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Super Bowl Rolls Out Green Carpet for NMSU Turf Inventor

LAS CRUCES - This year's Super Bowl kicks off with a solid footing in New Mexico State University's turf research. The foundation for the dense, green grass featured Feb. 1 at Houston's Reliant Stadium is known by the dainty name Princess 77, but the seeded Bermuda grass originated in the blistering heat of southern New Mexico.

Arden Baltensperger, right, an emeritus professor at New Mexico State University, and Bernhard Leinauer, a turfgrass specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, are especially close to a special seeded Bermuda grass called Princess 77 that will be used in the Super Bowl. Baltensperger released the variety, and Leinauer is promoting Princess 77 and other water stingy Bermuda grasses in New Mexico. (01/26/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"It's a good, tough, uniform grass that can take very heavy traffic," said Arden Baltensperger, NMSU agronomy professor emeritus and research consultant with Arizona's Seeds West, a division of Pennington Seed. Some 100,000 square feet of Arizona-grown Princess 77 will be used as a turf foundation in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The Bermuda grass, which was overseeded with ryegrass for brighter winter color, was cut several weeks before the game, rolled and shipped to Houston.

None of the $2.25 million 30-second commercials will mention it and very few in the crowd of 70,000 will know it, but having Princess 77 selected as Super Bowl sod is still a rare public honor in the normally arcane world of turf grass researchers.

"Princess 77 is the result of a cross of some very fine Bermuda grasses from New Mexico and Australia," said Baltensperger, who served as the head of NMSU's agronomy department for 12 years. "We really lucked on to some elite plants." Princess 77 was released in 1995.

Princess 77 was developed for regions where summer temperatures regularly top 100 degrees and rain is scant, said Bernhard Leinauer, a turfgrass specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. The grass, which uses less water and retains fall color better than other Bermudas, is the first fine-textured hybrid Bermuda variety to be available in a seeded form, he said. Before Baltensperger's turf research breakthroughs, common Bermuda grass had a rather negative image, primarily due to its coarse, weedy appearance.

These days, Leinauer is on a mission to boost the use of warm-season Bermuda grass varieties like Princess 77 in New Mexico because of their significant water savings. On average, Bermuda grass uses 30 percent less water in a typical home lawn than tall fescue grass.

"The significance of Princess compared to the other Bermuda grass is it can be cut short and it uses 15 to 20 percent less water than other hybrid Bermuda grasses of the same quality level," Leinauer said. "It's also less expensive to install because it can be seeded or overseeded with existing Bermuda grasses."

Princess 77 is no stranger to the New Mexico football world. Last season, NMSU's grounds crew began a massive reseeding project with the new grass at the university's 30,000-seat Aggie Memorial Stadium. Just 50 days later, players were sprinting across the turf. "It was an outstanding success," Leinauer said.

Even before his NMSU retirement in 2000 and the Princess 77 release, Baltensperger was an internationally recognized pioneer in turfgrass improvement. In the early 1990s, he developed 'NuMex Sahara', now one of the world's most popular seeded Bermuda grass varieties.

The highly textured, bright green grass, which took a decade to develop, is used on sports fields and golf courses in 65 countries, growing from Hawaii to Saudi Arabia. Since 1990, the patented Bermuda grass has earned NMSU almost $850,000 in royalties.

Today, Leinauer leads NMSU's turf studies, conducting statewide tests of 32 different grasses in side-by-side trials for hardiness, cold tolerance and water use. The 5-by-5 foot plots, which look like a giant checkerboard when viewed from above, are underway at NMSU's agricultural science centers in Artesia, Los Lunas and Tucumcari and the Fabian Garcia Research Center in Las Cruces, as well as two golf courses in Gallup and Albuquerque.

"People have been very interested in seeing these plots, especially Princess 77," said Curtis Smith, an Albuquerque-based horticulture specialist with NMSU Extension.