An alumni applies his education to some of the biggest stages in sports
The grounds crew prepares Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. for Super Bowl 50. Richard Wilt is an integral part of keeping the playing field ready for the game.
Under all the excitement of the Super Bowl, there is a specialized crew that manages the playing field making sure that everything goes smoothly for the big game. If no one says a thing about the turf in the Super Bowl, it means Richard Wilt’s done his job.
“A lot of people don’t know about our profession, normally that’s a good thing because the only time the grounds crew comes up in the news is when something bad happens,” Wilt said. “We like to fly under the radar most of the time.”
As part of an elite crew hand-selected by Atlanta Braves’ groundskeeper Ed Mangan, Wilt works with his team where they have to be everything from farmers to painters to scientists and weather forecasters. Wilt graduated with a degree in agronomy and soil/turf management, where he hoped he could work in a field surrounded by what he loved: sports. Initially, he thought his path would lean more toward working as a superintendent on some of golf’s most iconic courses. But, while a part-time student worker with the grounds crew for Jordan-Hare Stadium, he soon came to terms with a new dream.
Working for Eric Kleypas, who directs and maintains Auburn’s athletic and practice fields, was one of the first connections Wilt made that would lead him to an already impressive career.
“He’s been such a great mentor and one of the smartest guys that I know,” Wilt said. “It was really through him I learned most of what I know now. He gave me my first opportunity.”
From there, he placed himself in the middle of every single possible opportunity, maintaining any connections he came across in the hopes of make it into the big leagues. Combining what he learned working for Kleypas and the lessons from his classes, Wilt applied for an internship in Jupiter, Fla. at Roger Dean Stadium the summer before his senior year. It was there he rubbed elbows with the connections that earned him a job with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. He started just three days after his graduation day. “I think it’s important to get out there and learn beyond the classroom,” Wilt said. “Branching out and meeting new people in the field you’re pursuing plays a huge role in your success.”
During the five years Wilt worked in Florida, the Super Bowl came to Tampa Bay, where he had the opportunity to meet Mangan. “The first Super Bowl I was a part of was XLIII, and I was actually asked to come help install the field in the Raymond James Stadium,” he said. “Working with Mangan was very neat, a great experience.”
Wilt was asked to return to another Super Bowl working with the same amazing crew from the previous year. “It’s really something special having that much knowledge in the same room at one time,” he said.
In 2012, Wilt left Florida and began working for a privately owned company in South Alabama called Bent Oak, a sod farm specializing in athletic turf. During his time there, he traveled coast to coast installing fields for professional football and baseball stadiums — one of those fields being Jordan-Hare Stadium. His love of the first field he worked on and the nostalgia that came back from working on it was too much, and it seemed too good to be true when a job opened up as turf manager for Auburn Athletics. In September 2016, Wilt began his new job at his alma mater.
“A lot of my family is from here. I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old, and now they get to grow up with my niece and nephew, and I get to see them become great people,” Wilt said. “That was a huge factor along with coming back and working with one of the best crews in the country.”
Now working with Auburn Athletics alongside the man who inspired him in the first place, Eric Kleypas, Wilt will also continue his work managing the playing field in the upcoming Super Bowl LII, making it his seventh time working on the NFL championship.
“I’ve been very fortunate to go to more than a few Super Bowls,” Wilt said. “The traveling part, being able to see and learn new things through my travels and sharing it with my crew and to just talk about what I love has to be the coolest part of my job.”
Wilt’s determination and willingness to follow any opportunity took him to not only the Super Bowl, but also around the world installing fields for many international stadiums, including Twickenham Stadium in London, England.
“Something I always tell the younger guys that come through is that you can learn anything, but you just have to want to be there,” Wilt said. “Showing up is winning the battle. You can learn anything, but the want to be there is the factor that you can control.”