Teamwork on the field enabled the San Francisco 49ers to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002; teamwork off the field allowed the team to take on a huge undertaking this offseason, giving a makeover to practice fields that have been in place for 20-plus years.
The 2012 offseason saw a number of changes around the 49ers Santa Clara facility, chief among them being the ground breaking and subsequent construction work currently taking place at the new Santa Clara Stadium site. The team also had to radically alter its own backyard to fall in line with the changes taking place around 4949 Centennial Blvd.
How did the practice fields get replaced in such a seamless transition prior to the team’s recent offseason program?
Enter Sports Turf Manager/Head Groundskeeper Matt Greiner, who replaced revered groundskeeper Rich Genoff last December after the tenured 49ers employee retired following 30 years in the field, including 24 seasons with San Francisco.
Greiner, 27, offers the club tremendous experience from his training at Ohio State University, where he earned a Bachelor’s Science degree in Turf Grass Science from the horticulture school.
“Matt is an integral part of the football operation,” said Jeff Ferguson, the 49ers Director of Football Operations and Sports Medicine. “He’s unbelievable. His communication skills are impeccable and his personality is one-of-a-kind.”
Ferguson often can be seen conversing with the detailed groundskeeper after nearly every 49ers offseason practice. The two typically walk the fields to discuss how the over-seeded Bermuda grass is holding up. Greiner enjoys the collaborative relationship, especially with how Ferguson keeps a constant line of communication between the football operations staff and the other departments in the organization.
“There’s not a day that doesn’t go by that Matt doesn’t bring up Rich Genoff and the tremendous contributions he made,” Ferguson said. “You know Rich is a legend in the field and for Matt to have the opportunity to be mentored by Rich, you can’t put a price tag on that.”
Greiner often recalls the lessons learned from Genoff during his early years with the 49ers, but even with that tutelage, the head groundskeeper’s experience is quite vast for his age.
It all started in Columbus, Ohio, where Greiner got his start working at a golf course as a freshman in college. From there, Greiner parlayed his interest into a role assisting the groundskeepers at Ohio State. Besides maintaining the well-known playing field at Ohio Stadium (including two different re-sods during the Buckeyes’ 2006 season which included an appearance in the BCS title game), Greiner worked on all of the playing surfaces for the college’s various teams.
“It was perfect,” Greiner said. “The great thing about working for a college is you get every sport.”
Textbooks offered the fundamentals needed to excel in a challenging field, but so did the hands-on experience Greiner had in college. Besides having to make sure the fields were impeccable, Greiner did it while applying what he was learning in class.
Ohio Stadium, sand-based in nature like the 49ers practice fields and Candlestick Park, actually has its grass growing into sand. The experience at OSU not only prepared Greiner for his future responsibilities with the 49ers, but also showed him how to best work with the Bermuda grass.
“The hands-on experience and things like that, the aerification, the top dressing, school was great for the textbook stuff, but the hands-on experience was really priceless,” said Greiner, who also pointed out Bermuda grass grows laterally and horizontally to give the field better grip.
Greiner next took on the challenge of working for Arsenal of the English Premier League, followed by a stint with the Minnesota Vikings. Greiner joined the 49ers in 2009, before being elevated to his current role last December.
Although he’s pleased to be in his current position, Greiner can’t help but think what it would be like if not for his relationship with Genoff.
“For a young guy with any field, it’s important to have someone as a mentor,” Greiner explained. “Managing the field was a big part of what I learned, picking up his management style, how he organizes time and things like that. It was an invaluable resource.”
The time aspect, perhaps, is the biggest lesson learned.
“Managing time is so important in this field because you have team activities that you have to work around,” Greiner explained.
The 49ers groundskeeper felt the time crunch especially following the team’s appearance in the NFC title game.
At first, the plan was to keep the practice fields intact while make-ready construction work for the new Santa Clara Stadium launched around team headquarters. The 20-year old fields, however, needed to be replaced when it was discovered that the draining system would not work in conjunction with the other changes being made on the north side of the field.
The 49ers removed a training hill on the north side to make room for a player’s parking lot. The team also removed the irrigation system and the drain lines under the hill.
The former irrigation system utilized 17 large sprinkler heads, but with the demands of the slimmer field dimensions, Greiner said, “there was no way it was going to work anymore.”
So, the 49ers replaced everything.
“The conversation turned to, ‘If we’re going to tear it all out, then we need to re-do the fields anyways,’” Greiner recalled. “This was the best time to do it.”
Greiner wrote a proposal for the new playing fields and they were approved by the 49ers front office. Once approved, the 49ers immediately kick-started the process of installing new playing fields.
Initially, it took a week and a half for what Greiner called, “the biggest part of the whole project by far.” That process saw the top portion of the field stripped of all grass and organic matter to expose the sand root stone at the bottom of the surface. Next, came in the irrigation lines, followed by the over-seeded Bermuda.
Oh, and this all went down four weeks before offseason workouts were set to begin at the team facility.
Greiner and his staff got it done; leaving co-workers thoroughly impressed with the way the major project was handled.
“There’s never an emergency or a problem he doesn’t address in a calm, confident, caring demeanor,” Ferguson stressed. “Matt is a truly outstanding young professional.”
In turn, the new fields have been helpful for Ferguson’s team, the 49ers medical staff and the players.
“You’ll always hear Matt say his No. 1 priority is to assist in any way or shape or form in preventing injuries, and to provide our guys with truly the best practice surface in the league,” Ferguson added. “He’s diligent with that.”
Greiner is literally on the field throughout the duration of 49ers practices and especially appreciates the way in which head coach Jim Harbaugh utilizes all parts of the playing fields.
Greiner knows that the hashmarks will be the most affected part of the field no matter what happens at practice. However, he does take great satisfaction in seeing Harbaugh constantly moving drills around the fields.
“Coach is cognizant of everything,” Greiner added.
It’s a source of pride to work for a detailed coach like Harbaugh, but the way Greiner explains it, working for 49ers co-chairman Dr. John York is equally important. Because of York’s role as the Chairman of the NFL’s Health and Safety Advisory Committee, Greiner appreciates his role in prolonging the careers of 49ers players with an improved playing surface. He knows how important health safety is to Dr. York and enjoys carrying out the co-chairman’s vision.
“Not only does Matt have experience, but Matt brings a fantastic set of skills and knowledge,” Ferguson said. “You put those together and Rich would be very proud of him. He’s carrying on the tradition.”