Instead of installing artificial turf in its football stadium, North Carolina will continue to use real grass and replace it with sod as needed, said Mike Bunting, associate athletic director of facility planning and management.
The discussion to install artificial turf began after plans were secured to build an indoor practice football facility in place of the current outdoor one on Navy Field. Construction of the practice facility will force the UNC football team to practice in Kenan Stadium for 15 months, Bunting said.
UNC officials decided after several months of discussion to continue using real grass, a decision confirmed in meetings as recent as Nov. 18.
“Given that it’s economically a sound decision, and it’s our football program’s preference to stay on grass, it was an easy decision,” Bunting said.
The group of UNC athletic officials who made the decision included Bunting, football coach Larry Fedora, head athletic trainer for football Kenny Boyd and athletic director Bubba Cunningham.
Kenan Stadium will be used for practice during the week and for home games starting in August 2017, causing concern about whether the field would wear out from overuse. Bunting and others in the athletic facilities department explored options to ensure the surface would be safe for student-athletes.
“We started thinking about every possible scenario,” Bunting said. “What if it rains like crazy Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday? What do we need to do to re-sod and paint the field for the game on Saturday? We couldn’t find a scenario where we’d have to practice or play on a surface that was unsafe.”
The field will undergo a type of re-sodding to make the grass safe for play immediately after installation. Bunting said potential safety concerns of playing on turf factored into the decision — including injury risk during severe rain.
But UNC would never have considered using artificial turf if it was unsafe, Bunting said.
Once UNC officials determined that both options were viable, they examined costs. Kenan Stadium’s current sod grass supplier, Carolina Green Corp., also installs artificial turf playing surfaces.
Carolina Green Corp. estimated it would cost $968,000 to install artificial turf at Kenan Stadium and $750,000 to re-sod the field as needed throughout the season. The second estimate considers the worst-case scenario and includes costs of re-sodding substantial portions of the field before each home game, Bunting said.
Because the option would save $218,000, and UNC Sports Medicine and the football team both preferred real grass, the decision was straightforward.
While turf would last about eight years, Bunting said the goal was to solve the short-term issue of practicing in Kenan Stadium.
He and the rest of the group wanted to return to real grass once the construction period ended. Changing the field from turf to grass would be difficult and expensive, he said.
Although UNC Sports Medicine and the football program favored the natural surface of real grass, not all student-athletes prefer it.
“I’m a turf guy — I like it because it’s easier to run,” senior running back T.J. Logan said. “Bug Howard’s a grass guy, but I feel like I always play better on turf.”
Still, Logan said playing on turf creates issues. The senior wears tape on his elbows to avoid turf burn.
“They both hurt when you hit it,” redshirt junior Nazair Jones said. “I think I prefer the regular grass just because making plays and sliding across this (turf), it can tear your skin up if you don’t have the right stuff on.”
For some purists, having grass in Kenan Stadium is a tradition they don’t want to see change.
“When you play football, you’re going to play on grass,” Fedora said. “(Turf) is good, and it’s great for practices. And some places, if you can’t grow grass it’s the next best thing.
“But fortunately we can, and that’s why we want to keep it that way.”
The Rams Club is funding the re-sodding and the construction of the indoor football practice facility in 2017.
After exploring all scenarios, Bunting said he thinks UNC made the right call.
“We’re not wishy-washy on this decision,” he said. “We’re going to stay on grass.”