Pulling a page out of Boise State’s playbook, head coach Scott Nady decided to install blue athletic turf at Parish Episcopal School in Dallas.
How did Parish become the quickest high school to go from program creation to state champions in Texas history? A visionary head coach, a forward-thinking administration, and a branding innovation known as “Panther Blue Turf.”
Even non-Texans have heard of Permian High School, home to generations of winning tradition and the “Friday Night Lights” series. Perhaps they have heard of Westlake High School, home to not just one, but two NFL pro bowl quarterbacks (Brees and Foles). And more recently, they may have caught the headlines regarding Allen High School, a 3-time defending state champion football factory that built a $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium.
These national names, and the other powers of this football-crazed state have a few things in common: they are public schools with overflowing community support, generations of alumni and boosters, and sizable student bodies that could qualify as small colleges.
Parish Episcopal School has none of these typical ingredients. This 1100-student private school expanded up to 12th grade in 2002, meaning that most of its young alumni have been in the workforce for less than a decade. The football program wasn’t launched until 2006, putting them half a century (or more) behind in tradition and history.
A point of difference was needed. Something to spark the program, create instant buzz, and even offer an on-field advantage.
In 1986, Boise State filled Bronco Stadium with blue artificial turf as an attempt to gain national attention and become a household name. This unprecedented move helped the school ascend from the Football Championship Subdivision level to Fiesta Bowl champions in just over a decade.
Nady has West Coast roots and spent some time working alongside Dan Hawkins, who coached at Boise State from 1998 to 2005. He noticed both the football and branding effects of the turf, and imagined applying it to Parish with the same goals, albeit on more of a regional scale.
With the original turf nearing its routine replacement after nine years of multi-sport use, Nady recalls pitching the idea to headmaster Dave Monaco and athletic director Brett McCabe.
“I’m all about selling the sizzle, and this would serve as a point of difference,” Nady said. “We take our football very seriously, but in the bigger picture our school is forward-thinking and not afraid to be different academically.”
Nady noted that as a small private high school, in some regards their mindset is closer to a company than a typical public high school.
“If we don’t make our budget, we close,” Nady said. “Budget and funding concerns, brand recognition, and market share are all relevant terms.”
Much like at Boise State, the blue turf is generating attention for Parish Episcopal. Monaco noted that while he hasn’t heard of the blue turf as being the sole reason for a student applying, he certainly acknowledges the attention the turf has drawn and its indirect impact on admissions.
“We embrace distinctiveness. The turf is just another way for our forward-thinking school to think outside the box,” Monaco said.
Before Nady’s plan came to fruition, legal issues arose regarding the use of colored athletic turf. Boise State trademarked the use of non-traditional athletic turf in 2009 after nearly a quarter-century as the only athletic program with a colored playing surface. And they are very particular about others following in their blue footsteps.
“We ask that our licensees do not attempt to claim ownership in our trademark and challenge them to use references to their fields that are different to those used by us,” said Rachel Duffy, assistant manager of licensing at Boise State.
Not to be confused with “The Blue” in Boise, Parish followed protocol and dubbed the new creation “Panther Blue Turf.” Despite the trivial naming requirement, Monaco and Nady both echoed how helpful Boise State was throughout the lengthy application process. They even sent representatives down to Dallas for a halftime ceremony during the season.
Football traditionalists may have some reservations with the altering of the field color, but the installation was met with overwhelming community support. Monaco said the estimated 95 percent approval was flanked by the “5 percent that is too hard to please anyway.”
The team certainly approved of their new field once the initial shock set in.
After some seemingly far-fetched rumors regarding the turf color change, the well-kept secret was unveiled during the summer of 2014. Running back Dom Williams recalls the team’s initial reaction as absolute insanity.
“We ran up to the turf, ran around and up into the stands to take pictures,” Williams said.
The Panthers were stunned. A similar effect distracts their opponent each Friday night.
Nady has noticed that opponents need a quarter or two to adjust and get used to the royal blue hue. During this time, they are playing mental games against the turf, which distracts them from the actual game at hand. Such a diversion yields a unique home-field advantage for Parish, which has won five straight home games heading into the 2015 season.
The only home loss occurred on the blue turf’s debut, as the Panthers fell victim to their own trap.
“We were too excited at first, and it takes some getting used to” Williams said.
Nady turned the early-season loss into a pivot point for the rest of the season. He refocused his squad and led them to 11 straight victories including a 56-14 state championship win over Dallas Christian.
Assistant coach Damien Williams recalls some complaints from rivals heading into the season regarding the turf change. The Panthers wasted no time in quieting those critics by bringing home the crown. But winning brings with it a new target, and opponents attempt to knock down winners using any tactic possible.
At the peak of Boise State’s dynasty, the Mountain West Conference banned them from wearing their iconic all-blue uniforms at home due to complaints from opponents regarding visibility and unfair advantages.
Asked if similar complaints from opponents have been voiced after the first year on the “Panther Blue Turf,” Coach Nady laughed and noted that green teams are allowed to wear their school colors on traditional grass fields.
Parish Episcopal competes at the 4A classification in Division II of private school athletics governed by the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools. TAPPS strictly follows NCAA football rules and sees no violation caused by Parish’s blue turf.
Assistant director Jeremy Thornton said no complaints regarding the turf or the Panther’s all-blue uniforms have been filed yet. He clarified that the uniform rule was a specific league decision, not an NCAA policy, which is the guide that TAPPS follows closely.
With trademarks and policies taken care of, only time will tell if a Boise-like transformation can occur at Parish. But with an administration so focused on cutting-edge academic programs and expansion, a coach who molds young men through the merits of the game, and even a championship in the turf’s inaugural season, Parish appears to be on the right trajectory.
“Panther Blue Turf” has a nice ring to it. As a result, Nady and his champs sport nice rings, too.