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Pat’s Dry Field

‘There is already a LOT of standing water on the field. This will be a test for this field to see how it holds up.’

— Auburn beat reporter Andy Bitter, blogging from the Jordan-Hare Stadium press box Saturday, September 19.

"The field will shine at Auburn."
“The field will shine at Auburn.”

Paul Conner, 80, wasn’t at the West Virginia game. He doesn’t go any more. It’s hard to walk. And when he goes all he can think about are things like the sewer line and the water pressure in the upper decks.

His daughter Nancy went. But she didn’t stay.

It wasn’t that she was going to get wet; she had nice seats. (The Conner’s are, deservedly, one of those nice-seats Auburn families — Beckwith Club — with nice Auburn houses filled with fantastic Auburn things like old programs and unsung hero trophies.)

It’s just that, looking up at the lightning and down on the lake, Nancy (AU ’77, horticulture) actually didn’t think the game was going to happen.

The Wet Virginia game.
The Wet Virginia game.

She got a signal on her cell phone, called the folks and asked her mom Dixie, like everyone else was trying to ask their mom, what the Weather Channel was saying. The Weather Channel was saying bad things.

She asked her mom to ask “Possy” (Paul Conner’s nickname with the kids and grandkids) “how many inches of rain that thing can drain!”

Possy, Daddy, Paul Conner was sitting there in the recliner with the remote and listening through a hearing aid to the thunder and the puddles grow outside and getting kind of worried. Because it probably wouldn’t be a problem … but dang ESPN cut over to the LSU game during the delay, and when they’d check back they wouldn’t hold a shot on the field long enough for him to be sure.

Two inches an hour.

That was the answer.

Pat Dye Field — oh, how Paul Conner thinks it deserves that name! — at Jordan-Hare Stadium could drain 2 inches of rain an hour. At least, that’s how much Conner designed it to drain.

It was 1984.

Actually, first it was 1983. Paul Conner was in his 19th year in the engineering department and Pat Dye was gearing up for his third and arguably best season as Auburn’s head coach. Maybe Dye knew it was going to be a possible national championship kind of year and he wanted things to look good for television (“And that,” Conner says pointing to the slide of a photo he took of a CBS cameraman on the sidelines, “is why we do it.”).

Maybe it was because he knew how special Bo was and he wanted him to have something special to run on (“Hey Daddy,” Nancy asks, “did Bo tear up the field bad when he ran?” Paul looks at her through the glow of the projector. “Are you kidding? That sucker was so fast his feet never touched the grass!”).

It's grade to be an Auburn Tiger: Conner's crew prepping the new practice fields.
It’s grade to be an Auburn Tiger: Conner’s crew prepping the new practice fields.

Or it could have been that Pat Dye was just sick of playing on Jordan-Hare’s mangy field. And sick of practicing on that mangy field, which he had to practice on because the practice fields were even mangier. Some good intentioned someone back in the late ’70s had tilled the practice fields with sawdust and sawdust and more sawdust, trying to give it a little structure for the boys. Sawdust is all right for what the old Ag men call a soil amendment, but you’ve got to have your nitrogen and your microbes working like clockwork in order to pull it off and for the water to drain and the only thing clockwork about those old practice fields — “They were made with every kind of grass imaginable,” Conner says, “we called it Heinz 57” — was how they were laid out … how perfectly, undrainably, horribly level they were.

“We measured them,” Conner says sticking out his hands. “Three fields, side by side, totally level within an inch.”

Level is good, right?

He looks at me.

“You could have dumped 10,000 gallons of water on them and it wouldn’t go anywhere,” Conner says. “People just do not understand water.”

Paul Conner understands water. Water makes dead spots on the field, places where players actually slow down. (“There was this one spot … I know Coach Jordan knew it was there.”)

Water makes a field unlevel in a bad way, places where players actually speed up. (“I remember Coach Jordan one time talking about one of his players being able to run toward one end zone faster than the other one because it was running down hill.”)

He says it again: “People just do not understand water.”

Not that Dye really understood water or drainage all that much, either, in any kind of scientific relation to turf beyond knowing that the damn puddles just never disappeared. Because it took till the ’84 season for Possy to convince Coach that what was going to keep his beautiful fields beautiful was a beautiful tear-it-up-again drainage system.

But what Dye did immediately understand, what he could sense, was that Paul Conner gave a damn. He gave a damn about things. He gave a damn about his school.

Paul Conner in his study, Sept. 2009.
Paul Conner in his study, Sept. 2009.

Paul Conner graduated from Auburn with degrees in math and industrial arts in 1957. It was a good year to graduate. He remembers that year’s Iron Bowl (“I’ll never forget ol’ Jackie Burkette interceptin’ a pass and running it diagonally all the way across the field straight at me”) as well as he remembers the ’69 game (“ol’ Connie Frederick ran right by Bear Bryant and shook the ball at him”), as well as he remembers the ’72 shocker (“I was there. … I couldn’t believe it”), as well as he remembers the ’82 contest (“I was up there and Tom Hayley got himself hurt when the goalposts came down and the bloody thing hit him”), the ’84 game (“… it wasn’t so much that Bo went the wrong way, they just called the wrong play”), the ’85 game (“it was disgusting… the play before the field goal, Gene Jelks came through there and we had this little ol’ linebacker and he jumped on Jelk’s back like a monkey on a motorcycle but couldn’t get him down till he got to the sideline”), the ’89 game (“well, that was the most electric thing I’ve ever been a part of”), as well as he remembers all of them. In ’57, he kept warm by wrapping paper sacks around his feet and from the sheer joy of watching the guys he sat next to in class destroy Bama – like they did every year he was in school – and seal the national championship. Those days? Auburn was winning everything. Auburn was on top of the world.

In 1981, that was not the case.

“It’s hard to imagine when Coach Dye came here how bad of shape everything was,” Conner says looking off. “People wouldn’t work. They wouldn’t do anything. They wouldn’t care. But I knew Coach Dye cared and was trying to get things off the ground and improve the program.”

That more than anything — probably even more than Dixie being the business manager for the Athletic Department — is why Dye and Conner hit it off.

And after they met and got acquainted in the course of the wide-open honeymoon before a coach’s first season — all the civic clubs and rounds of golf (Conner, a damn good golfer, had overhauled the course at the Saugahatchee Country Club … you know … as a kind of a hobby), and luncheons and handshakes — Dye called Conner (not an Ag man, you understand, but an engineering professor) into a meeting with a bunch of the good ol’ boys, pointed his finger at him, and said ‘I want you to do it.”

The field?

The fields.

Nice grass. Pretty shrubbery. Lots of it. The whole thing.

It was May. Texas and the television cameras were coming in September for the first game of the season. September 17. He still remembers the date.

He had four months.

He leans back.

“I don’t know how we did it.”

He leans forward.

Yes, he does.

Paul Conner knows exactly how he did it. He’s got a whole carousel of photographs he took of how he did it — pristine slides, glazed in that glorious ’80s patina, of guys in tractors razing the dirty, level dirt, probably churning up old Mellow Yellow and Gatorade bottles and chin straps.

He’s got newspaper clippings about how he did it. “Auburn’s natural turf is hailed as state of the art stuff …” wrote Clyde Bolton in 1990. “It’s nice to find someone who takes pride in a job and produces something special.”

But Possy still shakes his head. He still defers. When it comes to taking credit, he still points to the picture of the man who but for a few monkeys on motorcycles, a few bad calls, and maybe a 10-point win over Michigan instead of just 2 points wouldn’t just have a great record but an amazing record, the man 10 years his junior who he still calls Coach.

Yes, Conner had some incredibly preternatural green thumbs for someone not trained in green thumbing.

