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Auburn turf management degree catapults Richard Wilt into the big leagues

Auburn turf management degree catapults Richard Wilt into the big leagues

In the decade since he graduated with an agronomy and soils/turf management degree from Auburn University, Richard Wilt has built one heck of a résumé in the field—or, more accurately, the fields—of professional sports.

In fact, at this very moment, the Auburn Athletics turf and grounds manager is still shaking off the jet lag from his Oct. 30 return flight from London, where, as a member of NFL International’s elite grounds crew, he had spent 10 days transforming the England national rugby team’s home field at Twickenham Station into a gridiron for two of this season’s five NFL games abroad.

And come mid-January 2018, he’ll head to Minneapolis for his seventh stint as a hand-selected member of the Super Bowl grounds crew, an international team of sports turf managers charged with ensuring not only prime playing-field conditions for Feb. 4’s Super Bowl LII but also level and safe practice fields for both teams.

Wilt attributes his success in the pros to connections he made early in his career, which, by the way, began immediately after his August 2007 Auburn graduation. Although, in the sports turf management industry, employment with pro football or baseball teams’ grounds crews is hard to come by even for folks with experience, he started out as one of 18 groundskeepers at what was then Dolphin Stadium, home of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and, at the time, the MLB team formerly known as the Florida Marlins.

“The summer before my senior year at Auburn, I did my internship in Jupiter, Florida, at Roger Dean Stadium, where the St. Louis Cardinals and the Marlins did spring training,” he says. “I guess my work there gave me an ‘in’ to that job.”

No “guess” about it, Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences professor Beth Guertal said when he landed the gig in Miami.

“Richard knew what he wanted as a student and aggressively pursued the internship he got, and then, he worked really hard and did fantastic,” she said. “He earned this job.”

Wilt didn’t come to Auburn in 2003 set on a career in the professional sports world. He came as a golf-loving turf management major with visions of becoming one of the world’s premier golf course superintendents. But then, he got a part-time job as a student worker on the grounds crew at Jordan-Hare Stadium, working for Eric Kleypas, another Auburn turfgrass alumnus and director of Athletics’ turf and landscape services, and his golf course dream soon dissipated.

Wilt worked at Miami for five years, during which time Super Bowl XLIV came to Dolphin Stadium and presented him the opportunity to meet Ed Mangan, who, in addition to his job as chief groundskeeper for the Atlanta Braves, heads up sports field management and crew selection for NFL International and post-season games. He also got to know some of the 30-plus NFL Super Bowl grounds crew members, and by the 2008 Super Bowl, he was one of them.

In 2012, Wilt left Miami for Foley and a job with Bent Oak Farm, a sod operation that grows high-end, athletic turf on plastic. Bent Oak sod is grown solely for stadium use and is what farm owner Mark Paluch describes as “bulletproof.” Anyway, in that position, Wilt traveled coast to coast and north to south installing the fail-proof sod on professional and university football and baseball fields, including the Houston Astros’ Minute Maid Park, which millions of World Series–watching baseball fans saw in their living rooms during the Astros vs. L.A. Dodgers match-up.

Wilt also installed Bent Oak sod on Jordan-Hare’s Pat Day Field during his time with the Foley operation, and returning to Auburn must have sparked a bit of nostalgia because in September 2016, he left Bent Oak for the turf and grounds manager position with Auburn Athletics.
“The opportunity came open, and it was a chance to get back home,” he says.

In his current role, Wilt oversees all Auburn athletic fields, and he also schedules and manages the turf management students who, just as he did a few short years ago, get part-time jobs with the Kleypas-led grounds team.

“Working with Eric when I was a student is what influenced me to pursue sports turf management, and I want to encourage our current student workers the way I was encourage,” Wilt says. “Our main focus is preparing these kids and letting them obtain the skills and knowledge they need for when they graduate and get a job.”

He’s also urging those students to take every opportunity to get involved in the industry, both now and when they enter the workforce. His goal: To look up from his field-prepping work at some future Super Bowl or NFL International game site and see his current students there, working alongside him.

Laura Cauthen