Pittsburgh Steelers rely on 'unsung heroes' in march to championship

University Park, Pa. -- Fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers pro football team know the stars who fueled the victory on Sunday, but they probably don't know about the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences' behind-the-scenes contributions to the win.

The Heinz Field grounds crew faced its own uphill battle restoring the field's turf after a Pittsburgh Penguins' New Years' Day outdoor hockey game rendered it unplayable. Heinz Field assistant sports turf manager Andy Lipinski, a 2002 graduate of Penn State's famed Turfgrass Management Program, said he and the rest of the grounds crew were in a race against time to completely re-sod the field before the Steelers AFC semi-final game with the Baltimore Ravens on Jan. 15.

The Steelers played a Thursday night game against the Carolina Panthers, then turned the field over to the National Hockey League to set up a hockey rink for the NHL Winter Classic. Two days after the classic, the NHL returned custody of the field to Lipinski and the grounds crew, leaving them with about five days to replace the destroyed turf with sod shipped from New Jersey.

Not only did they manage to pull it off, but their efforts earned them positive reviews from the Steelers players, coaches and other staff -- a group that typically speaks up only when there are problems.

"Everybody thought the field played very well -- and I did, too," Lipinski said. "They were very impressed. Maybe it was because after the hockey game, they were a little worried about how it would turn out, so they were just surprised when it played really well. But we had nothing but good reviews.

"People only notice groundskeepers when something goes wrong. We're around the trainers and equipment guys on a regular basis, and it's not very often that they say anything about the fields."

Pittsburgh doesn't get many days of winter sunshine, Lipinski explained, and grass goes dormant and stops growing in that climate after late October or early November. Frequent use of Heinz Field by local college and high school teams means that the grass is struggling by the end of the season under the best of circumstances, and the hockey game beat it up even more. So the crew chose to replace the sod instead of trying to re-grow it -- a decision that paid dividends (in the Jan. 23 conference championship game with the New York Jets).

The Penn State turfgrass program is one of the first programs of its kind in the nation, and its faculty has received numerous regional and national awards for excellence and innovations in turfgrass science. It was the first to confer a doctorate in turfgrass science, first to offer a two-year technical program specifically for golf course superintendents, and first to offer an undergraduate major in turfgrass science.

The program has graduates employed by many football and baseball teams around the country -- which was awkward when Penn State alumnus Dan Sidle and other graduates on the New York Jets grounds crew came to Pittsburgh for the Jan. 23 AFC Championship. But, just like Penn State alumni athletes in the NFL, running into and competing against fellow Penn Staters isn't new for Lipinski.

"I've run into Dan at national conferences, but I have not talked to him," he said. "There are others that are closer -- Tony Leonard of the Philadelphia Eagles is a Penn State grad, and I talk to him a lot more. There are many Penn Staters throughout the NFL. Actually, a lot of the guys that we bring in to help out on game days have backgrounds in turf management, and almost all are Penn State graduates."

To hear an audio interview with Lipinski, visit http://bit.ly/fqcz9i online.

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Last Updated March 21, 2011