There are more than 15 acres of turf that the Alabama athletics grounds crew is in charge of monitoring and manicuring around the Tuscaloosa campus. But each Monday during the fall, the week starts out with the same task that has to get done.
Before the Alabama football team heads outside Monday afternoon for its first practice of game week, the grounds crew is busy repainting the three Thomas-Drew practice fields. But thanks to a line-painting robot invented in Denmark, they're not too busy.
The Turf Tank started out as a school project for two classmates in Denmark and is now being used at some of the top athletic department and sports programs across the world, including at Alabama. In fact, UA actually has two robots to help them paint the fields in Tuscaloosa.
The three-foot tall robots are set up with personalized tablets that collect data from 17 satellites to the pre-programed specifications of the fields in Tuscaloosa. The tablet tracks the movement of the robots, tells it exactly where to go, when to paint and for how long.
According to Alabama's assistant director of athletic grounds Drew Charcandy, the Turf Tank has turned the Monday morning task of painting the practice fields into a much more efficient operation.
"It used to take six guys roughly five hours to paint all three of our practice fields," Charcandy said. "Now we send three guys and our two Turf Tank robots, and we’ll paint them in roughly three hours. So, one, that clears up three other guys to go and accomplish things on other fields. And then, two, it’s also saving time."
Charcandy has been working in turf management for over 15 years. He spent nearly a decade in the golf word, managing golf courses at country clubs in Birmingham. He learned a lot during that time, especially while working through major renovations at Vestavia Country Club, but missed the pressure of getting ready for big games and events. When a job opened up at one of the best athletic programs in the country, he couldn't pass it up.
"I mean, it's the University of Alabama, right?" Charcandy said. "It's the top of the totem pole everywhere. So it's really fun to be here and to provide playing services for our student athletes, to make sure that they're safe on the fields they’re competing on."
He's part of a crew that oversees the keeping of the baseball and softball fields, soccer field, track and field complex, football indoor and outdoor practice facilities and of course Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Turf management isn't an easy career field as a physically-demanding job, long hours and a lot of ground to cover (literally), which why innovation and efficiency is so important to Charcandy.
"I think one of the worst comments you can have is, ‘We’ve always done it that way,'" he said. "That means you're not open to newer things.”
That's where the Turf Tank comes in. Normally, two people would have to hold a string taut in a long line while someone else pushed a paint machine to paint the line. This requires multiple people and also leaves room for human error. With the robot, all it takes is one person to program the robot, load it up with paint and let it go. One robot paints field one while the other paints field two, and then they simultaneously paint field three.
Jeremy Patay serves as head of expansion for the Turf Tank, helping bring it over from Europe into the American market. Alabama was one of the early adopters of the product in the U.S. back in 2020.
"You can see some big clubs or big names like Alabama are innovators, and they always want to get better conditions for their players, for the games," Patay said. "And one of the things the robot brings is consistency and accuracy, so that whenever you practice or you play a game on, you have perfect lines."
Alabama uses the Turf Tank at the football practice fields, soccer field for the top-five soccer team and at the track and field stadium on a regular basis. For game days at Bryant-Denny, the crew still hand paints the field for now, but will use the robot to paint the stadium for various events throughout the year.
"It's a really cool thing for us to see when we get these bigger brands come in because it really validates that there is something here," said Simon Christensen, head of marketing for Turf Tank.
Both the Turf Tank employees and Charcandy made sure to clarify that the robot wasn't replacing human employees, instead just making their jobs easier, more efficient and consistent.
Alabama football head coach Nick Saban is a process-oriented guy geared toward consistent results. It's why the Crimson Tide has won six national titles under Saban. It's why Alabama has been ranked No. 1 at some point in the season every year since 2008. It's why Nick Saban has been wearing the same style of straw hat at practice since 2007.
Saban also recognizes the value in what off-field staffers do in behind-the-scenes roles that help keep his program at the top. Whether it's the athletic training staff, the nutrition staff, the equipment guys, or the grounds crew looking for innovations like the Turf Tank.
"Well, you can't have success without ‘em, I can tell you that," Saban said. We have a great team here. Everybody contributes in a really positive way... So I don't think you could have a great program if you don't have great people in all those support roles."
No. 2 Alabama will be away with this weekend at No. 20 Arkansas, which means the grounds crew won't have to put in its normal 18-hour work day on a home game day. But rest assured, even with a big primetime matchup scheduled with Texas A&M the next week, the first task on Monday morning will be setting up the Turf Tank to get the practice fields ready for another week of Crimson Tide football.
"We're in the service industry of all our programs," Charcandy said. "I want to give them the best product and the best chance to win."