Andrew Miller did not know he was on his way to a job interview six years ago when he was called upon to consult for a Virginia high school that promoted careers in agriculture. If he had, he probably would have dressed better.
On the recommendation of his father, John Miller, then a middle school principal, Miller thought he was simply being asked to offer advice on how to transition the horticulture program at Brentsville District High School in Nokesville, Virginia from an ag-based curriculum to one that promotes careers in turf. He never knew, based on his recommendations, that he also would be called upon to head up the new program he had just advocated for.
"After the conversation, they asked me to wait in the hall," Miller said. "Then they told me I had an interview. I called my dad and asked 'what did you get me into?'
"I was wearing shorts with fertilizer stains on them, my hair was long and I had a beard."
After making apologies for his appearance, Miller thought enough about the job to give it consideration. Six years later, hundreds of students have gone through the program that transitioned from ag to turf. And many of those former students have gone on to study turf management in college and are working as golf course superintendents and sports field managers.
A graduate of Virginia Tech, Miller worked professionally for the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates Major League Baseball clubs as well the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers. Leaving that career behind for a teaching gig required some serious thought - and a teaching certificate.
That was hardly a deterrent compared with the perceived benefits of being an ambassador of the industry to so many aspiring future turf managers.
The students at Brentsville are tasked with helping maintain 30 acres of Bemudagrass athletic fields and next year will get to take part in a renovation of the school's stadium field.
"To see them master those skills at a young age is very rewarding," Miller said. "I don't see it as leaving the industry, because I still have 30 acres of sports fields I have to manage."
Recently, Miller brought his class to the Virginia Tech turfgrass field day, and next year will observe a renovation project at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Virginia. His students have presented at the Sports Field Management Association Conference, restored a field for an XFL team and worked the Little League Softball World Series.
"We are teaching kids how to manage turf and giving them an opportunity to pursue this as a career," Miller said. "And I still get to do things I love, like get on a mower and make fun patterns."
Although agriculture affects everyone compared with a specialized industry like turfgrass, Brentsville administrators were focused on changing the curriculum as the area around the school changed.
"The demographics have changed," Miller said. "It's now more suburban where once it was ag-based. We want to get these kids in position to be successful,, and we have 25 golf courses within a five-mile radius of campus."
Two years ago, Miller feared for the future - and present - state of the program when kids were sent home for distance learning during the Covid pandemic.
Miller brought guest speakers online to help keep the students interested and engaged.
He leaned on professional turf managers to take part in distance education. During that time, the Turfgrass Tiger social media channel was born as Miller called upon professional turf managers from Leicester City Soccer Club, Wimbledon and others to take part in a podcast series that now boasts more than 100 recordings.
"It is rewarding to get buy-in from the kids and see them create something that is played on by athletes," Miller said.
"We are bringing awareness to the kids and our community and player safety."