Where Clay meets dirt: For half his life, Phil Clay has kept Ball State’s athletic grounds in fresh condition

Phil Clay, manager of physical education athletic grounds and facilities supervises looks through the netting of the dugout March 24, 2021, at Ball Diamond at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. Clay is in charge of the facilities for the outside athletic fields including softball, baseball, soccer and field hockey. Jacob Musselman, DN
Phil Clay, manager of physical education athletic grounds and facilities supervises looks through the netting of the dugout March 24, 2021, at Ball Diamond at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. Clay is in charge of the facilities for the outside athletic fields including softball, baseball, soccer and field hockey. Jacob Musselman, DN

If the fields could talk, they and Phil Clay would probably be best friends.

Clay, manager of physical education athletic grounds and facilities, has tended to the fields and helped Ball State prepare for athletic events for 29 years. He remembers his first month on the job, December 1991, when Worthen Arena’s construction took place and Irving Gymnasium hosted men’s basketball games. He also remembers a month later — Jan. 15, 1992 — when Ball State Men’s Basketball hosted its first home game at Worthen Arena.

“It was snowing to beat the band,” Clay said. “Every seat in the arena was filled, and the place was high energy, rocking and rolling. I remember standing down on the corner floor working and looking around thinking, ‘Wow, this is a lot of fun.’”

Clay is an alumnus of Miami (Ohio) University. Since the 1970s and before graduating high school in 1980, he has worked for athletic and sport-related facilities. 

“I worked as an usher for sporting events,” Clay said. “I worked on crews that took care of the field at one point, and I worked on game day set up crews. It just kind of became a little bit of a natural flow.” 

Clay said he has overseen too many events to count in his career. Despite servicing all of athletics, Clay is not employed by the athletics department. Business Affairs operates the Department of Sports Facilities, which provides services to other university areas, including LaFollette Field, Ball Gymnasium and the Health and Physical Activities Building.

Clay’s boss, Gonzo Barajas, senior director of auxiliary services for facilities and events, was once Clay’s subordinate.

“It was a very small department, so I worked for Phil and Phil's direct supervisor at the time, and I was just an extra person,” Barajas said. “I started off doing labor, and, then, as an undergrad, they gave me more and more responsibility.”

Barajas’ favorite memory of working with him was when Clay stressed the importance of graduation to him. 

Phil Clay, manager of physical education athletic grounds and facilities supervises while one of his employees rakes the softball field March 24, 2021, at Ball Diamond at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. Prior to his groundskeeping position, Clay worked as an usher for sporting events. Jacob Musselman, DN

“Even though we are sport facilities, [graduation] is a reminder of what we're all really here for,” Barajas said. “I think that was my first kind of eye-opening moment with Phil where I realized, ‘Wow, this guy is not just about turf and sport — he's about the mission of the university.’ I've learned a lot of stuff like that from Phil over the years.”

Bill Lynch, former Ball State Football head coach, also has fond memories of working with Clay. Lynch worked as Ball State’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 1990-92 before serving as head coach from 1995-2002. 

“The day-to-day interactions were my favorite,” Lynch said. “He was such a guy you could trust, and he was not only hardworking, but he also always had a positive attitude. He would take that extra step to do whatever he could to make it easier for us to run our program, and that's what I always appreciated.”

In his time at the Cardinals’ helm, Lynch said, he would constantly rely on Clay for his turf and weather knowledge. 

“I think the value of working on the same team, with the football program and the staff working on facilities, can sometimes go in separate directions and not get along,” Lynch said. “That was never the issue with Phil. I always enjoyed working with him.”

Barajas said Clay’s love for the outdoors comes in handy for his job and described him as the department’s unofficial weatherman. For years, Barajas said, Clay has played a vital role in helping decide whether commencement ceremonies and other events will take place outdoors or indoors. 

“Whenever anyone on campus has a weather question, they reach out to him because he has that much knowledge about it,” Barajas said. 

Despite Clay's other interests, such as fishing, backpacking, canoeing and hiking, he said he is enjoying his job even 29 years into the position and doesn't regret for a second the time he has spent as a member of the Ball State community. He said he enjoys living in Muncie and the time he spends with his family outside of work.

“I like being at the university, and I like working at a university,” Clay said. “I think our overall mission — graduating students and sending them out — is a noble mission. No, I'm not a faculty member, and I don't teach classes, but all of us have some role in helping students learn and helping them enjoy their years at university. I think that's really the big part of it.”

Contact Evan Weaver with comments at erweaver@bsu.edu or on Twitter @evan_weaver7.


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