To be an instructor - check that - to be THE instructor in Oregon State University's turfgrass program it helps to have a background in wrestling. And if that's the case, Alec Kowalewski, Ph.D., should be just fine as he completes his first six months on the job as the program's only professor.
A former wrestler during his days as a student at Michigan State, where he earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees, Kowalewski has since been busy grappling with the many challenges associated with managing small turfgrass programs.
"When you look at what is expected of the job, it's almost undoable," said Brian McDonald, the program's senior turfgrass research assistant. "It's a 100 percent teaching position, oh, and by the way, you're also the statewide extension specialist, and you get emails from homeowners, landscape construction contractors, school districts, golf courses who all need help, plus you have to get published and since you're the new guy you get to be on all these committees too."
It was like that at Oregon State under Tom Cook, who started the program in 1977 and stayed at the Corvallis campus through his retirement in 2008. And it was like that under the direction of Rob Golembiewski, Ph.D., who manned the program from 2009 until last year when he left to take a position with Bayer Environmental Science. Golembiewski once said that he spent more than 30 days per year on the road just trying to sell the program to potential students and donors. And it's going to be this way into the foreseeable future.
Kowalewski, 33, said he has been preparing for such challenges long before he began his post at Oregon State on New Year's Eve of last year.
In his last position as a member of the faculty at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Ga., Kowalewski taught four classes per semester during his nine-month appointment, then spent the summers working on research projects at the University of Georgia's Coastal Plain Experiment Station, also in Tifton.
"I think the job here combines all of that, and that is what I was looking for, more of a complete appointment," Kowalewski said of the OSU position. "Research, extension, teaching: that's what I was trained to do."
The turf program at Oregon State is a lean operation that despite its modest size and scope has been turning out some of the west coast's most successful golf course superintendents since the days of Tom Cook. Literally hundreds of the program's graduates are working as turfgrass professionals throughout the country at such as addresses as Pebble Beach, Bandon Dunes and Chambers Bay just to name a few.
"The program is top notch," said Pat Doran, superintendent at Trysting Tree Golf Club at Oregon State. "The instructors, whether it was Tom, or Rob or now Alec, they care for the students, and the students can feel that."
With little general support from the university community, the turf program is a self-sustaining entity that is funded through an endowment from the Giustina Foundation, which also owns Trysting Tree.
It doesn't have a golf- or sports turf-specific curriculum. Students there complete coursework in a general turfgrass management track in the school's horticulture department and can choose an internship that focuses on sports turf, golf turf or a landscaping background.
In fact, Kowalewski is looking to do even more at Oregon State as he seeks ways to expand the program's base of 18 undergraduate students. And he is looking toward one of his passions, sports turf, as a way to grow the program.
"I see fewer and fewer golf courses, but I don't see fewer athletic fields. That is something that is always going to be a constant," said Kowalewski, who earned a Ph.D. in sports field management under Michigan State professor Trey Rogers, Ph.D. "If we can tap into that, I think it's better for our program. Balancing it will be a challenge, but we have to branch out."
Just keeping up with the current load, much less considering expansion would be out of the question without the help from McDonald.
"He's really critical to the success of our program," Kowalewski said. "He does a lot of our research work and our extension work."
There is another key element that contributes to the success of the graduates of the OSU program the students themselves, says Doran, who has seen many of the turf program's alums crew at the Trysting Tree.
"Often, the students here are a bit older, and they've already decided that's what they want to do with their life, so they're focused on school," he said. "I wish I'd taken names and photographs, because we've had hundreds come through here. They've all sat around the wood stove."
As focused as the students are, the program simply presents too much work for one person to do alone. This semester, McDonald teaches undergrads about fertilizer budgeting as well as lab experiments.
A former accountant, McDonald turned stopped hovering over balance sheets 15 years ago when he chose to return to college to study turf management under Cook at OSU with the idea of becoming a golf course superintendent.
"I had been an accountant for 15 years, and I knew I didn't want to do this for another 25 years," said McDonald, 53. "I was a good golfer, I had a house, and I was single. I could afford to sell my house, go back to school and take some time to decide what I really wanted to do."
Somewhere along the way, McDonald chucked aside the notion of being a superintendent, and he hasn't left Oregon State since.
He summed up the attitude that has kept the program among the nation's best since it was started 36 years ago.
"Now, I'm a maintenance person, teacher and equipment-repair person," McDonald said. "And I'm not trained in any of them. You just get up every day and do it."