The heated competition of the students representing their universities is almost upon us. Who’s ready? Who’s prepared to battle it out for the win in 2016? Who really cares about this at all?

The Turf Bowl has a long standing tradition of having students from numerous U.S. turfgrass programs battle it out for bragging rights (and now a substantial cash prize). Before I tell you what I like and what I don’t like (there are several things) about the annual Turf Bowl Competition, let me set the stage of where I’m coming from.

First, it’s easy to criticize something when you’re jealous of those at the top. Penn State has always done well in the Turf Bowl, but its stellar performance in 2015 (first, third, ninth and 12th) has actually put me in a position where I can write this without sounding like a jealous professor. I want to make it perfectly clear I’m not taking any credit for the outstanding job our students did last year. I give full credit to Dr. Ben McGraw, who over the course of several months, trained the students. I have, however, been involved in the Turf Bowl for many years and ultimately had to bow out of participating for a number of reasons.

Long to take, long to grade

In the past, I volunteered alongside faculty to grade the exams. It was a slow and arduous process and all on a deadline to have the results ready by the evening’s announcements. You would think it would be an easy situation, but as you pulled turf experts together to evaluate the responses, there would always be differences in opinions as to the correct answers. For me, I remember complaining about the pathology images and how a real diagnosis could not be made based on the image or information given. In any case, it made for a long process.

A Long Reign at the Top Brings Controversy

As Iowa State racked up win after win, several professors became upset and some even suggested the group had acquired an unfair advantage. This was one reason I started distancing myself from the event. It was supposed to be fun and competitive – not cut-throat. It certainly wasn’t meant to be a faculty competition. At some point the exam was changed. Some will argue it was to speed up the grading process. Others will contend it was a fresh start so every team would be on a level playing field. I’m guessing it was a combination of both.

If you’re a student competing in San Diego, then I wish you the best of luck. Study hard and compete hard, but don’t lose sight of the opportunities that the GIS has to offer.”

Competition gets intense

I love the competition and the passion each student has to represent his or her university at the national level. In fact, I encourage it. However, I don’t believe so much pressure is placed on students that they lose focus of what GIS really is about, and the Turf Bowl is only a small part.

I remember after the results were announced one year, a university’s team was reviewing the results of the individual sections of their exam. Recognizing one of their team members did poor on the essay portion, and that this likely cost them a first-place finish, they berated the student until they burst into tears. I wouldn’t be surprised if that student is no longer in the industry. Another turning point for my involvement.

Awards ceremony

I get what sponsorships mean to both GCSAA and to the companies that sponsor events. I can see it from both sides. However, the event where the Turf Bowl winners were announced turned from a meet-and-greet for superintendents and the students to a cluster of people standing at the sponsor’s booth. The overall intentions of the event were this time lost in a sea of green.

While Penn State benefited from the financial support in 2015, I still believe this event is about friendly competition and university pride as opposed to a monetary award.

It’s not all negative

The Turf Bowl is good for many reasons. First and foremost, competing in the student competition is likely what gets many of the students to the GIS. Administrators are more likely to support teams participating in some sort of student event or competition.

In 2016, Penn State will be sending 18 students to San Diego. While the students are expected to participate in the Turf Bowl, they are also encouraged to walk the trade show floor to see what the industry has to offer. This serves as a networking opportunity, as well as a chance to pick up some free swag which they seem to enjoy.

The competition also encourages students to study, train and learn as much as possible about what awaits them in the industry. They are exposed to a variety of topics that show the diversity of the industry. Many universities even offer class credits for taking Turf Bowl preparation classes. All positives in my book.

Take the competition with a grain of salt

If you’re a student on a Turf Bowl team, then just know that if you don’t “win,” you should still get something positive out of the experience. If you’re an alum of a participating team, then just know that in no way does it represent the quality of the university’s turf program. It honestly means next to nothing.

As a faculty member at the university who currently holds the championship trophy, I would offer these parting thoughts. If you’re a student competing in San Diego, then I wish you the best of luck. Study hard and compete hard, but don’t lose sight of the opportunities that the GIS has to offer. You have been given the opportunity of a lifetime for a student and regardless of where you finish, the industry is proud of you.

John Kaminski is an associate professor, Turfgrass Science, and director of the Golf Course Turfgrass Management Program at Penn State University. You can reach him at