It was a iconic image from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's football season: quarterback Jacob Huesman taking a knee in the end zone and pointing skyward after scoring the game-winning touchdown in the Mocs' 28-24 come-from-behind win over The Citadel on Oct. 26.
And beside Huesman's right knee was something that didn't belong, a roughly four-inch section of Finley Stadium turf sticking up like the lid of a sardine can.
From the Stadium Corp. board to outgoing Finley Stadium executive director Merrill Eckstein to UTC athletic director David Blackburn and Chattanooga Football Club general manager Sean McDaniel -- everyone agrees that the artificial surface is approaching the end of its run.
But when the surface will be replaced remains unknown, and remains a big question as Eckstein ends his four-year stretch running Finley and for the new director, Paul Smith. Eckstein said he will remain on as a consultant for the first three months of 2014, to help settle the field work.
The most likely option for the short term is to fix the areas under the turf that are now more like small craters -- something that Finley has done several times in recent years. It may be the stadium's only option until the $700,000-plus is raised to replace the 9-year-old turf, Eckstein said.
"It's imperative that before next football season we get that repaired, and the hope would be that we get it repaired before soccer season even starts [in May]," he said. "The ideal would be before the [UTC football] spring game April 12."
Smith and Eckstein said they are exploring their options and accepting bids for a new field. At a Stadium Corp. meeting in August, Blackburn, who was hired by UTC in April, described the field's condition as "horrific," and said player safety was a concern.
"I knew going in that [the field] was one of the big issues," said Smith, who was announced as Eckstein's replacement in August. "David Blackburn made it a little bit more of an issue, but it's time."
Chattanooga FC has called Finley home since its debut in 2009. McDaniel said Blackburn's comment was the best thing that could have happened because it put the turf's condition front and center.
"From a safety component, whether it's used for football, soccer or anything, it has to be made safer," McDaniel said. "I don't think there's any disagreement from any of the parties that the field surface, the foundation, has to be improved immediately, before something dangerous could happen to any athlete."
Eckstein said the playing surface passes compression tests and is safe for play. However, he said the work that has to be done below the turf requires more seams to be cut into the turf, which then have to be sewn up or glued down.
It was player safety, as well as an embarrassment on national television, that led to the installation of the turf in 2005. The replacement sod put down at the stadium for the 2004 Division I-AA national championship game didn't hold up and the playing conditions were as big a story as James Madison's win over Montana.
Smith said everything is being done to move forward as quickly as possible. Several turf companies are located within an hour's drive of Chattanooga and that could work toward the stadium's advantage.
"There are some pretty ingenious systems out there that I think we could take a look at," Smith said. "When you don't have any money and people want to test something out, ... maybe they can do that here. One of our board members, Mike Davis, is a contractor and we're going to take a look at every possibility."
Chattanooga FC has pushed the past few years for a field without any lines on it. The idea is that football or soccer lines can be painted on for each game, then washed off. Chattanooga is much more likely to draw marquee soccer games to Finley -- such as MLS or international exhibitions or U.S. women's national team games -- if there are no football lines, CFC board member Tim Kelly said.
"The chances for us to get [big exhibitions] are almost limitless," he said.
Blank turf means a lot of paint, a lot of water to get the paint off and a lot of man hours for the work. Smith said the stadium might be able to find a way to paint over the football lines for major soccer games, when the cost of the painting and removal can be part of the stadium rental fee.
"I don't know how realistic all that is yet," Smith said.
Before it can think too much about what kind of field to get, the Stadium Corp. must figure out how to pay for one. The sooner the better, Blackburn said.
"The field was my biggest concern initially because of the safety of the kids," he said. "I know that the Finley corporation is looking to see what can be done to help that. They know something has to get done and I believe something will get done."
Along with repairs to the turf, Smith said other big goals on his list for the next few years are improving the video board and replacing the blue (reserved) seats.
Contact John Frierson at email@example.com or 423-757-6268.