George Toma, the foremost expert on football playing surfaces, had a strong opinion about the much-talked-about grass on the floor of Levi’s Stadium for Super Bowl 50.
“I’m an 87-year-old man and I’ve been in this game for 74 years and been to 50 Super Bowls,” Toma told CSNBayArea.com on Wednesday. “And I thought this was the second-best sod we’ve had at a Super Bowl.”
Toma said the only field he ranks better than what he helped prepare for Sunday's game was Super Bowl XLI, which was played in driving rain storm in Miami on Feb. 4, 2007, featuring the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears.
The Levi's Stadium playing surface came under scrutiny when CBS-TV reported players on the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers were changing cleats in the first quarter. Afterward, Denver defensive backs Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward were critical of the sod. Talib said the footing was “terrible.” Ward said the grass was “slippery.”
“Sometimes these players are hard-headed,” Toma said. “They won’t change their cleats and their play suffers. We gave the players the best playing field, a safe playing field. The cheapest insurance for an athlete from Pop Warner to the NFL is a good, safe playing field. And we try to give the fans in the stands and the fans on TV a thing of beauty.
“I know there’s a lot of controversy, but the field played excellent. But the two players that (complained), all they had to do was their change cleats.”
Super Bowl MVP Von Miller changed his cleats. Afterward, he remarked, “It was a great field.” And Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who was on the losing side, described the surface as "outstanding.”
West Coast Turf supplied the sod that consisted of a blend of hybrid bermuda and rye, grown at its Northern California facility in Livingston. The grass was shipped to Levi’s Stadium, where the NFL took control of the field preparations a month before kickoff.
Before the game and at halftime, a grounds crew of more than 20 members were seen on the field with buckets to pick up small pieces of loose grass. Toma said there were no divots on the field. He said the crew was performing was standard cosmetic maintenance.
“What people saw us picking up was the grass clippings,” he said. “There was young rye grass that never rooted because we really couldn’t get it going because of all the rehearsals.
“No bermuda or any of the established rye grass came up. It was just the young rye grass. We had 32 hours of pre-game and halftime rehearsals. We covered field with a rain tarp and we have a football field painted on it. The field would get covered at 1 o’clock and it would be covered for the next seven hours.”
West Coast Turf’s vice president of sales and marketing John Marman said how the field played for each individual came down to their players’ cleat selection.
“Sometimes guys have to feel it out first, and maybe slip, before they pick up a heavier cleat that’s going to be a little slower,” he said. “Guys want to choose the lightest possible cleat and in some cases they’ll go with a molded cleat and not the deeper type of cleat that’ll be a little heavier and a little slower.”
Marman said the grass is not grown to suit a specific length of cleat because there are so many other facts that determine what’s best for each individual.
“Those things are determined by weather and moisture in the ground,” he said. “You never can tell. It’s on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis. Things change on a field. What may be very playable at noon with a lighter cleat is going to need to be played on with a heavier cleat once the sun sets because the dew starts coming out of the (grass)."
The 49ers had safety issues on the field in each of their first two training camps. Jim Harbaugh pulled his team off the field for one practice session in 2014, and Jim Tomsula altered one practice in 2015 because of the field conditions.
Initially, the problem with the playing surface was the consistency of the sand mixture under the sod. Those problems have been solved, according to team officials. There appeared to be no obvious issues with the playing surface during the 2015 regular season.
“When you hear a couple of guys saying it wasn’t (good ), that’s going to be exposed and picked on a little more because people are kind of waiting in line to say something bad about the field at Levi’s Stadium,” Marman said. “It has a bit of a stigma attached to it. And things have picked up for the better. We were very proud of that field.”
Perhaps the biggest complication with developing a consistent playing surface at Levi's Stadium the abundance of events that are held at the venue that forces the field to be re-sodded multiple times throughout the year. And the lead-up to the 2016 regular season will be no less challenging.
There is a motocross event scheduled for April, a Beyonce concert in May, and four soccer matches in June. And after the 49ers report to training camp, Kenny Chesney and Coldplay have concerts scheduled for Aug. 6 and Sept. 3, respectively.
There is no timetable for when the field used for Super Bowl 50 must be replaced, Marman said. But West Coast Turf now has the capabilities of “recycling” the sod atop a semi-permeable membrane that retains and holds the sand and the root zone, he said. So a field that is removed from Levi’s Stadium can go back to the West Coast Turf facility to regenerate and get stronger before returning to the stadium at a later date.
“It’s not as wasteful and the sod gets better with age,” Marman said.
Marman said a particular phone call he received from a man known as “The Sultan of Sod” far overshadowed a couple of bad reviews from players who did not change their cleats during Sunday’s game. Toma reached out to Marman after the game to compliment his product.
Said Marman, “He personally called me and said, ‘Hey, this field was exceptional and it’s getting a bad rap, and I think it’s wrong.’ ”