Red is the new green when it concerns Eastern Washington's field
by Al Muskewitz
Dec 11, 2013 | 2250 views |  0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
South Dakota State running back Reginald Gandy (30) scores a touchdown on Eastern Washington's red field during the FCS playoffs. (AP Photo/The Spokesman-Review, Colin Mulvany)
South Dakota State running back Reginald Gandy (30) scores a touchdown on Eastern Washington's red field during the FCS playoffs. (AP Photo/The Spokesman-Review, Colin Mulvany)
Eastern Washington has produced one national championship, two Walter Payton Award winners -- maybe a third this year -- a nationally syndicated sports talk show host and an Olympic gold medalist, but all anyone seems to talk about is the red turf of Roos Field.

And that's all right with Bill Chaves. He could talk about it all day.

Chaves is the Eagles' athletics director who was in place when the Big Sky school carved its unique place in the college sports universe by rolling out the iconic red carpet in its 8,600-seat stadium in 2010.

It was an upgrade made out of necessity that has become as much a trademark for the program as the logo the team wears on its helmets.

"The funny thing about it," Chaves said, "when it's all said and done, yes it's red, but what we needed was synthetic turf. That's the truth.

"When I got here, we had some really good football teams, a pretty good program, but every time we got to this part of the year we were playing in a mosh pit and it was not conducive to a playoff run. In 2007, we played McNeese and Appalachian State and had to travel to Spokane to practice on synthetic turf. There are just so many more things within our control right around our facility. The color red is unique for everybody else, but the actual synthetic fibers are what interested me."

It certainly grabbed a lot of interest. At the time, Boise State in neighboring Idaho had cornered the market on colored turf, laying down its iconic blue turf nearly a quarter-century earlier. When the Eagles put theirs in, they grabbed attention worldwide. Sports Illustrated, USA Today, the Sunday New York Times, even the BBC did pieces on it. The school's marketing arm calculated the value of that publicity in the millions. Red indeed had become the new green.

"The turf itself has given our team a calling card and given us the ability to go protect something," Chaves said.

And the Eagles have protected it well. Going into Saturday's quarterfinal playoff game with Jacksonville State, they are 23-3 on what some have jokingly called the blood rug but is formally known as "The Inferno." They went 8-0 on it the year it was installed en route to winning the national championship.

The folks in the Pacific Northwest have gotten used to it, but the reaction to the novelty has been varied. Chaves vividly recalls watching the entire contents of a first-time visiting team's bus shift to the viewing side as it came over the hill on its approach to the stadium.

In JSU's camp, the description of the red field has been anything from "weird" and "strange" to "cool" and "fun." Whatever they may think of it, the Gamecocks don't deny it's been a boon to the Eagles.

"It's a novelty and anything that gets you seen that's what you want in recruiting," JSU coach Bill Clark said. "That was its idea and it served its purpose because people talk about it. From a playing standpoint I don't think it's any different.

"Watching film is kind of hard. That red field kind of blinds you. It's smart on their part because it's gotten attention for their program and that's what you want from recruiting."

Eagles head coach Beau Baldwin recruited for the program before and after the turf was installed and found instant recognition in the post-installation era. Sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams, one of three finalists for this year's Walter Payton Award and an admitted big fan of red, said the unique turf was one of the influences on him choosing the Eagles over the other Big Sky offers in his pocket.

"The aspect that it was red I thought was really a smart idea," Baldwin said. "The red piece gave us a different identity. We'd had a lot of successful years around here but sometimes there wasn't that feeling of 'this is us.' Even if teams come in here and don't like it or it bugs them, it's something we can latch onto

"Before you'd go into Sacramento or Denver and had to kind of explain yourself. Now, it's such a brand, you go into places and that 17-, 18-year-old senior knows exactly. Even if us 41-year-olds struggle liking it sometimes ... it's the 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds who love it and they love that home-field, that edge they have with it, and they take pride in it. It's definitely helped us."

The most common question the Eagles get is what color scheme will they wear in the game. Baldwin usually leaves that to the seniors. Early indications were it would be red-on-red on red, but Baldwin suggested Wednesday they'd "probably" show up in black. JSU linebacker Dustin Gayton suggested the Gamecocks wear all red just for the camouflage effect.

"As long as you have HD, it's going to be a colorfully pleasing game," Chaves said. "Everything is going to match."

Just as Jacksonville State's present artificial turf is entering the fourth quarter of its shelf life, there will come a time the Eagles will have to refurbish their playing surface. Chaves, who has assurances the turf won't turn pink, can't see a time when they will play their home games on some color other than red.

"I could not even imagine we would ever go back to green -- I mean ever," he said. "I'm used to the red now. I go on the road and see green, that's funny to me now."

Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.

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