What a thrill it must be for Hall of Fame football coach Frank Kush to finally return to his old stomping grounds at Camp Tontozona as an official member of the Sun Devil football family.
The last time Kush was at Tontozona as an ASU employee was in the summer of 1979, when he was the highly successful coach of the Sun Devil team that only three years earlier had capped a 12-0 season with a 17-14 whipping of Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.
Five games into the '79 season, Kush was fired for allegedly punching a player an accusation many thought was without merit.
During his 22 seasons at the helm of the Sun Devil football program, Kush compiled a 176-54-1 record. Most importantly for Devil worshippers, he dominated the series against the University of Arizona, finishing with a 16-5 record.
At one time from 1965 to 1973 Kush built a 9-0 winning streak over the Cats.
Much of the success of those ASU teams was attributed to the rugged training sessions Kush coached at Camp Tontozona.
Some compared stays at the rigorous camp to a Marine boot camp.
The legendary coach started taking his Sun Devil squads to Tontozona in 1959 after eyeing the university retreat as an ideal place to train his players away from the heat and distractions of the Tempe campus.
He says he got the idea for an ASU training camp from his playing days at a Pennsylvania high school.
"We had preseason (practices) at an old, abandoned Pittsburgh Steelers camp," he said.
Kush first spotted the scenic Rim country mountain retreat while visiting then ASU-president Grady Gammage who had a summer home there.
"We were going up there (Tontozona) when nine miles of the road from Payson to Kohl's Ranch was dirt," Kush said.
Because there wasn't enough room for a full-sized football field in the narrow meadow at Tontozona, Kush approached a construction crew working near Kohl's Ranch and solicited the heavy equipment needed to widen the area.
Later, with the help of assistant coaches, friends, family and players, a regulation field was forged out of the pine-studded forest.
"We had a Sun Angel member in Albuquerque send us Kentucky bluegrass for the field," Kush said.
Kush remembers that in the early years of Tontozona, torrential downpours almost caused him to give up the camp.
"We practiced many times in ankle deep mud," he said.
Also, the spartan retreat had no hot water, phones or televisions and about the only spectators at practices were bears, squirrels and mountain lions.
In the mid-'70s, the Rim country highlight of the summer was the annual fans' scrimmage held on the Payson High football field.
There, fans could roam the sidelines and rub elbows with Kush, his staff and players.
In 1976, freshman quarterback Mark Malone who went on to star for the Steelers and is now a TV sports commentator was a popular attraction.
The scrimmage at Payson High, Kush said, "was a great tradition. I don't know why they still don't do that."
The former coach who players once simply called "The Man" says he is looking forward to returning to Tontozona and reliving the many years of fond memories he holds of the camp.
Only weeks ago, Arizona State University officials finally had the wherewithall to bring Kush back into the Sun Devil fold as a special assistant to the athletic director.
His presence will go a long way in soothing the hard feelings of many alumni who were angered by his dismissal.
Since his departure, few in ASU's athletic department have done much to build a strong alumni base among departed athletes.
A few coaches even alienated alumni by refusing to include them in inter-circles. You can bet Kush will change all that.
During his hiatus from college football, Kush remained close to the game, even on the high school level.
In the fall of 1991, he was the special guest of the PHS team at a practice and game. One of his first choices was to work with the offensive guards the position he played at Michigan State.
In 1986 a year the Horns advanced to the state championship Kush was the guest speaker at the team's year-end awards banquet.
The Rim country, he says, is one of his most favorite high country destinations.