
drainage were installed, a 60-40 mix of dirt and
compost was placed over them and then leveled off.


February: More trenches were dug, these only 10 feet
apart, to help facilitate the drainage of a field that sees
its fair share of Manoa Mist.


March: The grass sprigs were planted by hand and
then pushed into the ground by machine to help them
take root. Mulch was added to help make sure they
raised their heads about three weeks later.


By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Yesterday: George Toma enjoys the lush carpet of
Bermuda 419, which sprouted in April and continued
to take root on a field where grass has been known to
die before. Toma says it will be fit for duty come fall
camp. "George and his crew have done an outstanding
job getting this field in place," says June Jones,
University of Hawaii football head coach.

After spending a career on the green grass of the National Football League, former UH head coach Fred vonAppen had a hard time coming down to this low-grade quality.

VonAppen defensive coordinator Don Lindsey called it a travesty, and said he'd seen better practice fields at high schools in South Central L.A.

Finally, the late Alexander Waterhouse had heard and seen enough. After June Jones was hired in 1998, Waterhouse promised the money to redo the practice fields for football and women's soccer.

Still, how is a project like this done? Do you go out there and do as you did before, which was only enough to make it worse? Or, do you start over and do it right this time around?

With Jones at the helm, it is being done the right way under the direct supervision of NFL consultant George Toma, who, even with the cash already approved, had to spend a great deal of time convincing local officials that the practice fields are the most important tools of the trade.

"One of my hardest jobs here, when I first got involved in it, was convincing people that this field is more important than the game field," Toma said. "I had a hard time getting that across.

"Their attitude was like, 'Well, it's only a practice field.' At times, it was hard to convince them we needed to put in a 16-inch crown, drainage, those kinds of little things that make it right.

"Working the grass and working the field have been easy. Trying to convince them to do a first-class job out here was difficult because it was so expensive. Sodding a field like this cost about $150,000, where on the mainland, it could be $25,000."

The project began last December with the removal of rocks that would have made the Flintstones proud. According to Toma, some were as big as small cars.

Once these large fellas were rolled away, trenches were dug 20 feet apart to accommodate eight-inch drain pipes. These first two steps took two months.

While this entered its final stage in February, all the dirt about to be put down was screened for rocks. It was then leveled off to prepare the trenches for six inches of pea gravel and 12 inches of a 60-40 mix of soil and compost to help not only in drainage, but to keep spring water underneath from coming up.

To help level off the field, local contractor Russell Yamamoto used bulldozers and home-made drags. Next, Toma and Co. fertilized the field by tilling it up. And once that stage was completed, the field had to be smoothed over once more.

"We had two inches of rain about two months ago and everything worked perfect," Toma said. "You have to back-fill it with Maui sand and measure it just right, so it flows on through.

"My rule in putting down irrigation pipe is to have it be 18 inches deep because the machine they'll be using to earth quake the soil to keep it loose goes down 16 inches. In case you haven't noticed, this isn't good soil. They'll need to use this machine to save the field."

By March 10, Toma and his crew planted the sprigs of Bermuda 419 by hand. Yamamoto designed a disk that pushed the sprigs into the ground. That process was done twice. King's Landscape was also involved in working in the sprigs and then putting in just the right amount of mulch.

"It was measured off so we had 12 bushels of sprigs per 1,000 square feet," Toma said. "It was disked in, then hydro-mulched and then it was flooded."

Toma is expecting a shipment from Kansas City for a bio-stimulant to accelerate the growth. It's used once a month.

"The grass on the top field is almost 11 weeks old," Toma said. "And it's nine weeks old on the bottom field. It's coming in fine and will be completed on time."

UH administrators are thrilled with Toma's work, including the football coaches themselves.

"It's going to be great working out on a quality field because you don't want your players thinking about anything else but football," Jones said. "George and his crew have done an outstanding job getting this field in place."

George Toma’s the
nitty, gritty dirt man

By Paul Arnett

On Easter Sunday, George Toma was too busy watching the grass grow to accept an invitation for dinner from University of Hawaii football assistant coach Mike Cavanaugh.

"He knew where to find me, I guess," said Toma, whose latest in a long line of projects stretching back to the days of major-league baseball owner and innovator Bill Veeck, is repairing the infamous grass fields for the Rainbows. "He told me he had a turkey dinner waiting for me at his house. I told him no. The fields are at a critical stage right now and they need me more."

You wouldn't get much argument from them, that is if the two fields could talk. The Bermuda 419 grass on the upper field is 11 weeks old and coming in quite nicely. By the time Hawaii head coach June Jones holds the first fall practice session in August, few will recognize the fields that have had a long list of detractors.

The lower field will be used by the women's soccer team. It's nine weeks old and in excellent shape, thanks to Toma and a collection of friends who began this project last December.

It has been about two years since the late Alexander Waterhouse donated $550,000 to the Hawaii program to get the grass fields in shape. And Jones knew the perfect person for the job.

"He's the best there is," Jones said. "He has worked in every Super Bowl, the Olympics, major-league baseball, you name it. The man is unbelievable. The other day, I saw him out there cutting the grass with a push mower. It took him 12 hours to get it done."

To appreciate how fortunate Hawaii is to have Toma as a consultant on this project for the remainder of the year, you have to know a little bit about the man's history. It's extensive and includes some big bosses in sports.

The son of a coal miner in Pennsylvania, Toma was born on Groundhog Day in 1929. He discovered early on that he didn't want to work in the mines that took his father's life when Toma was only 8 years old.

