Sunday, October 16, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Missouri Ripping Up Field Of Screams -- Treacherous Turf Faces Final Weeks Of Slippery Career


COLUMBIA, Mo. - It's been described as treacherous, banana-peel slick, absurd and worse. It's been officially denounced by the Big Eight Conference.

Its most famous critic, Colorado Coach Bill McCartney, once said he'd just as soon "play in a parking lot than on that thing."

But critics won't have Missouri's dreaded Omniturf football field to kick around much longer. After 10 years of unintentional comedy, the school is ripping out the stuff and going back to grass.

The last game, and last chance to see players slip-sliding their way down the field in brilliant sunlight, is Nov. 19 against Kansas. Sometime the following week, Athletic Director Joe Castiglione will hold a farewell party.

Or, more accurately, it'll be good riddance.

"I know not many tears will be shed," Castiglione said.

This is the substance Steve Miller, Kansas State athletic director, once credited for "17 unassisted tackles" and at which almost every visiting coach - win or lose - directs a parting shot. After the infamous fifth-down game in 1990, McCartney deflected criticism of his decision to accept the tainted victory by revealing he'd counted 92 slips on a dry day.

His comments were a lot more muted after last Saturday's 38-23 victory.

"I'll be glad to come back on grass," McCartney said. "It seemed like both teams slipped a few times, but it wasn't bad at all."

But Colorado couldn't leave without some sort of shot. If it wasn't as slippery as expected, running back Rashaan Salaam said it was a lot harder than the norm.

"That turf, it's (like) getting hit twice," Salaam said after rushing for 166 yards. "You get hit and then you fall on that turf."

Even the home team has often complained. On the day he was hired last December, Coach Larry Smith didn't waste any time making a plea to "dig that baby up."

"I know the players hate it," Smith said then. "I walked on it. I didn't like it very much."

Pretty much everybody has been in agreement since it was installed in 1985.

Missouri became the last school in the Big Eight to go to artificial turf, and it seemed a practical move at the time. After the school enclosed the south end zone, a fungus was killing the grass.

Then came Omniturf, which killed scoring drives and, some say, caused injuries. Tulsa Coach Dave Rader blamed it for a season-ending knee injury suffered by quarterback Troy DeGar in this year's opener.

"The Omniturf should not be allowed in the game of football," Rader said.

The Big Eight even denounced it in 1992, saying the field was in such condition as to damage the "integrity of the game."

Soon, it'll be down to two major college football programs. West Virginia, which played at Missouri on Oct. 1, has it, and that might explain the less-than-scathing comments from West Virginia Coach Don Nehlen after the Mountaineers' 34-10 victory.

"Yours is a little slippier, but not much," Nehlen said. "We slip and fall, too. But we don't have the luxury of going to grass like you do."

The other school with Omniturf is Oregon, which has no complaints, apparently because the surface is better suited to a wet climate. In fact, Oregon, which had the first Omniturf field in 1984, replaced it with another one in 1991.

"We love it," said Dave Williford, athletic department spokesman. "I don't think it's more slippery than any other field, and I can't think of the last time we had somebody have a serious knee injury on it."

In the Midwest, Omniturf appears out of its element. According to Castiglione, the formula was perfected in Europe for soccer fields and tennis courts.

"For whatever reason, because of the chemical reaction in the polypropylene fibers, when it's wet the footing is more definite," Castiglione said. "This field seems to work in reverse of many fields."

Certainly, Missouri has had its best success when Faurot Field has been liberally soaked beforehand or better still, when the game is played in a driving rainstorm.

Missouri is trying grass again in a cooperative effort with the school's agriculture department. David Minner, an associate professor of horticulture and state turfgrass specialist, said he's certain grass will grow this time because the field has a sand base, which should improve drainage and manageability.

For now, the grass of the future is being lovingly tended at the S&S sod farm about 30 miles northwest of Columbia.

"We planted the seeds, if you will, last fall," Castiglione said. "I've been out there to see it. It's their pride and joy, as it will be ours."

Debbie Sandner, whose husband, Gene, runs the sod farm, said the field of Missouri's dreams has taken firm root on a large plot of land where beans and wheat used to grow.

"It looks like a big golf course out there, all pretty and green," Sandner said.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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