Lindenwood-Belleville's turf causing a stir
ST. LOUIS -- Soon after his school moved forward with plans for stadium improvements last fall, Scott Spinner began a search. A $2.3 million renovation project had been approved, and the Lindenwood University-Belleville athletic director wanted his institution's first football season to include a memorable experience for athletes. He logged online and browsed for inspiration.
Spinner witnessed many potential turf designs. There were traditional layouts, like the thousands of green surfaces seen each week at high schools, colleges and NFL stadiums throughout the fall. There were solid-color approaches, like the ones made famous in recent years by Boise State (blue) and Eastern Washington (red).
Then there was an alternating stripe concept, like the field at Central Arkansas' Estes Stadium, where purple-and-gray bands greeted fans for the first time last season.
"You know what?" Spinner thought to himself after witnessing Central Arkansas' design. "With our colors, I think it could look fantastic."
Spinner's vision nears completion before the Belleville, Ill., campus opens its first NAIA season Sept. 1 against Avila (Mo.) University. The Lynx's maroon-and-gray striped turf at Lindenwood Stadium has produced mixed opinions across the country. Some connected to the school with an enrollment of about 2,300 students have embraced the idea as an innovative method to attract attention. Others have criticized it for being gaudy.
Included in the reaction is a question: Why does a football field's design draw such varied and passionate response?
"For so long, football has been played on green grass and, more recently, green turf," said Spinner, who's also Lindenwood University-Belleville's basketball coach. "People have a lot of respect for the game. We do too. If it altered the game in any way, we would not have done it. We actually looked into that before we moved forward with the project. I think that's the reason it sparks a lot of debate, simply because people love the game of football, and they want to respect it. We certainly do as well. We think this adds an excitement element to the game."
That was something Central Arkansas athletic director Brad Teague considered before his school adopted a non-traditional field. Shortly before entertaining designs for turf to replace natural grass, Teague addressed his staff and said this was a chance for their Football Championship Subdivision program to gain national recognition.
Teague told members of his graphics team to stretch their imagination but not copy the concept used by Boise State and Eastern Washington. With time, the group developed a draft of a field with alternating shades of green -- a depiction that produced a striped effect.
One day in late winter 2011, Teague sat with his marketing staff and followed a creative hunch. He observed the model and told members to substitute the greens with purple and gray, Central Arkansas' school colors. The design was different, but it popped.
Soon after, a public ballot was held among program supporters. Teague said the purple-and-gray striped design won more than 50 percent of the vote among five design choices, one of which included a traditional green field. A Central Arkansas release headlined, "PURPLE & GRAY TURF COMING TO ESTES STADIUM" was published on the morning of April 1, 2011.
"It's traditionalists who want to play the game on grass or green fields," Teague said of the criticism directed at designs like Central Arkansas'. "I certainly understand that. I was probably in that same boat until I was convinced we had to do something unique at our level and our size to get national recognition.
"It did provide for us what we hoped it would, which was a forum when Boise State is on TV or Eastern Washington is on TV -- they certainly talk about all the non-traditional fields.... I think it legitimizes the fact that we did it and that it did make an impact at more than just here at UCA -- that other schools are recognizing it."
That impact could include competitive and psychological effects as well. Before last season, the Mountain West Conference ruled Boise State could not wear blue jerseys with blue pants in games at Bronco Stadium because commissioner Craig Thompson received complaints from opposing coaches that the look could cause an advantage. (Boise State still went 5-1 at home during a season that produced a Las Vegas Bowl berth, with the lone defeat a one-point loss to eventual MWC champion TCU on Nov. 12.)
Meanwhile, Teague absorbed criticism from some detractors who said fans would become dizzy watching games on his campus. But the Bears' record at Estes Stadium was stellar, finishing 5-0 during a year in which they went 9-4 overall -- their best record since a 10-2 mark in 2008.
"If that's the field the home team is practicing on, they're used to it, and the whole element of surprise and the psychological effect that it could have on the visiting team could be pronounced when you think about it," said Erica Orange, vice president of Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc., a futurist consulting group based in New York City.
"The brain could get used to (the design) over time. But I would assume that it would have an element of distraction, generally, especially if it's striped."
Distraction or not, some Lindenwood University-Belleville officials are optimistic that the striped field will enhance their fledgling program in years to come. Jerry Bladdick, the school's vice president and chief administrative officer, has mixed emotions about the criticism but said he hopes the bold approach attracts talent to the campus that otherwise would not have considered the small school located about 20 miles southeast of downtown St. Louis. Last fall, Spinner approached a group of at least five prospective players about the design and was assured that the idea would assist in recruiting.
Sometimes, a non-traditional approach is required to spark attention for a new vision. Lindenwood University-Belleville hopes success is found in stripes.
"I'm pleased that Lindenwood University-Belleville is an institution that took a chance to be different, to create a different type of environment," Bladdick said. "It was a little frightening at first to step away from tradition. But there are those institutions like Boise State and Central Arkansas that threw the dice before we did.
"In some ways, you're messing with history. It's like moving Thanksgiving from a Thursday to a Sunday or to a Monday. You're messing with that historic tradition.... Because it messes with tradition, it causes somewhat of a stir."