A school district turf consultant shares his knowledge

Photos by Ron Barnett.
Shane Windham in front of the headquarters of the Greenville County School District.

When Shane Windham graduated from Clemson University with a degree in turfgrass horticulture in 1996, he was happy to get a job as a grounds crew intern during the construction of a new baseball park for the minor league Charleston RiverDogs.

A dozen years later, the Darlington County, S.C., native is on his fourth job, heading up management of athletic fields for a school district with 14 high schools and 18 middle schools with a total of about 120 fields.

It’s been a statewide tour for Windham, with stops at the University of South Carolina, Spartanburg County Parks and the city of Simpsonville recreation department along the way.

Coming from the small town of Lamar, S.C., Windham knew he wanted a career in sports turf, and he knew that Clemson was the place to get the education he needed to get the best job opportunities.

Shane Windham turns on the irrigation at the school district headquarters.

The horticulture program at Clemson University is divided into three branches: ornamentals, fruits and vegetables and turfgrass. He earned a four-year degree at the university and started looking for a job.

When the RiverDogs, a Class A affiliate of the New York Yankees, offered him an intern position, he snapped it up. It proved to be a learning experience for him in more ways than one.

At the time, the city of Charleston was just embarking on the construction of a field for the team to play its South Atlantic League games, as well to provide a new home field for the Bulldogs baseball team from The Citadel, the state-operated military college nearby.

A view of the lawn renovations in front of the Greenville County School District offices on a windy fall day.

His work during the construction of the Joseph P. Riley Field led to a full-time job with the team, which was responsible for maintenance of the field.

“When it came time for the Citadel and the RiverDogs to start playing, the RiverDogs said ‘You’re going to know more about this field than anybody else. Why don’t you just be our head grounds guy?’” Windham said.

It didn’t turn out to be quite what he had in mind.

“I asked how many people I could get for a crew. They basically said, ‘What do you need a crew for?’” he recalled.

He made it through the college Southern Conference Tournament and told the RiverDogs he was going back to school. He returned to Clemson to work on a master’s, but decided that he needed a job more than another degree.

That’s when the Gamecocks came calling. As a graduate of Clemson, working for the rival school went against his grain, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

Windham was one of two turf managers in charge of all of the athletic fields at the school. Then, the other manager left, and Windham moved up to the position of director of athletic grounds.

After five years in Columbia, Windham went back upstate, taking a job with the Spartanburg County Parks and Recreation Department.

From there, he went for a stint as superintendent of grounds for the city of Simpsonville, S.C., also upstate, and part of Greenville County, where he now works for the school district.

The Greenville County School District is the largest school district in the state, with more than 69,000 students. It has also seen explosive growth since the mid-1990s.

The district, which encompasses more than 800 square miles, was strapped trying to keep up with the growth. Schools in parts of the county were getting more and more overcrowded, while other aging schools were getting in worse condition.

The district eventually found a way to finance a construction program that would overhaul all of the approximately 100 schools and special centers, including building new athletic fields for many of them.

The $1 billion project included lots of high-tech buildings, but field preparation left much to be desired. They were little more than graded red clay areas sprigged with bermudagrass that struggled to start, and struggled to survive without irrigation.

With complaints coming in from across the district, the superintendent decided it was time to call for help.

That’s where Windham came in. He came on board in September 2007, and went to work taking inventory of all the district’s turf needs.

The middle schools, which don’t generate enough money from games for field improvements, were in particularly rough shape. Windham spent much of his first year on the job drawing up specs for a total renovation of the more than 50 middle school soccer, baseball and softball fields.

“When they started the building program, there were no middle school sports. They were looking at that as more of a kickball field, that type of stuff,” he explained. “They weren’t really looking at it as competition playing fields and that type stuff. But, now that we have middle school sports, they want to go back in and do these fields right.”

The more than $3 million project includes tilling up 50 to 60 fields, adding 500 to 1,000 tons of sand, rough grading, then installing irrigation, laser grading and sprigging with 419.

Each school will have a Toro Sentinel water-saving irrigation system that includes a weather station and sensors that measure how much water the grass needs. They will operate automatically, but Windham will be able to control any of the school’s system from the Internet in his office, he said.

Windham also plays a major role as a consultant for high school athletic field maintenance workers. He has written manuals to help them cover the basics of annual turfgrass care and visits each site to make notes on specific needs.

He keeps the coaches and athletic directors up to date on new products, and techniques for overseeding and fertilization. He recommends, for example, that they fertilize with 0-0-60 to help with overwintering and use a new variety of ryegrass that has a darker color than most annual rye, but burns out better in warm weather.

He does soil tests on each field and e-mails the fertility recommendations as well as other suggestions. One school, for example had hotspots from hydrophobic bacteria. He recommends products and vendors to take care of such issues.

It’s a balancing act, finding cost-effective solutions to maintain high-quality and safe playing surfaces, he said.

Windham adjusts sprinkler heads in front of the school district headquarters.

“We know they aren’t gold mines and they don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “We try and show them, look, you really need to do this. Maybe you don’t need to do that. Do this because it’ll help you out a whole lot more.”

Windham is also responsible for non-athletic turf in the district. After a renovation of the district headquarters, he was supervising the installation of an irrigation system and new turfgrass there.

“It’s a different challenge,” he said. “I’ve always been on the maintaining and building end. Here, this is more knowledge, I guess, trying to help out more, trying to get them the information they need.”

Ron Barnett is a freelance writer and has been a frequent contributor to Turf over the years. He resides in Easley, S.C., and is always on the lookout for new and interesting stories in the Carolinas, Georgia and east Tennessee.