Conlan Burbrink learned early in his time at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, that if a groundskeeper makes headlines it’s rarely good news.
“You know you’re doing well if you’re not getting talked about,” says Burbrink, a turfgrass science and management major in the Herbert College of Agriculture. “If the commentators or the players mention you, it’s usually because you’re in trouble.”
While Burbrink prefers life behind the scenes, it’s been hard for him to avoid the spotlight lately. For the past four years he has worked part-time with the UT Athletics grounds crew at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium for softball and Regal Soccer Stadium for soccer. He has interned at some of the highest levels available to a turfgrass student: Major League Soccer with Orlando City Soccer Club, The Oval in London for the 2019 Cricket World Cup in England and Wales, and Super Bowl LIV, where this past February he worked 122 hours over the course of a week helping to paint the lines and keep the grass alive for a game broadcast to more than 100 million fans around the world.
It’s been quite a trajectory for Burbrink, who graduates this week with a Bachelor of Science in plant sciences.
The Cincinnati native’s passion for taking care of athletic fields emerged as a middle schooler traveling the country with his family for his sister’s softball tournaments. In seventh grade, while at a winter tournament in Indiana, he designed his own imaginary sports complex, even Googling the types of John Deere equipment he’d need to maintain it.
In 11th grade, for his Eagle Scout project, he helped his dad design and build a brick backstop for his high school’s softball team. Knowing Burbrink’s love for the behind-the-scenes work that goes into sports, a cousin who worked for the Golf Course Superintendents Association suggested he consider turfgrass science. She gave him a short list of schools that included UT.
When Burbrink showed up for his visit, John Sorochan, Distinguished Professor of Turfgrass Science, welcomed him and took him on a tour of campus.
“I took him to Neyland Stadium, like if he were a football player on a recruiting trip,” says Sorochan, now a close mentor to Burbrink. “I wanted to show Conlan what he’d be able to see and do at a major university like ours.”
The plan worked.
“I grew up going to Miami of Ohio games that maybe got 10,000 people in the stands,” Burbrink says. “Neyland was like nothing I’d ever seen. To be on the field and look up at all those seats was beyond crazy.”
In the Herbert College of Agriculture, faculty serve as advisors to students. Sorochan helped Burbrink land the job with UT Athletics in his first week on campus, then guided him to internships that suited his big ambitions.
“From day one, our goal is to prepare our students to go out into the workforce,” Sorochan says. “Whether it’s Wimbledon, Fenway Park, or a golf course in northern Michigan, they’re getting the hands-on experience they’ll need to be successful.”
Since Burbrink worked on the Athletics ground crew so early in his student career, he had an opportunity to see firsthand the reasons behind everything he did, from mowing grass to smoothing a softball dugout. The practices were all tied to the research he was learning about in his classes.
“You don’t forget the material you’re learning when you’re going out and doing it every day,” Burbrink says.
Burbrink’s professional resume includes grounds work at the highest level of soccer, cricket, and baseball, where he interned for a summer with his hometown team, the Cincinnati Reds. When he was selected to work at the Super Bowl, he was the first UT turfgrass student to be given the honor since 2003.
His academic work has been just as impressive. In 2017, Burbrink began working under Sorochan as an undergraduate research aide at the UT Center for Athletic Field Safety. One year later, he presented a research project he had developed at the Crop Science Society of America’s Undergraduate Research Competition. Competing against students from all areas of agricultural research, his presentation earned second place—the first time a UT turfgrass student has placed in the top five in the past decade.
His project looked at the vertical bounce of a soccer ball on different surfaces, such as Bermuda grass, Kentucky bluegrass, and varying artificial surfaces, used by professional soccer teams in the United States. He compared the bounce to understand its effect for players.
“If you’re a professional athlete, you want the ball to bounce similarly and perform the same across all surfaces, regardless of where you’re playing in the country,” says Burbrink, who hopes his research may further the discussion on soccer field standards and lead to a basic maintenance guide for crews working across different surfaces.
The details have always mattered for Burbrink. When he’s attended games at Neyland Stadium, his attention has often drifted to the lines on the field. Are they painted crisply enough? At a Reds game over the summer, he could notice the grass was worn in the outfield from a concert the night before. Someone hadn’t thought about that, he told himself.
As long as he’s the one getting the field ready, Burbrink, who plans to attend graduate school in the fall and eventually earn a PhD in turfgrass science, always wants to be thinking about it. That’s what he’s learned from Sorochan and his time at UT. It’s not only what you do but why you do it.
“Millions of players compete in recreational sports. Beyond the athletes, you’ve got millions of fans who tune in to professional sports every night,” Burbrink says. “The details matter for all of them. You want the field to be so good they don’t even notice it. They just get to enjoy the game.”
This spring, the university will award 4,625 degrees—3,415 undergraduate degrees, 1,014 graduate degrees and certificates, 117 law degrees, and 79 veterinary medicine degrees. Additionally, 14 Air Force cadets and 17 Army cadets will be commissioned. Although in-person commencement ceremonies in May had to be postponed for safety, UT plans to honor 2020 graduates on campus in person as soon as it’s safe. See the commencement website for details.
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)