A call for grass

Curry Shoff

In 1969, the Texas Longhorns switched the field, in what was then Texas Memorial Stadium from natural grass to AstroTurf. The team went 11-0 and beat Notre Dame 21-17 in the Cotton Bowl, securing the second national championship for the Longhorns in 10 years.

And then they went 36 years without one.

From 1969-1995, the Longhorns played on a variety of artificial surfaces at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Over those 26 years, the Longhorns were 109-33 at home, with a winning percentage of .766, a full point less than the following 15 years when they went back to grass.

Making the switch from natural grass to artificial grass has recently become a common trend in college football. Historic programs like Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Oregon have all altered their fields of play to artificial turf in the last decade. In fact, as a way for programs to save money on field maintenance, schools across the nation can be found “updating” their fields to artificial turf. One place you won’t find any of these programs, however, is on the podium holding up the championship trophy at the end of the year. Since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, the national champion has never been a team who plays on artificial turf at their home stadium. Of the 28 teams that have played in the BCS National Championship Game over the last 14 years, only two of them have played on artificial turf.

In 2009, as Texas sulked over a heartbreaking loss to Alabama in the National Championship, UT Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds announced that the Longhorns would start playing on artificial turf again. It was a petty $500,000 that would be spent as part of the $27 million in renovations toDarrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Dodds deemed this change necessary for the advancement of the program after multiple complaints about players slipping and falling in the last home game of the previous season against Texas A&M. (Remember them, the team in the Southeastern Conference that just beat number-one-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa? They still play on grass.) Texas won that game handily — 49-7. The change was intended to help improve the safety of the student athletes. However, the argument that artificial turf improves player safety is debatable. Studies have shown that artificial turf can actually be more dangerous. The American Journal for Sports Medicine found that the injury rate of knee and ankle sprains on artificial turf was 22 percent higher than on grass fields.

But just how big has the change from grass to artificial turf been for the Longhorns?  During the period in which Texas brought natural grass back to DKR (from 1996-2009) Texas set a remarkable 73-10 winning record in home games — amassing a .890 home winning percentage that placed them among the top three in college football. 

Following the installation of artificial turf at DKR in 2009, the Longhorns are a less than impressive 10-8 (.556) at home, with losses to teams like Iowa State, UCLA and Baylor. The Longhorns have won one game against a ranked opponent in the last three seasons. That game came this year against 18th-ranked Texas Tech, a team that has now fallen out of the Top 25. The Longhorns of the artificial turf era have given up 146 points to Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl (grass) in three years while only scoring 58 points. Statistically, this year’s defense is on track to be the worst defense the Longhorns have ever fielded. While Texas’ former rival is becoming a feared SEC opponent, this University is struggling to get out of Lawrence, Kansas with a win.

Profit has finally trumped tradition in Austin, and Longhorn fans have not been shy in voicing their displeasure. The calls for changes have echoed throughout Austin this year. Fans have demanded changes in coaching personnel and changes in strategy. Change is definitely necessary, but the solution might be subtler than a coaching staff shake-up or player personnel changes. Maybe the real answer for Texas football is Bermuda grass.

Shoff is an economics sophomore from Charlotte, North Carolina.