Guru of grass is gone

Marvin Westwestwords

Bobby Campbell, Tennessee’s guru of grass, has died.

The legendary groundskeeper of Shields-Watkins Field and other turf playing surfaces at the University of Tennessee finally lost a fierce fight with a long illness. He was 72.

Campbell, previously a teacher and baseball coach at Doyle High School, was a UT employee from 1990 through 2009.

“Bobby was a professional at what he did,” said Phillip Fulmer, Hall of Fame football coach. “I loved the man. He took so much pride in being a part of the team.”

Fulmer said he and Campbell often disagreed about the stadium field.

Bobby Campbell

“We went nose to nose a lot of times about use of the field. I wanted the team to practice there and Bobby wanted to protect the grass and give it a chance to heal.

“He won a lot of those arguments – because he was right,” said Fulmer.

Nurturing sports fields was far more than a job for Campbell. It was love at first sight. He studied grass to determine which best meshed with the regional growing season and team usage. He learned how much water and fertilizer the baseball, softball, soccer, football practice fields, track infield and golf facility needed.

“He was an artist with a great, green canvas,” said Tom Mattingly, once a UT co-worker and now a Vol historian. “He and others celebrated the end of plastic and the return of real grass to Neyland Stadium.”

Ex-Vol Pat Robinette was the Doyle basketball coach when Campbell had the baseball team.

“We developed a friendship that lasted 47 years,” said Robinette. “He was a great man and a true professional.”

Robinette remembered what happened when Campbell wanted a better baseball field.

“He studied field construction. He studied the different grasses. He redid a cow pasture and developed the best field in the Knoxville area, so good many of the tournaments came to our school.

“He helped the Blue Jays improve the field at Bill Meyer Stadium. He was a very important part of the university’s conversion from artificial turf to natural grass.”

Through the years, Campbell and Robinette were rivals in golf.

“Let me say this carefully. I often won but Bobby couldn’t wait for the next round. He was a wonderful competitor.”

At UT, Campbell did or directed everything about the care and feeding of everything that was green. He wanted all the Vols to have the best possible playgrounds but he clearly understood the attention and pressure focused on Shields-Watkins Field.

“Tennessee people care a great deal about this field,” he once said. “People want it to be the best field anywhere. That’s our charge.”

Campbell had the proper background for understanding.

“You think about all the great players who have played on this field and the great games played there. This field belongs to everybody who identifies with Tennessee tradition. It’s a special place. It isn’t just a place you work. It’s sacred ground.”

History? In Campbell’s little office under the south end of Neyland Stadium was an old black and white photograph of a man in bib overalls, Deanie Hoskins, field caretaker when Robert R. Neyland was coach.

Campbell enjoyed reciting the story of a classic conversation between the two.

“Coach Neyland stopped by one day, in the middle of the summer, and asked Deanie if the field would be ready for the start of the season.

‘“My field is always ready,’ said Hoskins. ‘Can you say the same thing about your football team?’”

Campbell was president of the Sports Turf Management Association in the early 2000s. He developed a strong relationship with UT’s agricultural campus, specifically its Turfgrass Science program.

Campbell was born in Pulaski and grew up in Lawrenceburg. He earned his bachelor’s (1973) and master’s (1975) degrees while serving as student assistant baseball coach under Bill Wright. Campbell was a teacher and coach at Doyle for a decade.

“He was very much a professional,” recalled Robbie Howard, an assistant coach at Doyle. “His attention to details was very precise.”

Howard remembered the one time Campbell was distracted. He was coaching third base in a tense game.

“A man came running up to him in the coaching box. They had a brief conversation. I asked later what was going on.

“Coach Campbell said I wouldn’t believe the answer. His expression said the same thing. They were out of popcorn at the concession stand and the man wanted to know what to do about it.”

In the second half of Campbell’s life, most questions were about grass.

Campbell is survived by his wife, the former Toni Norfleet of Nashville, a former UT mathematics instructor. Their children are son Peter and daughter Tracy Pollock. The family will receive friends from 5-7 p.m. on Tuesday at Colonial Heights United Methodist Church on Chapman Highway.

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is [email protected]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *