The Rose Bowl’s dynamic landscaping duo talk turf

It may be only 2½ acres, but to Will Schnell and Miguel Yepez, the Rose Bowl is a constant obsession. Tending this plot of land is a never-ending cycle of checking embedded soil sensors, monitoring hot spots, repairing damage, aggressive weeding and meticulous trimming, not to mention late-night worries and early-morning visits. But in the end, their attention to detail produces a joy that farmers and gardeners revel in: a thriving plant.
Schnell and Yepez’s plant, however, is a mega-collection of green blades that make up the famed Rose Bowl turf, the kind of immaculate lawn that would spark envy in any residential neighborhood.
These two longtime turf pros share a love of sports, plants and working outside. Schnell, 55, has been the Bowl’s stadium superintendent for more than 18 years; Yepez, 41, has been his assistant for 16. With the help of a small team, they cultivate and maintain the verdant field at this 96-year-old athletic stadium which hosts an almost nonstop schedule of football games, soccer tournaments, location filming, concerts and other big events. It’s used about 300 days in any given year. There is no off-season.
At this time of extreme drought, when many lawns are being removed and replaced with xeriscaping, this field is a reminder that there’s splendor in the grass. The Rose Bowl’s identity is so intertwined with its emerald lawn that it would be anathema to do anything but present the real deal. “I remember how pristine it was,” 1981 Rose Bowl MVP Butch Woolfolk said of playing on the famed field. “You didn’t want to mess it up when you fell down, and when your cleat dug out some, you’d want to replace the divot.”
“We’d usually do a walk-through at the stadium the day before,” said 2013 Rose Bowl defensive MVP Usua Amanam. “Guys were on the ground smelling the grass and picking up pieces of the grass and lying on the grass.”
Some sporting fields are landscaped with artificial turf, and Schnell acknowledges that there are good reasons for that. “I truly believe there is a place for synthetics,” he said. “If you have guys running on a [grass] field 10 hours a day, that’s not going to be successful. That’s the last place you want to invest in a real grass field. You have to understand the limitations of grass.” The Rose Bowl doesn’t experience constant wear and tear, so it doesn’t need the durability of artificial turf, and real grass looks better on camera.
Schnell has understood the complex nature of grass since his days growing up on his family’s 1,200-acre farm in Missouri. At a young age, he was raising plants and operating big machinery, activities he still does today. While attending high school he played sports and began maintaining athletic fields; by the time he graduated he had racked up three years’ experience — and an athlete’s appreciation of what makes a good playable field.
Armed with a degree in turf grass management from Central Missouri State University, Schnell worked at sporting venues around the country, starting with minor league baseball and eventually landing gigs with the Cleveland Browns, the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He arrived in Pasadena in 2001. “I’ve worked the longest here at the Rose Bowl,” he says with a laugh. “They haven’t kicked me out yet.”
Two years after he started, Schnell brought on board Yepez, a Pasadena kid who went to work for American Golf, a national network of public courses, right after graduating from Blair High School. Yepez worked as a turf mechanic at Brookside Golf Club for six years before meeting his partner-in-turf, Schnell, and landing his Rose Bowl gig.
When it comes to big events and games (about three a year), the field is completely redone, and it typically takes the Rose Bowl staff and 20 workers from four to eight days to replace. Machines rip the grass up to its roots, soil is prepared with strengthening conditioners, a sand base is laid down and irrigation is positioned — and all that happens before the new sod even arrives. A fleet of 17 semi trucks hauls 3,000 pounds of it to Pasadena from the Bowl’s sod farm in Palm Springs, where sunshine and heat quickly mature grass. The cost averages about $250,000 a pop. Schnell regularly visits the desert facility to see how the grass is growing. Over the years, he experimented with grass cultivars until he settled on a mixture of bluegrass and rye grass. “It’s an aggressive turf,” he says.
Through the years, the two have learned various subtle tricks of the trade. “We talk about smoke and mirrors, how to divert people’s attention when there is a problem out there we can’t address in time,” says Schnell. Maybe there’s an unsightly sod seam, so a unique mowing pattern may redirect people’s eyes. “Sometimes you’ll have to do that and people will never know the difference,” he says.
One innovative way the team controls costs and time is by employing erasable paint on team logos on the field, a practice Yepez spearheaded many years ago. “We used so much paint we’d kill the grass,” he explains.
In their time on the turf, the duo has weathered many storms, tight turnaround schedules and everyday emergencies. Their devotion to the Rose Bowl field and what it represents is fierce and heartfelt. “People ask me to come and look at their yard and I say, ‘If it doesn’t have a goal post or bases, I don’t do it,’” says Schnell with a twinkle in his eye. “This right here is mine. I get to farm some of the most visible turf in the world. I’m so grateful every day. This is a big enough yard for me.”
Likewise, Yepez describes an almost mystical connection between gardener and plant. “I’m a sports fanatic and so being around a stadium is exciting,” says Yepez. “All these people are here to see these players, but they are also here to see my field. I love that I’m part of the game itself.”