Yes, yes, he was a sharp-as-a tack engineer — he designed the back braces that his rag tag crew of borrowed nephews and borrowed golf course maintenance guys and university employees had to wear in order to be able to stand up at the end of the day after all that trenching and packing … he built some of the specialized equipment they tilled with and sprigged with and poured the 1,300 tons of sand in with … he machined the casing for the transmitter that sent the first TV signal from space … he designed the irrigation system with the mounted water cannons special ordered from Washington state (and surprisingly effective at scattering wet Dawgs intent on defiling your baby). But all of his powers of foresight and his pure pursuit of a job well done would have been for naught had Pat Dye not, as Conner says, “greased the tracks.”

“When Georgia had their [field] done, I think just the stadium was $600,000 … but we just didn’t have any money,” Conner says. “The year before he (Dye) came here, the (Athletic Department) budget was just short of a million dollars. Now it’s like 60 or 70 million.”

But in those hectic, early, glory days of all that new energy, Dye’s vision for upgrading the “fuhseeluhtez” and treating Auburn like Auburn required not only making the most of available resources but some creative accounting, some end-arounds.

“We did all this out of GAF funds [Greater Auburn Fund — now Tigers Unlimited], which means we didn’t have to wait on a purchase order,” Conner says. “It normally would have had to have been in the budget a year in advance, and I would have had to have put in purchase orders and put out bids [for the work],” Conner says. “It would have taken five years.”

And, in all likelihood, a hell of a lot more money. But Conner used some of his own equipment, his own truck. He called in favors for earth moving and sand grading. He paid for his own record-setting not cell phone, not even bag phone but radio phone bill (“I’d call this tower and they’d switch me over so I could communicate with everyone to keep things going”), and says that the next year he even paid for all 17,000 feet of pipe he installed underneath the field to keep the thing dry, the good kind of dry.

“I think we figured it up one time that we spent probably less than $100,000 on all the fields,” he says proudly.

Including labor.

The 17,000 ft. of flexible piping Conner installed is still in use today.
The 17,000 ft. of flexible piping Conner installed is still in use today.

“We got some help with B&G (the Building and Grounds staff) and got it set up where I had priority and they had to come help when I needed it.”

B&G was less than thrilled; Conner kept slicing into the wiring for the time clocks when digging trenches for the irrigation (“I mean, I didn’t know where they were!”) and one day some B&G guy had had it and stormed into Dye’s office demanding he fire Conner.

“We’re not going to fire him,” Dye said. “We’ll fire you if you don’t get over there and fix those wires.’”

Ha! Conner laughs at the comeback and smiles at the confidence, so typical of his relationship with Dye, which is still strong.

When a coach lets you take a sprayer full of Roundup out onto his field after the spring game and kill the grass , kill it dead, and lets you advertise on the radio that, if they want, folks can come pick up the remnants of the practice field you’re about to dice up with a sod cutter (“I’ll never forget there was a lady who came in there with a Cadillac and high heel shoes and loaded up her trunk. And there was some guy from Notasulga who came with a pickup and loaded it so heavy he had to get guys to sit on the front fender to keep the front wheels on the ground …”) you know he believes you’re the guy who’s going to have a game plan to, as Dye might say, “take the dang thing home …”

And you know he believes you’re the guy when a year after you’ve created the enviable masterpiece of a field (“We used to play Tennessee every year and when they got ready to do Neyland Stadium, they had the players to vote on what field they wanted it like and they said ‘we want a field as good as Auburn’s,’ Conner says. “That’s in a magazine somewhere”) he lets you talk him into tearing it up again to install not just any drainage system, but one you designed yourself.

As green as ever God could have intended.
As green as ever God could have intended.

He believed it because in the span of four months the Longhorns may have shown up and handed the Tigers their only loss of the season, but they did so on the Sistine Chapel turned upside down, on grass as green as ever God could have intended, so green you couldn’t see a speck of brown ground under it. He believed it because when Conner got through with the thing, a drop of rain had, at most, 6 inches in any direction before it got sucked into a ditch. He believed it so much that he didn’t just promote Conner to a new position, he created a position to fit around how important he now was: Assistant to the Athletic Director/Facilities.

