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May 10, 2004

The following continues a series called “A Day in the Life…” that began in the March 15, 2004, issue of The NCAA News. The series examines a typical day in the life of athletics administrators, coaches, student-athletes and others who work hard to promote intercollegiate athletics. Each individual — whether at a large, public university or small, private college — has a unique story to tell as they strive to contribute to the betterment of sports on college campuses. Their titles rarely scratch the surface of the work they do. They are more than just directors or coaches or student-athletes — they are counselors, mentors, friends and sometimes even heroes … and these are their stories.

By Beth Rosenberg
The NCAA News

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s only 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 22, but already Brian Gimbel is checking the various weather Web sites bookmarked on his computer. It looks like rain is on the way to central Ohio, but the trick is to pinpoint exactly when the sprinkles will begin.

Gimbel is the athletics grounds superintendent at Ohio State University, and with several major sporting events scheduled for the coming weekend, he needs to know when the rain is coming to plan his day and get the school’s outdoor athletics facilities ready for baseball, men’s and women’s lacrosse, women’s tennis, and spring football.

“I have 10 or 12 Web sites booked just for weather,” he explains, while looking at various maps showing the track of the coming storm. “We constantly have to be weighing priorities and deciding what’s the most important thing to get done. Everything we do is tied to the weather.”

Today, bleachers need to be replaced at the baseball stadium, lines need to be painted on the football field, facilities need to be cleaned and an area needs to be mulched in preparation for a sign-dedication ceremony — and that’s just what’s been planned for the day. There’s no telling what else will come up and how the impending rain will change those plans.

Gimbel, 33, has been working in the athletics facilities department since 1991, when he was still a student at Ohio State. He was hired on full time after graduating in 1994 with a degree in turf grass science and he has worked his way up to superintendent since then.

When Gimbel started at Ohio State, the Warren, Ohio, native majored in audio-recording engineering with dreams of someday working with jazz musicians. But a music career isn’t always stable, and once his major was discontinued, he went into turf grass science and has never looked back.

“We try to lead the Big Ten, if not the NCAA, in what we do around here,” he said with the pride of someone who’s been a Buckeyes fan since childhood. Ohio Stadium, for example, is seen by millions of people on television during the season, so the football field has to be perfect, or as close to it as possible, at all times.

“There’s a little bit of pressure involved there,” he said of the attention given to the natural grass that adorns Ohio Stadium. “It’s just that important.”

It’s for that reason you can find Gimbel on the sidelines on game day checking and rechecking the turf for any imperfections.

While talking about the intricacies of maintaining a natural-grass football field through the cold, Ohio winter, Gimbel is interrupted by a phone call from someone wanting to know if they can bring a group of sixth-graders by for a tour of Ohio Stadium. Gimbel agrees and he plans to meet the group at 2:45 p.m. on the west side of the stadium, near gate 23.

“We get a lot of requests for tours like that,” he says.

Around 10 a.m. a shipment of wood arrives for the bleachers that need to be replaced at Bill Davis Stadium, the school’s baseball venue. No one else is around, so Gimbel hops in the forklift and unloads the 80 or so boards that will be installed in the bleachers before this weekend’s Big Ten match-up against the University of Michigan.

Ultimately, he explains, he wants to put aluminum in to replace the wood, but it was too expensive to order on such short notice. “We had to get wood just to get through the rest of the season,” he says.

Once the wood is unloaded, Gimbel heads back to his desk, which is located in a small office in the middle of the facilities building. His desk is one of two in the white, cinder-block-walled room. On the wall, a bulletin board displays pictures of his 5-month-old daughter Lia and his wife. He shows off the pictures of his new daughter, saying that the only home game he’s missed in years was last season when she was born. And even then, he and the 4-day-old newborn watched the Buckeyes on television.

Magnets featuring past schedules of various Ohio State sports teams hold up important papers, and the shelves are filled with books on sports fields, turf grass disease, soil and other subjects important to his livelihood.

Shortly before 11 a.m., a turf grass science major interested in working at Ohio State this summer pops in. The two talk about salary and what the job entails, and Gimbel says he thinks it should work out.

“It’s going to be a lot of painting lines for summer camps and stuff like that,” he warns the student. “But there will be some good stuff — we’ll get you down on the football field a bunch of times.”

The student quickly fills out a sheet of paper with his vital information and shakes Gimbel’s hand before leaving. Gimbel explains that he could never get his work done without the 20 or so students who work part time for him.

Before he can leave to check the athletics fields, something he does on a near-daily basis, a student worker comes in to talk to Gimbel about possible fungal disease on the baseball field. The wet weather has made it necessary for a tarp to be placed on the field, but the tarp that protects the field also cuts off oxygen to the grass and can lead to fungus.

The fungus could be one of 200-300 different diseases, though Gimbel quickly narrows it down to one of a couple types of fungus. He explains that the student will need to determine if it feels greasy or not and if it’s attached to the grass from the top or bottom to determine the type of fungus. Once an identification is made, the fungus can be treated with chemicals.

As the student heads off to investigate the fungus, Gimbel hops in a golf cart for a quick ride around the athletics fields. He shows off the new outdoor football practice field made of artificial turf and encourages a visitor to feel it and see how grass-like it is. During a stop at the baseball stadium to inspect what needs to be cleaned up from the previous night’s game, Gimbel explains that birds are his biggest problem at this facility.

