CARY, N.C. — “If you’ve never killed natural grass, you’ve never tried to grow it,” said Jimmy Simpson, NC State alumnus and Facilities Coordinator with the Town of Cary, North Carolina. “I’ve killed plenty of grass. That’s how you learn – from your experiences.” Sports turf management is a growing field as municipalities expand outdoor offerings. Social distancing has pushed us outdoors to play more than ever, making public spaces in high demand. While many organized sports are modified this year, our need for green play space is more important than ever.
Jimmy Simpson oversees all of Cary’s 45 athletic fields, volleyball courts, and supporting facilities with a team of 23 full-time employees. An avid high school baseball player and fan, he saw sports turf management as a long term connection to stay in the game he loves.
Building a Batting Average
While at NC State, Simpson interned with the Durham Bulls alongside classmate John Tournour. “All of us wanted to make it to the ‘big league’. At the time, I thought [the Bulls] were it,” he mused. He became the Bulls’ head groundskeeper during his junior year at NC State and served the movie-celebrated team and fans for almost three years. Around that time, USA Baseball, the governing body for all amateur baseball, started building their new National Training Center at the 221-acre Thomas Brooks Park in Cary. Simpson saw the hometown opportunity and set his career gaze there.
Simpson graduated from NC State in 2002 and joined fellow NC State alum Clark Cox in Columbia, South Carolina. The move was part of his strategy to gain experience with multi-use athletic fields and larger complexes. “That’s what’s great about the NC State family. You can reach out to anybody at any time and they’ll help you,” Simpson said. His resume-building paid off in April of 2006 when he signed with the Town of Cary. “It worked out surprisingly well,” he said.
Turf Management is a Team Sport
Simpson’s passion for athletic turf goes beyond the 9 to 5. He is an active member of the National Sports Turf Managers Association serving as their president for 2020. He is an ardent proponent of natural grass surfaces for player safety and long-term value. “[Natural grass] has a bad reputation of being high cost. But synthetic isn’t maintenance-free either. I do see certain applications where synthetic is a viable option. But I think natural grass can be a more cost-effective measure, particularly if managed by a professional turf manager.”
His Town of Cary team manages their athletic fields by striving to balance labor and equipment efficiencies with the changing needs of their end-user. “One of the best parts of my job is interacting with our team – working toward our goals, sharing information with collaborators, and improving our product for the end-user. This business requires you to be a well-rounded teammate.”
Most of Simpson’s team members join as an intern or entry-level groundskeeper. Individuals can progress to an Athletic Field Maintenance Technician, Athletic Field Crew Leader, and then to a Facility Expeditor. Sustained career growth requires its own type of fertilizer. “As professionals, we have to stay current, and that’s all about continuing education. There’s new information on management methods coming out all the time. We use NC State’s Turffiles all the time for that.”
He’s not shy in seeking out resources. “One unique thing about this industry is the collaboration. I can pick up the phone and call anybody in the industry – a major league sports turf manager or golf course superintendent I’ve never met and troubleshoot with them. We may be competitive on aesthetics, but we’re all in the game together to make sure the surfaces are safe for our athletes, no matter their age or ability.”
Providing a safe playing field extends beyond the surface – including fences, gates, voids in terrain, drainage, and field traction. “There’s a misconception in this industry that we don’t want activity on the fields. ‘You don’t want us to tear up the fields,’ people say. But that’s not it at all. We want everyone to play – safely. We can grow the grass back- no problem – but not so much your ACL.” Simpson says that when fields are closed, it’s almost always for a safety concern.Coaching For Current Students
As a team leader, Simspon is responsible for hiring. “For all levels of hiring, we look for well-rounded individuals with good character. We want people who have had a lot of different experiences they can bring and share. For me, NC State was an amazing place to be. There is a real diversity of cultures and perspectives. It made me well-rounded because of the people I met.”
What does Simspon tell students considering turf study? “Don’t take the classroom so seriously,” he joked. “Really, the classroom is extremely important, but how you apply what you learn in the classroom is even more important.”
He encourages prospective students to get involved early. “Reach out and talk to professionals, be it an athletic director or professional grounds manager. Make those connections.” Then he says, get started. “Get out there and try everything! You’ve got to get outside to touch and feel the grass. Raise your hand for every volunteer experience through internships or private work. Volunteer for everything! I once offered to help in plumbing while at the Bulls. You never know what you’ll end up using someday.”
Considering Turfgrass Study?
NC State students learn the science of turfgrass both on and off the field. If you are a student interested in sports turfgrass, read our turfgrass program ebook and explore all our degree pathways. Then sign up for an undergraduate’s guided email tour of our entire Crop & Soil Sciences Department.
Ready to plan your path at NC State? Set a no-pressure time to talk with David Crouse in our Undergraduate Programs Office. Educating and supporting turfgrass managers is part of how we are growing the future.
(photo Jimmy Simpson Town of Cary, NC)
–Jennifer Howard, N.C. State University