"Instead, I got a job on a farm making 10 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, six days a week picking vegetables," Toma said of his employment in the late 1930s.

The next-door-neighbor was the groundskeeper for the Wilkes-Barre Barons, a Class A baseball organization in the Eastern League. In 1942, he hired Toma, who eventually became the groundskeeper himself just four years later.

"I love baseball," Toma said. "I started out as a 12-year-old dragging the infield for them. The guy was like a father to me. He took care of me and when Bill Veeck bought Cleveland, my life changed forever."

Despite being only 16, having the job of groundskeeper for a professional baseball team didn't overwhelm Toma. He had a knack for taking care of fields. For four years, he attended every Cleveland Indians' spring training, which provided him the chance to learn from the best.

"I had to serve a couple of years in the Korean War," Toma said. "But by 1957, I got my first big break when the Kansas City Athletics asked me to be the groundskeeper at Municipal Stadium. That place was so bad, you could screw it up and nobody would notice."

It took Toma only two months to turn around the league's worst field and make it special. This kind of ability has gone on to serve Toma well. He did the field for the first Super Bowl in 1966 and has been a part of all 34 since.

He once received a standing ovation from the Candlestick Park crowd prior to the memorable 1980 NFL playoff game between Dallas and San Francisco --the game that produced The Catch.

Torrential rain that week left the field a quagmire. But Toma and Co. produced such a miracle, he was named to the All-Madden team by NFL commentator John Madden.

"After what I did in Kansas City, Casey Stengel wanted me every year to go to the New York Yankees," Toma said. "But I didn't want to live in New York. They told me I could live in Jersey, but I told them I didn't want to pay the toll over the George Washington Bridge. Even after offering me $500 a month just to pay the toll, I told them no."

Instead, Toma remained in Kansas City where he eventually worked for Chiefs owner and Lamar Hunt.

"It worked out best for me to stay in Kansas City," Toma said. "The people were good to me."

And it didn't end there. Toma also took part in laying the sod at the Rose Bowl for the 1984 Olympics. He worked on all nine venues for the World Cup in 1994 -- he grew grass inside the Pontiac Dome in Detroit --and Toma redid the turf at the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta in 1996.

"We did that by laying 13,500 yards of sod in about 22 hours," Toma said. "I've also worked for the NFL on fields in Tokyo, London, Barcelona and Mexico City. It's been a great ride for a coal-miner's kid.

"But I can't take credit for all this by myself. I've had help. If you take care of the little people, they'll take care of you."

Toma is no stranger to Hawaii, either. He has worked on the field for all 21 Pro Bowls held at Aloha Stadium.

"That's a great crew they have over there," he said. "I feel very fortunate to be here in Hawaii now consulting on these three fields (UH football, soccer and softball). The people here have been great. I'm going to stay on through December to help train someone to take care of these fields after I'm gone."

Toma's officially retired, but he has helped leave his mark through an organization called the Sports Turf Management Association.

Once only five members, it now has more than 2,000 worldwide. Every year, the organization gives what it calls the George Toma Golden Rake Award.

"It's for guys who did the job," Toma said, pausing for effect. "And then some. That's been my motto my entire life."

Aloha Stadium
grass is possible

By Paul Arnett

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine what it would be like to see beautiful green grass on the floor of Aloha Stadium.

No, not the artificial kind used all these years to accommodate the heavy local football traffic in the fall. But instead, the kind you see usually reserved for only the elite golf courses of the PGA Tour.

Oh, it could happen. Just maybe not in the way you ever imagined.

For one, Aloha Stadium director Eddie Hayashi isn't about to stage a tractor pull to rip up the carpet put down only last year. But according to George Toma, he won't have to do anything so drastic.

"You put the grass on top of it," said Toma, the turf expert for the stars. "Just like they did last year in that experiment in the New Orleans Superdome."

If you have forgotten, former New Orleans Saints head coach Mike Ditka wanted to see if his team could play on natural grass indoors. A turf company in Alabama grew the sod. It was brought in for a game between New Orleans and Green Bay, and it worked perfectly.

"They had about 130 days to get the project in place," Toma said. "Warner Turf out of Alabama grew the sod on plastic. That's the best sod I've ever seen. And the grass sprigs for that project were grown on the North Shore."

Last month, Warner Turf started a 25-acre sod farm on the North Shore. Toma said it could be used to help Kamehameha Schools' upcoming athletic projects and be ready if Pro Bowl officials decide to play the game on a natural surface.

As for the University of Hawaii? Well, that may be a ways down the road.

"That's pretty much a stadium call," UH head coach June Jones said. "But if I had my preference, we'd play on grass. Every football player in America would tell you they'd rather play on grass than artificial turf."

Of course, cost would be a factor. And it's likely the UH athletic department would have to pay for it, something that may be beyond the means of the current financial structure.

"But let me tell you, that grass they used in New Orleans was beautiful," Toma said. "The players loved it. It held up through the entire game. There was no deviation. It was cut like a razor blade.

"They made a machine to cut the sod seven feet wide and 41.6 feet long, and it weighed 4,000 pounds a roll. It took 13 hours to lay that 100,000 square feet. And after we did it, New Orleans scrimmaged on it and loved it. Green Bay scrimmaged on it and then we got it ready for Sunday's game. It was beautiful and they could do the same thing for the Pro Bowl."

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