The concession stands. The women’s bathrooms. The glorious field.

Maintain the facilities.develop the facilities.

He resigned from the engineering department and maintained and developed the hell out of them until retiring in 1992.

You almost get jealous thinking of the sense of ownership in the program he must have; the man literally laid the groundwork for the modern era of Auburn football, carpeting the house that Dye built with exotic blends of Bermuda and rye grass and a rare affinity for work, hard work.

Sta-Green ad from the late 80s featuring Dye and Conner.
Sta-Green ad from the late 80s featuring Dye and Conner.

If Possy doesn’t take his crew over there first thing Sunday morning and fill every divot, by hand, with pre-germinated seeds, roll it, water it … maybe Bo’s yards per carry goes down a notch, if such a thing were possible.

“He always said he could actually run faster on this field than he could on Astroturf,” he says with the same smile in his voice you’d have if you knew you’d made Bo happy. “It has a little softness to it, but it’s firm, too.”

And apparently damn near indestructible.

There was the ’86 Georgia game (“Yeah, I remember that — I’m the one who turned on the valve. … We told them not to go on the field.”). But The most stress to Pat Dye Field at Jordan-Hare Stadium prior to September 19, according to Conner, came from the sheer strain of preparation for that first game, The Game, the 1989 Iron Bowl.

Let’s just say they rolled out the red carpet of superior Auburn engineering for Alabama’s first visit.

Things had to be perfect.

They were perfect.

Somehow Brent Musberger wound up over at the nice Auburn house the night before the game and Connor told him how perfect it was going to be and taught him how to saw not AH-burn but AW-burn and then the next day showed him the nicest, lushest, most wonderfully unlevel field (an 18” crown!) he’d ever seen …

Conner climbed all the way to the top of the bleachers in the west corner of the west end zone and took a picture of it, orange and blue shakers exploding everywhere.

He clicks to another slide to show me.

“Hey,” I say, “I’ve got a poster of that … yeah, that exact shot. You took that?”

A poster? Well shucks. How about that…

“Daddy,” says Nancy, “probably took a lot of pictures that were used for things and didn’t credit for them.”

Pictures and other things.

 

Nancy Teel holds photos of her parents Paul Conner and Dixie Conner receiving distiguised service awards from former Auburn coach Pat Dye, and her father posing with former Auburn University president Dr. William Muse.
Nancy Teel holds photos of her parents Paul Conner and Dixie Conner receiving distiguised service awards from former Auburn coach Pat Dye, and her father posing with former Auburn University president Dr. William Muse.

Jordan-Hare has experienced a lot of torrential downpours in Auburn since 1984, but nothing like the other night, at least before a game, when there’s no time for anything but hope.

“I’d never really worried about the rain up until the other night,” Conner says. “I just didn’t know.”

Twenty-five years …

“It’d never been tested like that.”

He sat there with the remote in his hands, waiting.

Lee County sagged. Creeks swelled.

Dixie told him Nancy was on her way home.

He was either going to see those 100 yards taut and supple as ever. Or he was going to see divots and gashes and floating hash marks.

Nancy laughs.

“There’s a home video of it on YouTube,” she says. “When you watch about two and half minutes of it you can see it going down every one of those lines he was showing you …”

Possy waited. He waited.

And finally, 63 minutes and 3.75 inches of rain later, “welcome back to Auburn, Alabama.”

Bitter: "I assume Auburn has a heck of drainage system."
Bitter: “I assume Auburn has a heck of drainage system.”

They showed clips of the students shouting and snuggling under ponchos and the blankets of rain. “This was the scene …”

Then they showed the field, live … and started raving.

Conner leaned back in the recliner and smiled.

3.75 inches an hour, apparently, 3.75 inches an hour.

 

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About Jeremy Henderson

Jeremy Henderson is the editor of The War Eagle Reader and co-host of Rich and Jeremy in the Mornings on Wings 94.3 FM in Auburn. Follow him on Twitter: @wareaglereader / @jerthoughts / @RichandJeremy

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