“It’s their house,” he said. “They’re everywhere.” People often complain about bird droppings at the stadium, but even though it’s cleaned regularly, there’s little that can be done to control the problem. Gimbel said he’s looking into a sound system that can scare off the birds.

After a walk through the locker rooms, bathrooms and press box of the baseball stadium, it’s off to Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium — the home of soccer, lacrosse and track and field. This field here, like the football field, is natural grass, and Gimbel points out the bare patches where the lacrosse goalies stand, explaining that it’s hard to keep the grass smooth in that area.

Driving around in the open golf cart, it’s easy to spot the pesky dandelions that are popping up all over the place. Gimbel cringes as he looks at their bright yellow tops, saying he would love to spray them today, but there’s too much other work that needs to be done that takes precedence over the dandelions, and besides, the rain is on its way.

Back at Bill Davis Stadium, Gimbel meets with people from the Columbus Zoo about a promotional event scheduled for May 9. The event involves bringing animals out to the baseball stadium, and Gimbel makes notes in his portable, electronic scheduler as to what will be needed at the facility that day to ensure the event is a success.

At 12:30 p.m., Gimbel heads back to the office to check the weather again.

“The day’s about shot already,” he said, noting that the rain should arrive within an hour or so. “It looks like it’s going to hang out pretty good once it’s here.” He decides to leave the tarp on the baseball field, for now, and adds it’s unlikely the lines on the football field will get painted today.

With those decisions made, he heads to High Street for lunch at Nancy’s Home Cooking, a fixture on Ohio State’s main avenue that features one special each day and no other menu. Gimbel from memory recites that Thursday is chicken and noodles over mashed potatoes with green beans.

Gimbel recalls the years he spent eating at Nancy’s as a student and the owners’ generosity when he or other students didn’t have enough money to pay. Over the years, he says, the owners, none of whom is named Nancy, have become his second family.

He walks in and sits at the counter, laughing at the good-natured ribbing he takes from the owners for not stopping in more often or bringing his daughter by to visit. He tells them what’s been going on in his life, in between bites of home cooking.

Back at the office after lunch, it’s about 1:30 p.m. and still no rain, so he checks the computer models once again to see when it’s coming. A student worker stops by and Gimbel shows him on a campus map where some seed needs to be spread.

After returning some phone calls, checking e-mails and doing some filing, Gimbel talks to another student about the fungus on the baseball field and they decide it’s not bad enough to warrant spraying right now, but they’ll keep an eye on it.

As the clock inches closer to 2:45, Gimbel hops back in a golf cart to head to the football stadium for the tour. He says he thought he’d be painting lines on the field right now, but the rain has changed those plans. If it rains the next day, too, Gimbel says they can use a non-water-based paint to put lines on the field, though it’s not good for the grass and he’d rather not do that.

At the stadium, Gimbel leads about 66 sixth-graders from Leetonia Middle School in northeast Ohio on a tour of the facility. The group of orange-shirted students excitedly follows Gimbel up the ramps and into seats on the second level behind the end zone.

The stadium is about 80 years old, he explains, adding that 105,000 people fill the stands on game day. When he opens the floor to questions, there’s not much interest in the technology Gimbel and his crew use to keep the field healthy, but there’s lots of other questions about Ohio State football.

Gimbel is asked about Maurice Clarett, who he calls a “pretty nice kid,” but declines to comment if the running back should return to Ohio State if he doesn’t go into the NFL draft. He’s also asked about ticket prices, who will be next year’s quarterback, has he ever been tackled and do they sell peanuts in the stadium.

For the record, Gimbel has never been tackled, and there are no peanuts sold at Ohio Stadium because the shells are too hard to clean up.

When parent-chaperone David Goerig asks the students if they’d like to do what Gimbel does, only about two hands are raised, though they thought it was “cool” he was able to go to the game for free and work with a famous football team.

As the students head back to their buses, Goerig, who works with the Ohio State University Extension, hands Gimbel a sample of a diseased tree that needs to be analyzed. Gimbel takes the sample over to researchers at the school’s Department of Horticulture and Crop Science.

At the Schottenstein Center, where he’ll drop off the sample, Gimbel runs into Dr. John Street, one of the country’s leading researchers of sports turf. Street, an associate professor at Ohio State, asks Gimbel how the football field is looking for this weekend’s spring football game.

“Great,” Gimbel answers confidently. He’s asked the same question several more times before heading back to his office.

It’s about 4:30 now, and with the rain coming down steadily there’s not much more that can be done today, so Gimbel will soon head home, knowing he’ll be putting in 12 to 15 hour days this weekend making sure the facilities look their best for all the sporting events.

Despite the demands of his job, and the pressure to make sure all outdoor facilities are in the best shape, Gimbel clearly loves what he does and takes pride in the role he plays in helping Ohio State’s athletes achieve success.

Earlier in the day, while standing inside Ohio Stadium, Gimbel looked down onto the field from section 13 on the west side of the facility and smiled, despite the steady drizzle.

“This is my favorite building in the world,” he said, looking around at the empty bleachers and down at the green field. “Each sport, each facility has its own philosophy on what you’re trying to achieve with it. That’s what I find so exciting.”